­­Celebrate Citizen Science Month


April is Citizen Science Month! Join the UW–Madison Arboretum to celebrate citizen and community science projects and the volunteers who help create knowledge about our world.

Citizen science is a global movement involving people from all walks of life in real-world science that matters to them. Since 2016, SciStarter has organized Citizen Science Month, in collaboration with Arizona State University and with support from the National Library of Medicine and many other partners from around the world, including the Citizen Science Association.

Citizen and community science is a growing field of research and practice that seeks to increase knowledge about our world through collaborative endeavors among scientists, researchers, and the public. Projects vary in their design, topic, scope, and scale. Globally, there are approximately 3,000 citizen and community science projects. Volunteers work with scientists in multiple ways. Volunteers and communities may identify research questions, collect data, and analyze and interpret project results. Citizen and community science endeavors have led to new discoveries and strategies for dealing with many problems.

The Arboretum hosts several citizen and community science projects. Some of these projects are local in scope, while others span North America. Arboretum projects showcase how everyone can play an essential part in the conservation, protection, and understanding of our natural world.

Whether your interests are in birds and butterflies or stars and planets, there is a citizen and community science project for you. Want to get involved? Let us recommend a few projects that might suit your interests.

Featured Program: Journey North

Journey North is a crowdsourced, participatory science program based at the Arboretum. Thousands of volunteers across North America contribute information about wildlife migration and season change every year.

Why involve volunteers in tracking migration? Monarch butterflies, hummingbirds and many other migratory species travel great distances between breeding and non-breeding ranges. No single organization can monitor this movement over this expanse of territory. Tracking migratory species takes many individuals across many state and international boundaries to look to the skies and contribute observational reports.

Why study wildlife migration? Many studies show how migratory species contribute to ecological and economic health. Migrating species pollinate flowering plants and trees and help disperse seeds. Imagine gardens without monarch butterflies pollinating blazing-stars, asters, and thistles. Recreational, birding, and many ecotourism pursuits rely directly and indirectly on migratory species. What would spring be like without the fun of seeing hummingbirds first arrival to their breeding ranges?  Perhaps most importantly, migratory species play an integral role in many cultures. Journey North volunteers are collecting data needed to create appropriate conservation measures that will protect migratory species, thereby sustaining ecosystems, healthy economies, and diverse cultures.

What migratory species do Journey North volunteers track?: Seven species of migratory hummingbirds; monarch butterflies; red-winged blackbirds; American robins; Baltimore, Bullock’s, and orchard orioles; barn swallows; and common loons. Two of these projects are profiled below.

Hummingbird Project. Since 1996, over 31,000 volunteers have submitted approximately 170,000 observational reports for ruby-throated, rufous, Anna’s, Allen’s, broad-tailed, black-chinned, and Costa’s hummingbirds, contributing important data that will assist researchers in the conservation and protection of migratory corridors and breeding and non-breeding habitats. This volunteer-contributed data is critical.

Rufous hummingbird perched on a thin branch.
Rufous humminbird (Photo: Brenda, Vancouver, British Columbia. Courtesy Journey North)

Studies indicate that the Allen’s, rufous, and broad-tailed hummingbirds have declined since 1970s. The rate of decline has increased between 2009 and 2019. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, rufous hummingbird populations declined by 67 percent between 1966 and 2019. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now categorizes the rufous hummingbird as a near threatened species in need of significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.

Red-Winged Blackbird Project. March and April weather can affect the pace of spring bird migration. From the atmospheric rivers and weather whiplash in California to snowstorms in the Great Lakes region and New England, spring seems slow to arrive. But for many migratory species, the spring migration season has begun. From woodland trees and wetland cattails, red-winged blackbirds are vocalizing to mark their breeding territories. Red-wing blackbirds are abundant and, according to the IUCN, are of least conservation concern in North America. It is easy to assume that common birds, like red-winged blackbirds, do not merit our attention. But studying common birds provide surprising information, too.

(Photo: Linda Deith. Courtesy Journey North)

More data will be needed to understand and protect species in decline, like the rufous hummingbird, as well as the more abundant red-winged blackbird. Please consider volunteering as a migration observer with Journey North. You can register as a participant and submit observations at the Journey North website.

—Nancy Sheehan, Journey North program coordinator