Sustainability in Flight: Volunteer Citizen Scientists Spread Their Wings to Observe the Biodiversity on Yale’s Campus

When Gail Cameron of the Yale Animal Resources Center heard that there was a barred owl in a tree outside of the Child Studies Center, she rushed over to catch a glimpse. Although the barred owl is not a rare bird, sighting one in New Haven is unusual. Cameron checked on the bird several times throughout the day, pointing it out to visitors at the Child Study Center. This sighting also attracted other bird enthusiasts, who stopped by to snap photos of the guest. Around four o’clock, Cameron watched the bird fly away. “It was just beautiful,” she recalled, beaming.

Art by Audrey Luo
Art by Audrey Luo

Cameron’s enthusiasm for wildlife is exactly the spirit that the Yale Citizen Science initiative aims to foster among New Haven residents. Organized by the Yale Office of Sustainability and the Peabody Museum of Natural History, this project invites participants to photograph and observe various animal species on Yale’s campus. The project hosts monthly guided walks so that Yale staff, students, and New Haven community members can explore the rich biodiversity that the city has to offer. But these participants — “citizen scientists,” as they are often called — are not necessarily experts, nor are they scientists by training. In fact, many of them are identifying birds for the first time, teaming up with more experienced bird-watchers to observe and record biodiversity in the Elm City.

Yale’s Citizen Science Program Takes Flight

The Yale Citizen Science program was inspired in part by the “BioBlitz,” a 24-hour event in which biodiversity experts team up to conduct an inventory of the biodiversity in a given area. Yale launched its first BioBlitz in 2007, partnering with the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport. During the event, volunteers and experts alike used motion-sensitive camera filming, naked eye viewing, and other observation techniques to identify 729 animal species in Stratford.

These data catalogued noteworthy outlier sightings, including a spotted salamander, a black amphibian characterized by its yellow spots, and a purple gallinule, a bird with bold green wings and long toes suitable for navigating its native tropical wetlands.

Buoyed by the success of the BioBlitz, the Yale Office of Sustainability and the Peabody Museum launched their own Citizen Science program in 2012. They hoped to engage members of the Yale community — not just scientists, but other citizens too — in exploring the biodiversity within university grounds.

Today, the Yale Citizen Science program allows campus and community members to gather information on New Haven’s biodiversity, especially its plants, birds, insects, and small animals. With a better understanding of local species and their needs, Yale can plan land usage around buildings more effectively and ensure that its landscaping projects are friendly to resident species. However, the program seeks to do more than gather information: it also seeks to help its participants become more aware of the wildlife thriving in their home city.

A Focus on Birds

Lauded for its biodiversity and named an Urban Wildlife Refuge in 2013, New Haven is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. But, in order to launch a program suitable for expert and novice citizen scientists alike, the Office of Sustainability and the Peabody began with a narrow focus: birds.

“We decided we wanted to start with the low-hanging fruit,” explained David Heiser, head of education and outreach for the Peabody Museum. Birds draw a critical mass of experienced birders to the program, but are also easily visible and identifiable to inexperienced participants.

The program holds bird walks about once a month in the morning or at mid-day. Before heading outdoors, guides bring newcomers to the Peabody Museum’s Hall of Birds, where budding birders can familiarize themselves with the sizes and colorings of 40-50 taxidermied birds that they can expect to see.

Armed with binoculars, participants then depart from the Peabody Museum and follow a route up Science Hill. Afterwards, they can upload their findings to Yale’s online database, the YUBio Portal. This database catalogs birds by their scientific and common names, along with the times and dates of past sightings.

For each species, the resource also includes images and interactive maps of sightings throughout New Haven. If citizen scientists are uncertain about their birds, they can submit photos to the Peabody Museum for analysis.

Heiser insists on the potential value of these images. “The iPhone shot of a bird out there in the tree is rarely going to produce something that one of us can identify, but you never know,” he said. “On occasion it does, and there’s a field mark on that bird that you can pick out from forty feet away.”

Cameron, a Sustainability Leader who works in the Animal Resource Center at the Medical School, enjoys watching for birds on her daily walk through Amistad Park. Although she often observes common birds such as starlings, pigeons and sparrows, her favorites are peregrine falcons. These tend to occupy rocky cliff faces such as those of East Rock, West Rock, and Sleeping Giant, but have also been spotted on the Kline Biology Tower, where Cameron hopes to increase interest in campus bird watching.

Navigating Accuracy

As new birders become major contributors to the biodiversity database, how can the Peabody Museum maintain the quality of this data? When citizen scientists register to input data into the portal, they are prompted to identify their birding experience level — novice, intermediate, or expert.

“When members of the Yale community are supplying data, if we recognize them as experts, if they’ve been on our walks before and we know who they are, we’re looking at their observations and nodding our heads and saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds right,’” Heiser explained.

As the Peabody Museum checks over uploaded information, it pays special attention to sightings recorded by novice birders. “On the rare occasion that a novice was to report a bird that really stuck out like a sore thumb, it would raise some flags,” Heiser said. “If it seemed really far-fetched, we might be tempted to remove it from the data, but that hasn’t happened yet. That’s a good sign that people are taking it seriously; they’re learning their birds.”

Researchers can also compare the data in the YUBio Portal to other data nationwide. For instance, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society maintain a database called eBird. “There are enough avid and active birders out there that if something really weird pops up for a location and it’s really there, you’ll have people driving in from six states away to see it… The community in a way polices itself,” Heiser said.

Sprouting Initiatives

The bird walks are the first of many efforts to allow citizen scientists to participate in biodiversity research at Yale. “We wanted to really capture more of the biodiversity than just birds,” Heiser said when he reflected on the decision to begin the program with a focus on bird watching. “We knew that plants were probably the next lowest hanging [fruit], and then maybe insects.”

The program expanded to include plant walks last fall and Heiser hopes that citizen scientists will eventually be able to observe insects, especially butterflies and dragonflies, since these species are relatively easier to identify.

Citizen scientists who want to make more individualized contributions to the program can now adopt trees throughout campus and the city. Tree adopters begin recording the development of their trees in early spring, when flower buds and leaf buds first appear. Throughout the year, these citizen scientists note the dates of other benchmarks in a tree’s life cycle, such as the bearing of fruit or seeds, or the first appearance of fall color. Since last fall, Cameron has documented a sugar maple tree in Amistad Park, which she greets every morning on her way to work.

Ultimately, the data that the program collects on trees will help scientists to understand how climate change is affecting New Haven. “Because Yale is so old and we do have photographs of certain trees; we know how they looked at a certain time,” said Virginia Chapman, Director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability. “If they were flowering during commencement, for example.” By comparing data from the Citizen Scientists program to existing records, climate scientists may be able to draw conclusions about the effects of changing climate on species composition in New Haven.

Continuing to Climb

As it evolves, the Citizen Science program finds that keeping its participants engaged can be a challenge. While as many as eighty participants may show up for a given bird walk and collect valuable data, it is difficult to find volunteers willing to contribute regularly. “The data is needed long-term,” Cameron said. “You might see a robin today, but if you see robins every day of the year for the next five years, that’s going to say something about the birds that use this area.”

The program also encourages students to get involved. Although most do not live in New Haven year-round, they can collect data on the biodiversity within their college courtyards. “You don’t have to be an expert,” Cameron said. “I think people hesitate because they think, ‘I won’t be able to contribute.’ But you really can.”