Citizen Science: Become a Backyard Naturalist

We heard the hawk before we saw it. On the corner railing of our back deck, perched a red-shouldered hawk. But as I snapped photos through our kitchen window, I had yet to learn of the red-shouldered variety of hawk. I knew it was a hawk, of course — Cooper’s or red-tailed, maybe. And so began the debate. My wife and I scoured our smart phones. We read measurements and distribution charts on Wikipedia. We listened to calls on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s allaboutbirds.org. (One of these calls, I’m afraid, may have sounded too convincing to our little hawk and frightened him away.) There was something about the bulk of the hawk, the length of its tail and pattern of its breast and crown feathers that threw us off the identification trail.

I guessed it was a Cooper’s. My wife guessed sharp-shinned. We were both wrong.

At the 2016 E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Days, “citizen science” was abuzz. Citizen science is a sort of crowd-sourced science bolstered by networks of amateurs. And I love the word amateur. There seems to be an undue stigma associated with things that are amateur or amateurish — as though only professionals, maestros or experts can contribute to the greater knowledge and welfare of the planet. We (broadly defined) are often guilty of this professionalist bias. “I can’t dance” or “I can’t sing.” Maybe you can’t dance like Derek Hough or sing like Adele but if you have a voice and muscles to move your body, you can sing and dance (even if you can’t sing or dance in a manner that pleases an audience). Bob your head. Tap your toe. Dancing accomplished. Croon a scratchy, out-of-tune melody. Singing accomplished. Yet, we witness the amazing talents of people like Derek Hough and Adele and assume that they are the standard, baseline, and definition of what makes a dancer and a singer.

At its Latin roots, amator, to be an amateur is to be a lover. Amateurs do it out of love and love can accomplish astounding feats. After all, Thomas Edison, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Michael Faraday, and Ada Loveless could have all been called amateurs in the fields that they pioneered or pushed forward. Ree Drumond was an amateur cook until her blog caught fire, attracting attention from the Food Network. John and Hank Green could be said to be amateur scholars and educators. Yet, since 2012, their CrashCourse series on YouTube has reached far more pupils than most (if not all) tenured university professors could reach in a lifetime of packed lecture halls.

using_the_inaturalist_app_in_the_field
“Using the iNaturalist app in the field” (source WikiMedia Commons)

I, citizen scientist, posted my photos of the hawk in our backyard to an app called iNaturalist with the tag Cooper’s Hawk. I was immediately set right. iNaturalist.org crowd-sources data on any and all life (plant, mammalian, reptilian, avian, etc.). The website and smart phone app’s 280,000+ amateur and professional (but mostly amateur) naturalists observe (using their smart phones’ cameras), identify (using pre-compiled or custom digital field guides on the app), map (using GPS coordinates), share (directly through the app or by uploading photos to iNaturalist.org) and confer (was this a red-tailed hawk or a Cooper’s hawk?) with other users. Researchers can then use this data to track population size and distribution as well as alterations in migration patterns. iNaturalist is also a great way to get your kids outside and interested in science and the natural world. I like to think of iNaturalist as the far-superior forerunner to Pokémon Go (though saying so probably suggests that I’ve completely lost touch with that which is “hip” < insert dad joke here >).

So, our hawk turned out to be a juvenile, eastern red-shouldered hawk (the juvenile form being the stick in the spokes of our initial attempts at identification). Soon after I posted the observation, the upright denizens of iNaturalist corrected my faulty observation, which demonstrates the strength and the weakness in the system. Professional, educated (highly trained and highly funded) scientists cannot be everywhere to observe everything. The gaps in science are ponderous. Citizen science bridges some of those gaps. I can’t keep a scientist in my pocket but I can certainly keep an iPhone in my pocket. That phone, that little marvel, grants me a camera and a library of free, digital field guides — all I need to participate in the scientific community.

Still, I was wrong. I was corrected but I was wrong. Citizen, crowd-sourced science only works with many, many amateurs dutifully involved — reviewing, re-reviewing, arguing and agreeing over each other’s contributions. So, join the cause! We could certainly use your help. For the love of wild things, become an amateur naturalist at inaturalist.org.

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