Lowering the drawbridge

Colour-banded bluebirds make frequent appearances in my dreams.

A couple of nights ago, I sat bolt upright in bed at 5:30 am, sweaty and stressed from a dream of chasing a banded bluebird whose colour bands I never got quite close enough to decipher.

This is one of the ways I know it’s spring: the return of the bird dreams. Every year, as Canada’s migratory birds begin to arrive, so do the dreams. Sometimes I dream about birds deftly avoiding my mist nets as I try desperately to catch them. Other times, I dream the opposite: nets so full of birds I can’t possibly get them all out, no matter how fast I work. My nights are full of mystery bird song I can’t quite identify, and colour-banded birds whose bands I can’t see. I can only assume, after well over a decade of fieldwork, my brain has come up with numerous metaphors for the stress of the field season.

But in all my dreams, one thing is consistent – I am always working alone. There’s only one set of hands untangling the endless numbers of birds from the net, and there’s no one to help me identify the mystery bird song. It’s just me – which never seems strange because that’s often how graduate fieldwork actually feels.

However, over the last few years, things have changed: now my field seasons no longer belong to me alone, but also hundreds of volunteers.

Many people have heard the term citizen science (also called community science) – which, at its most basic, can be defined as public participation and collaboration in scientific research. Citizen science programs have expanded dramatically over the last decade, particularly in the environmental field.

When I accepted my current job, my familiarity with citizen science was limited. During my PhD research, I reached out to the birders of the Okanagan Valley, asking them to report sightings of banded bluebirds. A few people responded, but for the most part, the task of data collection was mine alone. I spent all my time managing my field schedule and the data I collected. But now that I run not one, but two, large-scale citizen science programs, most of my time is spent managing people instead.

This has not always been an easy transition. Managing people is new to me, and like many scientists, I have perfectionist tendencies and a strong urge to micromanage all aspects of data collection. There’s a part of me that still wants to collect every last piece of data myself, so I know every step of the process has been done exactly according to protocol.

But living on an island the size of Newfoundland makes one of the advantages of citizen science glaringly clear: citizen science programs allow us to collect data at a geographic scale that simply wouldn’t be possible for a single individual or even a group of scientists working together. For example, between April 1st and May 15th this year, more than 50 volunteers across Newfoundland and Labrador will survey for owls along 67 routes spread throughout the province – far beyond anything I could accomplish by myself.

There’s also another, perhaps less tangible benefit to citizen science: it’s a step in lowering the forbidding drawbridge of the ivory tower, making science more accessible. It helps to combat the tendency to put scientists on a pedestal of rationality and knowledge by showing people that everyone can be a scientist.

Citizen scientists survey a cooperative bird in Salmonier Nature Park, NL.

And although sometimes managing a large group of individuals to accomplish a single goal can feel a bit like trying to herd cats, it’s also an amazing experience to help people develop their scientific and naturalist skills. Every spring, I get numerous e-mails from owl survey participants, telling me about their encounters with owls and other wildlife during their late-night foray into the woods – and those e-mails have become one of the best parts of my day.

So in honour of National Volunteer Week here in Canada, I’d like to give a shout out to all the amazing volunteers and amateur scientists who donate their time and enthusiasm to citizen science programs across the country. I, for one, am thrilled to lower the drawbridge and open the gates to the ivory tower. Citizen scientists, please come on in – many hands make light work.

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