What is Citizen Science?

Not all scientists have university degrees and years of experience. Sometimes, the pros need a little help from the rest of us, so they call on “citizen scientists” like you and me to help them with research. “Citizen Science” supports a range of research areas, but wildlife monitoring is one area that regularly benefits from our participation.

Wildlife conservationists conduct surveys to understand how the natural world is changing (and how well animals are doing). They need to know, for instance, how many endangered red squirrels are living in the UK this year compared to five or ten years ago. Or, perhaps they’re trying to figure out whether birds are moving out of London as climate change causes temperatures to rise.

But why do professional scientists need our help?

Can’t they run surveys on their own? No, not always. For one thing, they can’t be everywhere all the time, plus they can’t sneak into your garden to count the number of birds living in it. Besides, no one knows a particular area and its animal residents better than the people living there (you!)?

Counting birds and butterflies

In England the Big Butterfly Count takes place every July/August. Each January, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (“RSPB”) calls on the public during Big Garden Bird Watch. For three days, Brits are tasked with spending one hour in a local garden or park recording the birds that land in it. Schools are getting involved, too, so tell your teacher to visit Big Schools’ Birdwatch to sign up your classroom.

The RSBP has been running the event for 40 years. Four decades of data helps RSPB scientists to see trends and patterns, and they now know that the UK has lost more than half of its house sparrows and even more starlings over the last few decades, but they’ve seen positive trends, too. Blue tit numbers have grown, and wood pigeon populations have risen by 800%. Wow!

Could you be a Citizen Scientist?

Citizen science isn’t just good for scientists and their work: it’s great for you, the participant. You’ll learn new things, get hands-on experience working in science, and you’ll have the chance to spend some time outdoors. Being outside is fun, and it has the ability to make you more creative and more relaxed. So, grab a friend, wander to the park, and see if you can spot any birds chattering in the trees or flying overhead.

To find out about a whole range of citizen science opportunities in the UK, visit Zooniverse– which calls itself “the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.” This website also provides helpful information about how citizen science works and how you can get involved. 

Millie Kerr is an American writer and wildlife conservationist based in London. She loves animals big and small, and supports their protection through writing and photography. Learn more about Millie via her website (milliekerr.com) and follow her adventures on Instagram (@millieckerr). 

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