Be a Citizen Scientist in Your Wildlife Garden

This was originally published on Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

So you’re a successful wildlife gardener, how about becoming an amateur citizen scientist too? Today, there are so many resources and books available for everyone you don’t have to have a science degree to be an amateur scientist.

Becoming an ecologist of your yard, your habitat will help you understand better and as a result, provide the best habitat possible for your specific yard. Perhaps just as important or even more so, you will gain knowledge and data that can be useful to others such as neighbors, the city or conservation organizations.

The Problem

The human inhabited environment has been sorely ignored by ecologists. A recent study found that out of a sample of over 8,000 scientific papers published in top ecological journals over the previous 5 years, only 3% were focused on urban areas and an even smaller amount (1%) focused on suburban areas.

While our cities continue to spread outwards, there is very little reliable data with which to influence planning and development. Numbers and data are very important when trying to convince a city or county to do something different, or something that may cost more, especially when it comes to wildlife and habitat.

We all know that cities and suburbs aren’t planned with wildlife in mind, roads cross important migration routes, shopping centers sit on former wetlands and riverbanks are developed right to the edge leaving no travel corridor for wildlife.  Scientific data matters, but there are too few studies and too few scientists monitoring local species.

Further Education

Take some time to learn about your local region. Many books and resources focus on too large of a region. States have many varying habitats, here in Washington we have rocky coastal areas, the Puget Sound, valleys, mountains, deserts and rain forests.

Even cities have varying habitats, some have wetlands, hills with woodlands, ravines and rivers. Your yard is completely unique and could have a different microhabitat than somebody a half mile away.

Check out a Google map, where are your closest water sources such as ponds, or creeks? Study the roads around you, how many would a frog have to cross to get from a large breeding pond to the pond in your yard? Are there hills that influence wind or sun? Take a walk around and study the size and species of your neighborhood trees. Print or make a map, make notes, draw on it, mark the prevailing wind, key trees, water, both permanent and seasonal creeks or ponds.

Now learn about your local species, what is in your region? It’s hard to know because many books draw broad maps. Just because a butterfly may be found in your region doesn’t mean it will be, there are countless factors involved: season, population numbers, microhabitat, food supply, etc.

I once did a wildlife crossing design for my landscape architecture degree where I had to assume a certain frog species would be found in a creek because nobody actually knew, no study had been done, no observations made. Most state available data is based on assumptions of where a species would likely be, not where they actually know them to be, because states don’t have the resources to study every species, even those on watch lists.

However, an observant homeowner who studied their yard and surrounding landscape would know, and if many homeowners along a creek were keeping notes, that information would be valuable for many conservation or design projects.

Pick a few species, birds, amphibians, insects, that you know are in your immediate area and study them in-depth. There are countless resources online or at the library, some general, some very regionally specific.

The Forest Service and other government agencies have excellent information online. Organizations such as Audubon or the North American Butterfly Society are a wealth of information and you can always find somebody in a local chapter to answer questions about specific species. Local agencies often have even more detailed, region specific information.

Learn about the various species life history, breeding range, daily movement patterns, nesting needs, sensitivity to disturbance, threats, what local habitat would they likely be found in?

Observe, Study and Record

Now that you know about your local habitat and species, start to observe and study them. Take notes, pictures and videos of their behavior. Keep track of what species you see, what time of the day, where, what they do. Make a template on your computer to record observations, keep a hand journal with notes, find forms online or do what works best for you.

A year-round study is very valuable because it’ll help track migratory species as well as seasonal dispersals. You’ll soon be an expert, with data. Imagine if several neighbors did this in your neighborhood, and several neighborhoods in the city. You, the wildlife gardeners, could accomplish what scientists are failing to.

Participate in Citizen Science

You’re not alone, there are dozens of citizen science projects already ongoing throughout North America. Among the many include:

View the resource page for Citizen Science projects.

Participate in them and if you have a local species of concern or interest, start your own project, start local groups, be a local citizen scientist.

Share and Teach

With your expertise, data and experience, share the knowledge with your neighbors, local organizations such as Audubon, parks department, the city or anywhere it can be beneficial. Be confident with your recordings and data to speak at public hearings or to encourage other local homeowners and organizations to participate, especially when discussing a wildlife species on a watch list or threatened status.

With your knowledge you will arm yourself with data to help wildlife not only in your yard, but in your neighborhood, region or in fact the entire world. With many citizen scientists and their data, city planning departments may change that next road placement or have to protect that wetland from a shopping center.

Your data may help a conservation organization or Department of Transportation, plan and design a suitable wildlife crossing for the proper species. In addition, your knowledge and observations will also help to continually improve your own habitat by observing what works and what doesn’t. So go observe, study and record!

Kelly Brenner
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Kelly Brenner

Kelly Brenner is a naturalist and writer based in Seattle. She founded and writes The Metropolitan Field Guide, a blog for ideas, thoughts and resources for the design of urban wildlife habitat and has contributed articles to a variety of other websites and publications.

Kelly has a certificate from the University of Washington in non-fiction writing. She continually takes classes and attends talks on various natural history topics. In 2009 she earned a bachelors degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon.

She's also an avid photographer focusing on the natural world.
Kelly Brenner
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