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Eagle Eyes

“I like to know the names of things,” David Heiser tells me, and his office proves it. The table where we sit is covered with piles of framed and labeled insects with a jewel-like turquoise beetle at the very top. Behind him is an enormous, pastel-colored model of a flower’s insides, which looks vaguely pornographic. And near my hand, the tip of a hairy leg is just visible through the crack in a pouch marked “Tarantula.” As Head of Education and Outreach at the Peabody Museum, Heiser, along with other Peabody employees and the Yale Office of Sustainability, leads an initiative to create a body of citizen scientists, laypeople who collect data and report it to professionals. The team behind this project hopes to harness the simple observational skills of Yale’s students, faculty, and staff to contribute to the evaluation of the University’s urban ecology.

To many people, the term “citizen scientist” seems like an oxymoron. It’s easy to imagine citizen historians—historical societies are full of them. And self-proclaimed citizen philosophers are a dime a dozen. But citizen scientists? To take part in the scientific endeavor, you must need a degree, not to mention funding, a working knowledge of statistics, a command of jargon, and a lab—right?

Not necessarily. In 2007, Dutch schoolteacher and citizen scientist Hanny van Arkel discovered a green blot in the Leo Minor constellation. She had been spending her free time poring over images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as part of the Galaxy Zoo project which uses laypeople to help classify galaxies. This green spot didn’t match any of the categories van Arkel had learned to recognize—and it wasn’t only laypeople like her who were perplexed. Now known as Hanny’s Voorwerp (“object” in Dutch), the blot is as big as the Milky Way and contains a hole stretching over ten thousand light years. Astrophysicists are still trying to figure out what it is.

“You too can make this kind of discovery,” Heiser tells me and about thirty-five other volunteers gathered in the Peabody auditorium on March 26. Our task is simple. We are instructed to regularly walk a route around campus and make note of the birds we see. We will then enter our names, the species of birds we’ve seen, and the times and locations of our sightings into a database.

The hardest part, of course, is knowing what we’re seeing. Most students hardly know a hawk from a handsaw, let alone an ovenbird from a thrush. Just as van Arkel had to brush up on her galaxy types before joining the Galaxy Zoo project, we will need to review our bird identification. To start the learning process, the Peabody organizes bird walks to help beginners learn how to identify their sightings. Heiser adds that we are currently sitting only a few steps away from the Peabody’s hall of Connecticut birds, which is a sort of “3-D field guide.”

The very next day, I tour that hall with Jim Sirch, Public Education Coordinator at the Peabody and one of the leaders of the museum’s bird walks. He appears out of place in the faint blue light of the exhibit, as though he would be more at home up to his waist in brush, or crouching on a riverbank. Walking from glass case to glass case, he points out the different plumages of warblers and the difference in size between the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. When I ask him about the red-tailed hawk I had seen several times perched on the gargoyles of Harkness Tower, he uses the stuffed birds to show me that the juveniles have a stripy tail instead of the russet that gives the bird its English name.

I am an avid birdwatcher, so I am interested in the details that Sirch points out: the number of wing-bars, the color of eye-rings. I have spent hours staring at far-off shorebirds, hoping to catch a glimpse of rarities. I have gotten up at the crack of dawn to watch geese take off from a flooded field. I love swamps. But I struggled to see the urgency of birdwatching around the quiet, paved Yale campus.

The Yale Office of Sustainability thinks differently. The citizen science program was the office’s idea, and the program is part of its 2010 strategic plan to make Yale greener.

“Where do the birds fit in? They’re an indicator for understanding land use,” said Julie Newman, the office’s director. The fluctuation in bird populations on campus can help us understand what Yale is doing right and what it’s doing wrong when it comes to New Haven’s urban ecology. Heiser refers to the information we will be collecting as “baseline data,” a large body of statistics that will allow the Peabody to look for anomalies. After all, you can’t know if something is wrong in the environment unless you know what’s normal.

Using citizen scientists to produce baseline data is nothing new. Thoreau meticulously observed the asters in his garden in Concord, Massachusetts, between 1851 and 1858, and wrote down when each flower bloomed, noting changes each year. When a team of scientists discovered Thoreau’s unpublished records, they realized they were full of valuable baseline climate data—the timing of plant flowering is closely tied to temperature. In a February 2012 article in the journal BioScience, this team showed that plants are now flowering ten days earlier in Concord than they were in Thoreau’s time. They used his data to suggest that the temperature in Concord increased by 4.32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Aside from leading bird walks, Sirch is also organizing and participating in the Peabody’s FrogWatch program, which has citizen scientists collect baseline data on frog populations. You arrive at your designated wetland a half hour after sunset, wait for two minutes so that the frogs aren’t frightened by any noise you might have made, and then spend three minutes listening. You can hear the spring peeper’s chirp, “the three-minute-long high trill of the American toad, the snore of the pickerel frog,” Sirch told me. The idea is that the frog watcher has some fun while helping scientists establish normal figures for local frog populations and habitat health.

But “normal” can’t accurately describe a lot of ecological systems today. When Heiser asked if anyone had seen any spring warblers last year, a lady in the front row raised her hand. “Dead,” she said. “That itself is important information to know,” Heiser said. While there are many similarities between the hordes of self-trained naturalists of the nineteenth-century and the boom in citizen science today, the pressures of the environment have intensified.

The university is “exploding campus with all these new buildings,” Julie Newman says. So, she poses, how can we make an argument for green space and prove that we need it? One argument could draw strong evidence from the large number of warblers that stop here on their migratory routes. Although Heiser insists that theirs is not an advocacy mission, he acknowledges that the research could have a great ecological impact. Many of these species can act as a campus bellwether, helping the university understand what it is doing to the ecosystems within which it is located.

Besides informing the administration’s expansion effort, the citizen science research program has other benefits. It opens a door to experiencing wonder in the natural world. As E. O. Wilson wrote in his 1984 book Biophilia:

To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.

Citizen science may work as a data-collecting tool, but it also builds connections between man and other species. And isn’t learning the name of the blackburnian warbler or a yellow-bellied sapsucker the first step to caring whether it lives or dies?

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