Citizen scientists are volunteers who donate their time to observe, notate and report on a specific topic of research – essentially a type of crowd-sourcing.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has used citizen science for decades to fill in gaps for their records, including geographical gaps like North Alabama. The data collected helps with conservation planning and a multitude of research projects like identifying the whooping crane and songbird migration routes and how invasive species spread.
Some people might be aware of the annual February event, the Great Backyard Bird Count, where people volunteer to spend 15 minutes counting and identifying birds in their backyard, in parks, on trails and more. The Cornell Lab provides guides each year for specific species they're trying to identify for citizen scientists to look for, count and report in the field. The submitted bird counts from this event help fill in the migratory map for several species and let The Cornell Lab know which birds live in certain areas and habitats.
You don’t have to wait for next February to roll around, as there are year-round projects for anyone interested in supporting the Cornell Lab Citizen Science projects. All ages and skill levels are invited to participate in these projects:
• Project FeederWatch – Put a feeder in the backyard and fill it with bird seed, then watch and record what birds come to feed from it. Visit feederwatch.org to explore the types of feeders, bird seed and bird IDs, learn about conducting your own bird count, watch bird feeder live feeds and more;
• Nest Watch – Citizen scientists can become “Certified NestWatch Monitors” with online resources and tests through this program. Resources include a collection of blueprints to build birdhouses based on region and species; how to handle invasive bird species and predators; and valuable data for scientists about the failures and successes of nesting birds. Visit nestwatch.org to learn more; and
• Celebrating Urban Birds – Urban spaces have an impact on birds' eating habits, nesting habits and other living behaviors and your keen eye can help with this project. Visit celebrateurbanbirds.org for resources on bird species, bird habitats, art project ideas, gardening tips and more.
The Cornell Lab also provides a variety of tools, games, and videos to explore to boost your skills as a bird watcher.
• eBird is the largest Citizen Science project in the world with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year, according to The Cornell Lab. This digital resource is available worldwide for data collection and collaboration, including as a free app for Android and iOS devices. Visit ebird.org to learn more;
• "All About Birds" introduces the basics of birds and bird watching with videos, games, bird songs, guides and more. Serious birders and citizen scientists can enroll (for a fee) in a variety of topics to improve their skills and knowledge. Visit allaboutbirds.org to learn more; and
• Merlin Bird App is a free app available for Android or iOS that helps citizen scientists of any age identify the birds they see by answering three simple questions about the bird or uploading a photo to Merlin and getting a list of possible matches.
Where to start
Your backyard is a great place to hone your skills, learn about the world around you and learn how your immediate habitat impacts local bird species. Here are some other places you can check out:
• North Alabama Birding Trail in southern Limestone County, along the Tennessee River-Wheeler Lake Basin;
• Marbut Bend Accessible Trail in northwest Limestone County, with grasslands, forest and water habitats in one space;
• Swan Creek Greenway behind Athens Middle School stretches from U.S. 72 at the southern end to the Athens Sportsplex at the northern end;
• Richard Martin Rails to Trails in Elkmont, which is 10 miles and has a variety of habitats; and
• Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail on the Elk River, where several sightings of bald eagles have been reported.
For more information on these or other trails in Athens and Limestone County, check out www.athensal.us (click on Explore Athens, then Recreation) or contact the Athens-Limestone County Tourism Office at 256-232-5411.