Photograph of McCowns Longspur - (c) Shawn Billerman

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Citizen Science in Ornithology

The participation of birdwatchers in ornithology dates back to before the origin of the profession. The so-called amateur ornithologists were those who carried out independent research as a hobby. For example, during the second half of the 1800s, amateurs contributed a great volume of museum specimens. Many birds were discovered and named for explorers, like Lewis’s Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Say’s Pheobe, and Hammond’s Flycatcher. In the late 1800s, ornithological societies formed and included both amateurs and professionals. Even as recently as the mid-1970s, half of the members of the ornithological societies identified as amateurs, and many contributed to the scientific literature.

Through citizen science, anyone can contribute their observations to larger research and monitoring efforts. These organized efforts have a long history in ornithology. For example, soon after forming in 1883, the American Ornithologists's Union or AOU (which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to form AOS) asked lighthouse keepers to tally birds that they found dead or struck the lighthouse. Participation varied and unfortunately the nomenclature was problematic. Without using standardized checklists, the AOU received reports of sea robins, mother-careys chickens, black sea ducks, and bee martins. In the late 1880s, the AOU and the Department of Agriculture crowdsourced observations about the distribution and behavior of House Sparrows across the United States.

Bird watching originated as a response to declines in native bird species at the turn of the 20th century and transformed the Christmas Side Hunt into the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in 1900. Similar conservation-mindedness led to the shift from collecting eggs to monitoring nests. Two other notable projects, formed in the 1960’s, were sparked by concerns expressed in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which started in 1966, tracks the status and trends of bird species. The Nest Record Cards project (available online as NestWatch), also started in 1966, focuses on the collection of detailed breeding records. There are hundreds of ornithology citizen science projects (see, and many can take place anywhere in the world.

Birdwatchers and citizen scientists have contributed significantly to scientific research. There have been over 150 publications that relied on the Nest Record Cards, over 450 that used BBS, over 200 that harnessed the power of CBC, and over 90 from eBird, a checklist based project that began in 2002. One recent study tallied that half of what is known about migratory birds and climate change comes from citizen science sources. Citizen science methods have been particularly useful to researchers pursuing from studies at large geographic scale, long-time scales, of rare phenomenon, and in residential systems.

Studies on the social impacts of citizen science have found that people who participated in citizen science activities learned more about birds and developed more positive attitudes about science.

Learn more about Citizen Science resources »

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