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Beacon Senior News

Become a citizen scientist

Dec 22, 2020 10:45AM ● By Karen Telleen-Lawton
become a citizen scientist

It’s the perfect “job” for nature enthusiasts and scientist wannabes

I almost trained as a scientist, but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the sweet spot in how to spend my workday. 

You see, I love the outdoors too much to spend days in a windowless lab, yet I’m too wimpy to spend weeks on end camping in a rainy jungle, broiling desert or roiling sea. Fortunately, those of us who have scientist envy are in luck, because the era of citizen science is here. 

Get your count on

Citizen science is scientific work undertaken by non-scientists, often in collaboration with scientific institutions. While recently popular, the concept isn’t new. “Gentleman scientists” like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin were generally wealthy landowners whose curiosity drove them to fund their own scientific investigations. 

For many of today’s projects, non-scientists can be helpful even if our only skill is counting. Our presence and sheer numbers can increase a project’s geographic scope, lengthen its time frame and broaden the number of species or taxa under study. More eyes and more counters mean a larger data set and more accurate statistics.

This is particularly true of bird counts. The Audubon Society runs the Great Backyard Bird Count each February. This count is a four-day event where participants spend as little as 15 minutes to multiple days counting birds and reporting sightings online at You can team up with more experienced birders to get started or bring along an aspiring birder if you’re an old hand. Your “backyard” can be anywhere, from an apartment building to a favorite walk or hike.

Likewise, Project FeederWatch turns bird enthusiasts’ love of feeding birds into scientific discoveries. Sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, FeederWatch is a survey of birds that visit backyards, nature centers, community areas and other locales in North America from November to April. You don’t even need a feeder! All you need is an area with plantings, habitat, water or food that attracts birds. Plus, the schedule is completely flexible. Count birds from the safety and comfort of your home for as long as you like on days of your choosing, then enter your counts online at

The Christmas Bird Count, on the other hand, runs in specific locations around the U.S. and internationally from December 14 to January 5. This year, small socially distanced gatherings of bird lovers met in Grand Junction and Gunnison on December 20. 

Other counts monitor marine species and wild animals around the world. Gray whale counts off the Pacific coast combine scientific research with education. Observer shifts from mid-February through May keep watch for gray whales swimming to birthing grounds in Baja. Other projects include water monitoring, searching space, measuring night sky brightness and wildlife observation.

Plants make great citizen science subjects because—unlike animals, stars and even water—plants usually stay put. Phenology, the study of the timing of leaf production, flowering and reproduction, lends itself well to citizen science. You can tabulate changes from season to season and year to year. It’s particularly rewarding if you have grandkids with whom to share your enthusiasm. Further, you can enhance scientific knowledge by adding your data to a state database or the National Phenology Network. 

Check with your local botanical garden, natural history museum, library, college or university for phenology and other citizen science projects. Most educational institutions encourage people of any age or activity level. Projects can range from one-time on-campus projects, to periodic data collection requiring specialized training, to leading projects in the field. Their goals are typically educational, as well as actively protecting the earth’s flora and the diverse life that depends on it.

Short-term projects abroad

As a citizen scientist, you may even have the opportunity to travel for research. Earthwatch—an international environmental nonprofit—hosts projects around the world which allow members of the public, corporate employees and educators to participate in long-term environmental projects for a short time. I’ve gathered, dried and inspected insect frass (look it up!) in a Costa Rican jungle; collected buds, leaves and flowers near Tsavo National Park in east Kenya; recorded pink river dolphins in the Peruvian Amazon and laid out research transects in a Cuban forest. Each project afforded the chance to meet new friends from around the world with similar interests and to help the host country gather important scientific data. 

The use of citizen scientists increases the depth and breadth of data collected beyond what professional scientists have the funds to do. Of today’s efforts to bring knowledge, passion and experience to support scientific understanding, Franklin and Darwin would be proud! 

Start your “career” as a citizen scientist

To find out more about the Mesa Christmas Bird Count on New Years Day and to participate in future counts, contact the Grand Valley Audubon Society through