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Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation

“Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation” presented by Marlene Doyle, Environment Canada

Becoming a citizen scientist . . . or how to help monitor ‘what’s up world?’: A report  written by Dr. Jim Bendell

When most of us stop and ask ourselves what we value most in life, we likely admit it is not a thing or things at all, but ourselves and other people. Next would be the natural environment, which, after all, we depend upon for at least food, water, clothing, and shelter. What can we do to understand more about our natural environment and how to protect and sustain it? Marlene Doyle of Environment Canada told us what we can do during her presentation: “Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation”.

At her lecture to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) in Almonte, Ms. Doyle invited the audience to “Join the ranks of Darwin and the Compte de Buffon” . . . that is to become citizen scientists!!! Ms. Doyle has worked for many years in enlisting people of all ages to monitor plants and animals and their habitats as coordinator of our national Nature Watch program. Ms. Doyle holds a Master’s degree from the University of Waterloo and is currently Canadian representative on the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program’s Terrestrial Export Monitoring Group, or, “What’s Up? in the lands of the North?” Monitoring means observing and noting, something we do every day. Ms. Doyle gave us lots of ideas for what we can do to find out “what’s up world?” by monitoring the health and diversity of our natural world as citizen scientists.

Everyone can take part and the requirements are simply interest, time, and wanting to help. Along the way you will learn new things, including how top professionals think and work. You will also see for yourself what people are or are not saying and writing about important issues. You will connect to nature and the community. You will certainly make new friends, have fun, and perhaps begin a successful career. The major reward is caring for Canada and the world by recognizing real environmental problems and doing something about them. The concerns are many and the need for help is unlimited. An important issue is climate change, which is real but what can be done about it? We are losing species of animals and habitats, making the world a poorer place, at never so fast a rate. Locally, and in a life time; tree swallows, nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, little brown bats and other birds and mammals have been significantly reduced. Might this signal greater losses for the future and eventually impact negatively on our own way of life? But why the losses and is there anything that can be done about them?

A start in solving these problems is to monitor aspects of the environment by sight, sound, odour, or feel. As a citizen scientist, you will work with an experienced leader and follow set procedures. The more who are working together to the same end the more powerful will be the result. While amateurs are the main workforce, professionals in organizations, schools, universities and government typically provide information, participate, and publish the results. Observations and actions by citizen scientists may be out-of-doors, or in a laboratory or library. Work as much as you wish, alone or in a group. The longer observations can be made the better. Some monitoring projects extend over many years. For example, you might go out and tag a clump of wildflowers on your property, and then follow PlantWatch monitoring directions for information which should be collected in the spring, file a report and repeat this again with the same plants each year. Or, you might join an MVFN Christmas bird count. You might participate in a marsh monitoring program or a Lakes Loon Survey next summer at your home or cottage. Always there is help at hand for advice and direction.

Often people hesitate to participate in an activity because they think it is of little value or beyond their abilities. In fact, thousands of people are actively caring for our environment simply by reporting observations. And their findings have been used by many professionals and others to write reports on research and management in authoritative journals and books. Numerous tests show inexperienced volunteers, with training, make accurate observations and determinations to provide trustworthy results. In fact, says Ms. Doyle, the quality of data is more likely affected by survey design or quality of communication than by the expertise of the person or group who collected the data. Not only is citizen science data reliable but it complements professional monitoring, it is relevant, local, timely, unique, and it is relatively low-cost to collect. Remember, you are not alone and can easily join many other interesting and committed people. Contact local and global leaders in the care of our environment. A main doorway in joining a quest of interest is through the speaker; Marlene Doyle at 613-949-7754 (and more on how to reach her later). She welcomes your call.

There are at least 283 projects powered by ordinary citizens across Canada. A classic example is the Christmas Bird Count, started more than 100 years ago, which now includes 50,000 observers reporting from 2000 locations throughout the United States, Canada, and beyond. The findings, which are solely based on citizen scientist reports, have helped elucidate the requirements of birds and clearly show changes in the abundance and distribution of species. For example, the counts tracked the spread of an introduced European Starling over the northern states and Canada and the disappearance of the similar Japanese Starling introduced to British Columbia. The Japanese form apparently cannot hatch its eggs under as cool conditions as the European bird and the abundance of both may be linked to climate change. Other projects range from counting Monarch Butterflies (an at risk species) to searching old logs and journals for information on past environments.

MVFN Bioblitz

Data gathered by citizen scientists are credible, unique and useful for furthering our understanding of the natural world. In this photo, ‘citizen scientists’ join amateur naturalists and professional scientists taking a biological inventory of a Mississippi Mills property during MVFN’s 2009 Bioblitz. Photo Pauline Donaldson

Ms. Doyle, through Nature Watch Canada, coordinates the input of four large inventories. They are: Plant Watch, Frog Watch, Ice Watch, and Worm Watch. Observations on plants include invasive species and dates of flowering. The kinds and abundance of worms reveal the health of soil. Frogs and the formation of ice are sensitive indicators of many factors in aquatic ecosystems, including temperature.

Interested in more information? In Lanark Highlands, Carleton Place and Mississippi Mills talk to Cliff and Lynda Bennett at 613-256-5013, ; or Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089, Then some relevant organizations, in no particular order, are: Environment Canada (NatureWatch,, Ms. Marlene Doyle, 613-949-7754,, see above); Natural Heritage Information Centre, Peterborough (705-755-2159,; Toronto Zoo (361A Old Finch Ave., Scarborough, ON M1B 5K7,; Ontario Nature (336 Adelaide Street West, Suite 201, Toronto, ON, M5V 1R9, ; Royal Botanical Gardens (Ontario Plantwatch Coordinator, Natalie Iwanycki,; Bird Studies Canada ( P.O. Box 160, Port Rowan, ON, N0E 1M0); Canadian Wildlife Service (Ontario Region, 49 Camelot Dr. Nepean, ON K1A 0H3); and Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network (Chairperson, Christine Bishop, 4553-46B Street, Delta, B.C. V4K 2N2, Cornell University also keeps a directory of projects undertaken by volunteers at

Christmas bird count (998x1280)

Another way to join the ranks of Darwin and become a citizen scientist is to participate in one of the many annual Audubon Christmas bird counts across North America. Two local counts include the Lanark Highlands and the Carleton Place Christmas Bird Counts (for further info visit Birder Cliff Bennett records data during the count-in held after local count-teams return from a 2006 MVFN CBC. Photo MVFN archive.


Palmerston_2 Aug 07 108

Citizen science in action in the Mississippi River watershed: from August 5-7, 2006, nearly one hundred citizen scientists (MVFN members and others), set out in canoes, row boats and motor boats to take the watersheds’ temperature. The goal was to collect data and engage citizens in considering local implications of future climate change Shown is Howard Robinson, water-sampler in hand, ready to survey Palmerston Lake. Photo Mary Robinson


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