Backyard Citizen Science Projects for Nature Lovers
Explore your landscape like never before with citizen science projects that will help researchers learn more about nature.
What Is Citizen Science?
Ever thought about becoming a scientist? What if you could do it with no extra schooling, from the comfort of home? If that sounds intriguing, then citizen science is right up your alley. Citizen science projects allow people of all ages and skill levels to help gather data on a variety of subjects, like bird nesting, monarch migration, and the changes in season. The internet has made citizen science more accessible than ever before, and millions of people participate in projects each year.
Benefits of Citizen Science Projects
In 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman had a radical idea: What if instead of gathering at Christmas to hunt birds (a popular activity at the time), people gathered to count them instead? With 27 participants in 25 locations across the country, the first Christmas Bird Count was born—and so was citizen science. Today, citizen science project participation is an important part of scientific research.
“Citizen science is an incredible way to transform a shared passion into real on-the-ground impacts,” says Ian Davies, eBird project coordinator. “Uniting a group of people around their interests helps build a better world.”
Researchers use data provided by citizen scientists to understand everything from the impacts of climate change on flowering plants to the expanding range of the Anna’s hummingbird. “One of the most important indicators of a successful citizen science project is how useful the data are in answering basic research questions and conservation efforts,” says Liz Goehring, a trainer with the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one of the biggest sponsors of citizen science projects around the globe, with many programs and drawing more than 250,000 participants each year. “People enjoy contributing to scientific research,” says David Bonter, the lab’s director of Citizen Science. “People who like watching birds are often predisposed to learning more about the birds that bring color and song to their lives. By making observations and sending reports to researchers, people gain a sense of satisfaction in knowing that they are contributing to science.”
If you’re ready to join the citizen science movement, here are some projects you can join from your own backyard.
Citizen Science Projects for Birders
eBird is the ultimate citizen science project for birders. More than 500 million bird spottings have been reported to eBird in the last 15 years, and it’s become the No. 1 place to go for information on birding hot spots, tracking and more.
Each winter, birders join FeederWatch to record sightings at their backyard feeders. Even common birds, such as blue jays and cardinals, help scientists understand the health of ecosystems and impacts of climate change.
If winter is for watching feeders, spring is for watching nests. NestWatchers monitor nesting birds, tracking their outcomes and exploring trends like timing, number of eggs, success rate and more. Join at nestwatch.org.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Anyone anywhere can join in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place over four days every February. Participating is as easy as watching the birds that visit your backyard and reporting them to the website. Get more details at birdcount.org.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The cool thing about Merlin is that you’re helping contribute just by using it. Merlin helps identify mystery birds you’ve spotted using a picture you snap with your smartphone, recording bird songs and calls, or by answering a series of questions. It uses the eBird database of sightings to help find the answer. When you verify that Merlin’s ID is correct, it saves that info to help improve future performance. So just by looking up your own bird spottings, you’re helping others too! Download the free Merlin app in your App store.
Other Backyard Citizen Science Projects
Choose from a variety of programs, including the monarch monitoring project that tracks monarch migration each spring and fall. Journey North also gathers data about hummingbird migration, the first appearance of American robins and earthworm sightings.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project
The monarch butterfly is instantly recognizable, and many people know the migratory population is struggling. Breeding monarchs are the subject of this program, and participants report regularly on eggs, larvae (caterpillars) and the milkweed they need to survive. Get more information at monarchlab.org/mlmp.
Project Noah aims to document all of Earth’s living organisms. Upload your sightings, even if you haven’t been able to identify them, and members of the Project Noah community offer ID suggestions. It’s possible to spend hours browsing sightings from around the globe—and helping others to identify their findings.
One of the newest citizen science projects, eButterfly aims to be for butterflies what eBird is for birds. It’s a place to document your sightings, keep track of your butterfly life list, upload and share photos and more.
Budburst studies phenology in plants. Participants monitor and report on the timing of major events in plant life cycles, including flowering, leafing and fruiting. The findings help scientists understand the wider effects of climate change and extreme weather events.
Next, check out 5 birding apps to give your skills a boost.