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Citizen Science

It brings real meaning and it’s better than just sitting in front of the telly.

If you’re looking at how we get information from birds in nature, well, it can’t be done just by the scientists because there aren’t enough scientists and there’s not enough money to do that science.  So it’s done through volunteer organizations - The Audubon Society in the United States, Bird Life Australia, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom - and the bird watchers work through their organisations, with the scientists who design the studies.  It’s one of the prime examples of citizen science that’s been going for a very long time.  In the United States,  for instance, The Audubon Society has a Christmas bird count every year, where people count in exactly the same place, for exactly the same time, count the number of birds and that information is then all fed back into what’s called the eBird database, which is maintained at Cornell University and which is actually a national and international resource.  We have similar activities in Australia, UK, Europe and all the rest of it.

And not only that, you also have people volunteering to go out and help with catching birds.  Cannon netting, they actually fire the nets out of cannons, and they drop down over a whole flock of birds, and they quickly catch them, weigh them, they may tag them in some way, and then release them.  So it’s catch and release.  So then we know - some of them have now got transmitters on so you can follow them with satellites - we know what the birds are doing, where they’re going, what their numbers are, what their body weight is and so on.  And in that way we accumulate an enormous amount of data.

But it wouldn’t work without the involvement of citizen scientists.  This is one of the big hopes for the future, I think.  That more and more people will become involved in one or another area of science, particularly environmental science, as actual observers and really doing science, even though they may have no background in science.  The backyard bird count is another one.  And, of course, amateur astronomers are well known for making an enormous contribution to astronomy.

So if you’re interested in birds, look at the website for your local birding organisation. EarthWatch is another one.  There are various other initiatives out there.  The Americans have the July Butterfly Count, I expect there’s something similar in Europe too [There is: it’s here!].  I’m not sure we can muster anything quite like that in Australia.  We’ve only got 20 million people and that’s a problem, and as a result we don’t understand as well what’s happening.  Also, in a lot of Asian countries a lot of the science that needs to be done hasn’t been done because they’re developing countries, and they’re poor and so forth.  So we need to get people much more involved and it’s a wonderful way to spend your time if you’re retired or you’ve got time on your hands for one reason or another, get involved in something like this.  It brings real meaning and it’s better than just sitting in front of the telly.