Monique Keiran: Science needs you to gather data

Victoria residents recently demonstrated again how keen many of them are about birding. Preliminary results from this year’s Christmas Bird Count show more than 200 volunteers turned out in mid-December to watch for birds throughout the capital region. The birders recorded 144 species this year.

Data collected by birders during the count are used to assess and monitor bird population numbers and health in communities across North America. Community organizers select one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, and send their volunteers out to scour a 24-kilometre-diameter area that stays the same from year to year. Ninety-five communities in B.C. have taken part in the annual event this year. The final numbers of species sighted won’t be tallied until the event officially finishes Sunday.

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Started by the Audubon Society in 1900, the Christmas Bird Count provides 114 years of regularly collected data about bird population numbers across the continent. It helps bird scientists and ecologists assess and monitor species health in regions and individual communities. For example, scientists have used information gathered by community birders during the count to get the western screech-owl, rusty blackbird and Newfoundland red crossbill added to Canada’s species-at-risk lists.

It also provides opportunity for regular people to engage in and contribute to science. In fact, the Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest-running and better-known citizen-science programs going.

The concept of citizen science has grown in scope, popularity and opportunity during the last decade.

Thanks in large part to advances in web technology, folks like you and me who don’t have PhDs or work in science labs can make our own small marks in the scientific process. And learn more about things that interest us.

In B.C. alone, many homegrown opportunities exist for the public to get involved in science projects. For instance, here on the south Island, if you missed the Christmas Bird Count, you can participate in Bird Studies Canada’s Coastal Waterbird Survey. The Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre, near Duncan, organizes surveys along a section of Cowichan Bay shoreline, on the second Sunday of each month (cowichanestuary.ca).

Similar to the Christmas Bird Count in the amount of time participants are expected to commit, biodiversity blitzes are short, intense efforts by local volunteers and researchers to identify as many species as possible in one location in a 24-hour period. The Metchosin Biodiversity Blitz occurs every November, with about 1,250 species spotted and identified in 2013 (metchosinbiodiversity.com).

E-Flora B.C. and E-Fauna B.C. (geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity) provide more self-directed opportunities throughout the year. E-Flora B.C. maps sightings submitted by participants of the province’s plants, lichens, algae, fungi and slime moulds, and E-Fauna B.C. focuses on wildlife species. Participants send in the photos of species they’ve taken throughout the province, with location co-ordinates. A number of new species have been discovered in B.C. in recent years, including mushrooms, water fleas and clams, thanks to the contributions by citizen scientists.

Or perhaps you prefer frogs. B.C. Frogwatch collates, maps and archives the information you collect and contribute. The project shares this information with scientists, schools, gardeners, municipal planners, land developers and the public to help in the conservation of amphibians and amphibian habitats (env.gov.bc.ca/wld/frogwatch/).

If you’re not interested in combing nearby parks, gardens or woods for critters or other organisms, NEPTUNE Canada’s Digital Fishers game allows you to do the same from the comfort of your computer.

The Digital Fishers initiative (digitalfishers.net) enables people from almost anywhere in the world to gather data, identify geological features and spot fish, crustaceans and other underwater critters in the thousands of hours of video captured by NEPTUNE Canada’s network of sea-floor sensors, all in the name of science.

Seemingly countless other opportunities exist further afield.

Whatever your interests, whatever your experience or level of expertise, some science project is sure to want your help.

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