Unlike soil surveys, stream flow gages, and weather stations, there are no nationwide, comprehensive, government-coordinated data collection efforts focused on plants and animals in the U.S. However, data of all types are collected on a national scale by citizen scientists, or volunteers collecting scientific data to help professionals answer real-world questions. Many of these efforts are open to participation by anyone. Some project websites offer viewing or download capabilities of data and results.
Below are links to some of the citizen science projects in which you can become involved. The projects highlighted below are mainly national in scope many more locally-based efforts exist as well.
Several citizen science bird monitoring programs have been offered through Audubon. Programs include:
- Christmas Bird Count: A once-a-year commitment. Participants collect bird observations from a pre-designated location.
- Great Backyard Bird Count: On Presidents’ Day weekend, observers count the birds in their backyards and beyond.
In addition, there are many other Citizen Science programs run by partner organizations that include Project Feeder Watch, Breeding Bird Survey, and Bird Banding.
Data collected by citizen scientists can be viewed through eBird. The information is used to study population movements and distributions.
Frogs and toads
Through the Frogwatch program, managed by the National Wildlife Federation in partnership with the United States Geological Survey, observers aurally monitor frogs and toads. Observations can be made in as little as 20 minutes a week.
Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens).
Begun in 1997, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project engages citizen scientists in monitoring monarch butterfly populations and milkweed habitat. Milkweed plants are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat. Toxins from the milkweed plant are accumulated in the monarchs’ bodies and make them poisonous to predators.
Participants in the MLM Project can either make regular observations of monarch eggs and larvae at milkweed patches or simply report anecdotal observations of monarch eggs or larvae. Results are available on the site and can be viewed in graph form.
Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).
Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events that are influenced by environmental changes such as variations in temperature and precipitation. Phenological events can be observed in plants and animals and include timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting in plants; agricultural crop stages; insect emergence; and bird migration. Because these events are believed to be triggered by weather conditions (for example, warming daytime temperatures in spring), the timing of these events from year to year can be important indicators of climate change. Scientists have documented an earlier onset of spring, earlier flowering of spring plant species, and earlier migration of butterflies in response to warming temperatures.
Documenting changes in phenological events relies on volunteers. If you are interested in documenting the timing of phenological events of certain plant species, you can sign up to be a volunteer through the US National Phenology Network. Target plant species include both locally native species (listed on the website) and cloned lilacs. You can request a cloned lilac to be sent to your home for the purpose of observations.
In several states, citizen scientists are monitoring the appearance and spread of several non-native species. In Arizona, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Invaders Program coordinates volunteers to collect information on the location and abundance of several problematic plant and animal species.
Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum).
For more information:
The website CitizenSci.com is maintained by a citizen scientist and provides links to many of the projects listed above.
An initiative to expand citizen science is being developed through Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.