Reuters Q&A: How citizen scientists are transforming conservation

In this piece, we hear from the head of one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups on the planet about how technology, citizen science and new models for collaboration are transforming the way we understand, engage and care for the natural world.

By David Yarnold, President and CEO of National Audubon Society

Can everyday citizens play an important role in science?

Everyday citizens not only can play a role in science—they are essential to our research.

Audubon has been involving citizen scientists in our work for more than a century. We launched the original citizen science crowdsourcing in 1900 when we held our first Christmas Bird Count. The idea was to end traditional holiday hunts where people tried to shoot as many birds as possible. We invited the public to count birds rather than kill them.

Now tens of thousands of citizen scientists participate. Last year was a record-breaker – more than 72,600 observers tallied over 68 million birds.

How does Audubon use citizen science?

The information citizen birders collect is a huge part of our research in tracking species and learning how they have adapted—or not—to everything from suburban sprawl to climate change.

Citizen scientists provided critical information for Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change report, the largest and most comprehensive study of birds and climate change ever done in North America. We found that of the 588 species we studied, 314 will lose 50 percent or more of their current ranges by 2080 unless the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming are significantly reduced. Those are astounding numbers and include beloved species like the Bald Eagle and Brown Pelican.

That research—which tens of thousands of citizens contributed to over a 30-year period—is giving conservation groups, government agencies and private citizens powerful tools for present and future conservation efforts.

How does new technology change this picture?

With smartphones in everybody’s pocket, we are taking citizen participation to new levels and that is transforming the way Audubon—and America—is approaching conservation and science.

Recently we launched the Audubon Birds Pro mobile app—the first ever free and complete field guide to North American birds. Users can “Find Birds with eBird” to locate birds seen recently in the vicinity, drawing on the continuously updated database from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and eBird.

Combine that with map-based technologies like ESRI and we are increasing exponentially the accuracy and science of conservation efforts.

How has the combination of citizen science and new technologies changed our insights on climate change trends?

Citizen science is reshaping the climate debate, connecting abstract concepts to what people see in their backyards. When people see these changes in person, they get it: Climate change is real, and it has an impact on their world.

Our members and other birders are seeing those changes. Birds are leaving later and returning earlier, or in some cases not returning at all. Birds are showing up in places where they never lived before.

By recording what they see, citizen scientists are not only recognizing the changes, they’re contributing real-time information that’s needed to develop responses that protect birds and critical habitat.

When climate change moves out of the abstract and into people’s backyards, people can stop arguing and start taking it personally, and then things start getting done.

What do birds tell us about climate change?

Birds are telling us that we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change. For example, many species don’t migrate as far south as they did just a few decades ago because it’s warmer at their northern homes.

Birds tell us that climate change is happening where we live—people see or hear a bird every day so it’s easier to see the impact rather than thinking about polar bears, for instance.

And birds motivate us because they connect us to the natural world and to special places—whether we’re talking about Common Loons in Minnesota or Gila Woodpeckers in the Southwest. They forecast our own health and well-being.

Today, birds are giving us clear warnings about the health of our world. And they’re showing us what we need to do to make our communities and our planet safer and healthier for birds and people in the future. You can go to our website to see what’s going to happen with 314 species all across the country.

Can citizen science be scaled to a global level to help understand and solve global environmental challenges?

Birds are the perfect messengers for understanding global climate change because birds know no borders. Take for example the Red Knot: This small rusty-colored shorebird migrates over 9000 miles each way every year from its Arctic breeding grounds on Tierra del Fuego in southern South America.

We use citizen science observations to build cutting-edge climate models to map the ranges of migratory species across the Americas. Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the world so we can better understand which birds are most vulnerable to climate change and where we can take action to protect the future of these imperiled species.

Every year Audubon adds more countries to our citizen science Christmas Bird Count. Recently, we logged new counts in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Colombia, and Paraguay. We now have counts at more than 100 locations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands as well as all 50 U.S. states and every province in Canada.

Is there a potential benefit in conservation organizations combining their science and models to produce even more compelling updates and global results?

Of course. Climate change is a global phenomenon. No organization or country can afford to go it alone if we want to find solutions.

Audubon recently collaborated with BirdLife International on a major study of international science on birds and climate change showing that worldwide, global warming is already robbing birds of their food, pushing them out of the places where they live and making them more vulnerable to life-threatening disease—all harbingers for the fate of humans if we don’t take more aggressive action to curb climate change.

What is a next step in driving this collaboration?

Both the conservation and the climate movements have been accused—fairly—of being too insular and exclusive. We at Audubon believe we and others need to broaden our base of support. We have to expand the conversation to include a wider range of voices and experiences in the U.S. and around the globe. Citizen science is one of the best ways to do that.

What keeps you awake at night?

Will we be able to act boldly enough to make a difference? I’m certain we will, but only with determination, focus and a lot of heart. Birds are miraculous, but they can’t vote and they can’t support organizations dedicated to their health. More than ever, we’re what hope looks like to a bird.

Note: National Audubon Society is one of the oldest conservation groups in the United States, with a wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to unite diverse communities in conservation action.

This interview was conducted by Tim Nixon, Managing Editor of Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

You can read this online here.