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Citizen Science Decodes the Pecking Order

By December 6, 2021No Comments
Photo of a bird perched on a tree limb singing. The unassuming song sparrow ranks in the middle of bird hierarchy at feeders. © Frank Gallagher
The unassuming song sparrow ranks in the middle of bird hierarchy at feeders. © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Many NANPA members are engaged in citizen science projects. Others are unfamiliar with the idea, how they could participate, or what difference they could make. Along comes a fascinating story in the Washington Post about a large-scale, citizen-science effort that’s given ornithologists important new insights into bird behavior.

What is citizen science?

Citizen science efforts go back a long time. The basic idea is that ordinary people collaborate with scientists to solve real-world problems and answer important questions. In its modern form, many citizen science projects involve people collecting data that scientists can then analyze. If you’re uploading your observations to iNaturalist, you’re participating in citizen science. If you take part in Christmas Bird Count or Great Backyard Bird Count, you’re doing citizen science. If you took part in NANPA’s Nature Photography Day Bioblitz, you were part of a citizen science activity. NANPA maintains a database of environmental and conservation projects with opportunities for citizen scientists and photographers to contribute valuable observations, including the one (Project FeederWatch) that provided the data for the study reported by the Washington Post.

Secret pecking order

About 30,000 citizen scientists from all over North America contributed over 100,000 observations of bird behavior at feeders. From that massive trove of information, ornithologists were able to “decode the secret pecking order” of birds at feeders, giving them a unique view into the “subtle rules of a hidden avian social order.” This hierarchy helps birds avoid fights and unnecessary energy expenditure, especially during times when food is scarce.

Some of the relationships are complex, with the house finch dominating the purple finch, which dominates the dark-eyed junco, but the junco dominates the house finch. Go figure. That complexity in the data also attracts mathematicians investigating relationships.

One of the researchers, Cornell University ornithologist Eliot Miller, is grateful for the data from citizen scientists. In his PhD research, he spent two hard years collecting 400 observations of honeyeaters in Australia. Project FeederWatch can bring in that much data in hours. That’s the power of citizen science.

Breadth of citizen science

The U. S. government has a citizen science website to help federal agencies, from a “Species SnapIt and MapIt” project in the Great Smokey Mountains (look for understudied species and upload observations to iNaturalist) to monitoring water quality to reporting landslides. Even NASA has citizen science projects.

Many projects involve photography, whether that’s photographing species and uploading your observations to iNaturalist or uploading photos taken from a specific spot to a database tracking vegetation changes over time.

There is a Citizen Science  Association that works on “expanding the reach, relevance, and impact” of citizen science, hosts conferences and webinars and publishes newsletters and a peer-reviewed journal. And, yes, there’s a Global Citizen Science Month (April).

With so many opportunities to add your photos and observations to important data sets, there are sure to be projects that appeal to everyone. So, take a look at NANPA’s Citizen Science database and see what appeals to you. And, if you know of any citizen science projects looking for photographers, let us know. There’s a contact link near the top of the database page.

 Frank Gallagher headshotFrank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.