One thing Ryan Bushong noticed about winter in Madison was the silence. An enthusiastic birder, he hadn’t seen or heard any birds in months.
“So when I looked out my dorm window … and saw a large, white bird race past, I was shocked,” Bushong says.
He rushed out of the building to see the bird sail across the pavilion, eventually perching on top of Gordon’s Dining Hall. Bushong had found a snowy owl, a rare sight in Dane County.
Bushong is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is studying environmental science and business policy. Like many students, he spends time with friends and outdoors by Lake Mendota windsurfing, swimming or playing hockey once it freezes over.
Unlike many students, however, Bushong also spends his free time reviewing sightings of birds for multiple counties in Colorado and also reports his own sightings of birds in Madison.
Bushong submitted his snowy owl find to eBird, an online database affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where birders can report their finds in different locations. This data is then compiled to study migration patterns of different birds and inform conservation efforts.
“I use it as an excuse to see the world and unique habitats and places I would otherwise never venture to. It is a way to get outdoors and be with nature,” Bushong says.
Snowy owl migration is very complicated and still not well understood. However, just in 2022, there were over 200 snowy owl eBird sightings logged for the downtown area.
Technological advances and dedicated volunteers make it possible for researchers to piece together a fuller picture. Without databases such as eBird, it would take researchers many weeks in the field to collect only a fraction of the data that is available through these resources. Now scientists can access this data without even stepping outside the office.
“The power of citizen science is one of the most exciting things in the world to me. Putting data collection tools in the hands of everyone allows scientists to approach difficult questions with a lot more evidence,” says Seth McGee, an honors biology professor at UW–Madison.
McGee has been teaching labs at Biocore, UW–Madison’s honors biology program, for 19 years. He began the Biocore Adventure Club on campus, which is a group that goes on birding hikes. His goal is to expose students to the benefits of birding and being outdoors. “In addition to it just being a fun thing to do, birding can improve well-being, cognitive function, physical health, and it cultivates community among students,” McGee says.
McGee believes that although people are quick to blame technology, such as “addictive social media platforms,” for health deficits and lack of connection, technology has also helped build a larger network for citizen scientists to collect information but also return to nature. “They’re not just contributing to our scientific understanding of the world, they’re also turning people on to nature. There’s a lot of promise there if we just use the tools properly,” McGee says.
The internet has made scientific information much more accessible to the public. However, it also made scientific discovery available to a wider variety of people as well. Online resources, such as the Research Guides with UW–Madison Libraries and the Arboretum website list different research projects that anyone can participate in. People can also contribute to citizen science projects virtually. Someone living in Arizona can now work on a project in New Jersey, or even Antarctica.
The internet also helps consolidate citizen science efforts on a local level as well. Social media platforms help local volunteers and scientists build a community, in addition to communicating with more people about the impacts of their research. “If we’re the central hub, they’re kind of these folks that are leading out into their own communities and helping share important work and awareness about some of the local conservation issues,” says Julia Whidden, the citizen science coordinator at the UW–Madison Arboretum.
The Arboretum hosts year-round research projects that include many different disciplines. It is home to two of the largest monarch butterfly citizen-science programs in North America, called Journey North and the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. Just within the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, the work of local volunteers has contributed to over 17 peer reviewed publications.
The information collected in the Arboretum influences both local and broader scientific efforts. “All of the data that we collected, … (even) if we’re not going to be doing anything to inform conservation or management locally, we’re passing along that data so that it can help on a wider scale,” says Whidden.
Citizen science also gives individuals the opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with the environment and other scientific topics they are passionate about. Katie Bradford , the project manager for the Water Action Volunteers, or WAV, says that a major goal is to “encourage people to think beyond just the data and use the opportunity to better observe and understand their environment.”
WAV is part of the Natural Resources Institute within the UW–Madison Division of Extension. They test various bodies of water around the Madison area to inform researchers about the water quality of lakes and streams. Volunteers can train to measure parameters such as dissolved oxygen and stream temperature and perform habitat assessments. This information is uploaded to a database, the Surface Water Integrated Monitoring System (SWIMS), which is available to the public.
“A lot of (volunteers) choose to be a part of the WAV program, specifically, because they live by a water body, and they care about it, and they just want to help make it beautiful, healthy and fun for recreation,” says Bradford. Volunteers have opportunities to nurture the places they care about and frequent, as well as inform the community.
“Citizen science is so valuable because it allows research to be done at a larger scale, one that could not be accomplished by expert scientists alone. It’s easy to do. Everyone can do it. It’s a fun way to know that you are doing something to help, and I’d recommend it to everyone,” Bushong says.