If You Love the Outdoors Become a Citizen Scientist

Anyone Can Collect Useful Scientific Data

Posted on: January 6th, 2021

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #37

Field station deep in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Photo: Monteverde Conservation League.

The road to the newly erected small field station deep into the Children’s Eternal Rainforest Preserve, in central Costa Rica, was rough and muddy. It was 1989, and I was on my way to carry out an experiment. I had offered to train a group of preserve rangers on monitoring techniques to study the unexplored streams and rivers that were born within the preserve and ran down towards the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in this small country. The rangers had no schooling in biology or science. They were local young men and women hired to protect and monitor the preserve and help manage its natural richness.

Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata). Image is licensed under Creative Commons.

As I arrived at the wooden structures in the abandoned cattle pasture, the exotic and unusual call of a male Three-wattled Bellbird rang from somewhere in the fog-shrouded surrounding forests. “Bong!” went the call. Looking through my binoculars, I finally found him perched on a branch of a dead snag in the clearing on the edge of the cloud forest. With an eerie call that is mismatched to the bird’s body language, it sat with an open mouth, pausing, until its body began jerking and the “Bong!” emerged. It’s so weird that you have to see it to understand it (see link below).

The rangers came out of the small classroom to greet me, curious to know what we were going to do in the next three days of the workshop. My plan included several hikes to find streams that ran out of the cloud forest and compare the life we could find in them to those running through the grassy abandoned pastures. I also wanted to perform introductory water chemistry and learn about the species of insects and other invertebrates that lived in these streams. I hoped to increase the rangers’ knowledge about the fragility and uniqueness of these water bodies so they could help protect them and keep them healthy in perpetuity. My hidden agenda was to survey these never before studied streams for new species of aquatic insects, collecting specimens that would become part of a national survey and thus contribute to the inventory of Costa Rican biodiversity. Part of the training was to establish a year-long survey conducted by the rangers that would provide information about the seasonality of certain aquatic insects (we called them “indicator species” of stream health) emerging from the streams. It became an early citizen-science project, a set of activities done by non-scientists that supports scientific knowledge advancement.

On Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, member of an early Audubon Society, started a new program that would entice people to count and identify birds rather than hunt them. The tradition has endured until today.

The use of non-scientists to collect scientific data goes back to the early 1800s, where volunteers collected data on bird migrations compiled by the American Ornithologists’ Union. These early programs inspired many other citizen-originated projects. The Christmas Bird Counts (sponsored by the National Audubon Society in the US) take place in December and January across the globe. I’ve enjoyed participating as a non-expert citizen in several of them, including Pennsylvania, Costa Rica, Florida, California, and Mexico. The data collected in these studies inform many conservation initiatives in these states and countries.

Another early and well-developed project closer to my interest is BugGuide. It has a website where people can post images of insects and other invertebrates to be identified and cataloged by entomologists. The result is a vast and detailed resource for identifying invertebrates. Other projects I have participated in include What’s Invasive (a database of invasive plants across the US natural areas); Project BudBurst (a database of phenology or timing of plant events, such as the first opening of leaves, first flowers, first fruits, etc. along the year); and the fantastic Florida’s Frog Listening network that taught citizens to recognize frogs and toads by their calls and support the conservation of wetlands. Frogwatch USA has projects all around the country, including California.

My wife, Claudia, and I became involved in the Frog Listening Network producing a visual guide to species to accompany the CD (and cassette tape!) of each species calls.

Another type of citizen-driven project is the “bioblitz,” a one-day survey of plants and animals in a given region. Besides helping discover what species live in a place, the involvement of families and youth working side-by-side with scientists also helps increase awareness and knowledge about the biodiversity of an area and often prompts the discovery of previously unknown species.

But perhaps the most available and best-known citizen science network available today is the iNaturalist network. Thanks to the availability of smartphones, anyone can photograph and make geographically accurate observations of plants and animals as they explore natural areas, open spaces, parks, and preserves, even neighborhoods. INaturalist allows you to create personal specific databases for your community, groups of friends, or special projects. It is a great way to engage kids and adults in collecting data and learn more about our environment by sharing photos and information with others.

Joining a Christmas bird Count in Sonora, Mexico, with my son, Charlie (left), and several  conservationists and ecologists.

Lindsay has its own special citizen-driven projects. Think of our wildlife hospital as one massive, long-running, citizen-driven program about wildlife injuries across the East Bay area. For decades, concerned citizens have rescued injured wild animals and brought them to Lindsay for treatment, rehabilitation, and eventual release back into nature. We identify every injured animal that comes to Lindsay by species, codify its injuries or illnesses, record the exact location where it was found, and lovingly treat and rehabilitate when possible. After all these decades of work, we have assembled an unparalleled database of wildlife injuries that help us design and implement outreach and education programs to mitigate and, hopefully, eventually eliminate many reasons wildlife gets injured or sick.

There is a growing library on citizen science projects, activities, and programs around the world.

Lindsay could not do all this work without the caring help of thousands of citizens who took the time and effort to rescue injured wildlife. Add to that the dedicated efforts of hundreds of volunteers at Lindsay and at home who work with veterinarians and rehabilitation technicians to help treat and mend these animals for their eventual return to nature. 

We will continue to develop new ways for people to get closer to nature and wildlife. Expect to see some beautiful projects this year that will bring nature and science even closer to you.

All the best in 2021!


Carlos L. de la Rosa

Executive Director



  Call of the Three-wattled Bellbird

  Outdoor Citizen Science

  Citizen Science projects anyone can join

  Citizen Science projects in the East Bay

  University of California Citizen Science programs

  California Academy of Science programs

  Bay Area Women’s Environmental Network Citizen Science projects and book

–   Save Mount Diablo BioBlitz

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