'Citizen science' program takes flight

'Citizen science' program takes flight

April 24th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in Green

Claire and Roger Blum bring hobby and science together in the living room of their Signal Mountain home.

As they wind down there each day from their busy lives as nurses, they watch birds and bird nests for fun and research.

"Sometimes I think of this as the world's most expensive bird feeder," Mr. Blum joked recently, gesturing toward the long, open deck across the back of their house. A goldfinch pecked at one of several feeders just across the railing, while a chickadee plucked at nesting material in a wire wreath.

As registered nest watchers for Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology, the Blums recently reported that a Carolina wren hatched eggs in their yard in the during sub-freezing temperatures just before Easter - an early season oddity.

PDF: State of the Birds 2009

Across the Tennessee-Georgia state line, Melissa and Ryan Reid, of Winder, Ga., also are part of the program. Like the Blums, they make weekly online logs of what they see around their houses.

"It makes me feel like I am helping scientists who can't come to my backyard or even to Georgia," said Mrs. Reid. "They can't be everywhere at once."

With study money stretched to the limit, Cornell researchers are welcoming, even inviting, the "citizen science" help.

"Citizen science rocks," John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology, said last month at a Washington, D.C. news conference introducing the State of the Birds 2009, a bird count report that documents significant declines in bird populations.

To broaden researchers' reach and learn more about the birds, Cornell experts hatched the NestWatch program to again borrow the eyes of people who have, with their hobby, built America's $25 billion-a-year birdwatching industry.

The need for information is dire, officials say. In eastern forests, the report shows bird populations have dropped by nearly 25 percent. In all forests around the nation, the decline is 10 percent, the report states.

"In many ways, this report is the canary in the coal mine of the status of our bird population here in North America," U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at last month's meeting to release the State of the Birds report.

Developed by Cornell in collaboration with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and funded by the National Science Foundation, the program's materials and instructions are available on the NestWatch Web site, www.RegisterYourNestbox.org.

NestWatch participants visit nests and nest boxes once or twice a week and report what they see. The project collects the information for all nesting birds in North America, said Cornell spokeswoman Pat Leonard.

Mrs. Blum said she and her husband log into the Web page maintained by Cornell and fill in the blanks on a form. This is their second year in the program.

"We check to see now many eggs they have. Whether they're incubating, when they hatch. We only check the nests once a week, and we're careful to do it when the parents are not sitting on the nest. You try not to be intrusive."

The Cornell Web site offers specific how-to instructions and even a quiz to help nest watchers feel confident in their efforts.

Mrs. Reid said this spring is the first time her family has been part of the program.

"Someone forwarded me the information on it because they knew we are into birds," she said. "And we have a 3-year-old. We let him watch, too, hoping he'll get interested. He gets to look in and count (the eggs)."