This weekend, we can all be scientists

Without getting into a long winded debate about what constitutes a true citizen science project I will boldly state that I think citizen science is anything that engages people with the process of science.

At the time of writing I'm sitting in my office looking out over the nature reserve struggling to comprehend how January has once again rolled back around, and with it the 36th annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. The survey has changed somewhat since 1978 when RSPB staff had to sort through 34 bin liners of post observations sent in by the public, now we estimate that there could be a million eyes watching the garden this weekend.

Citizen Science has been quite a hot topic in the last decade with a huge variety of amazing projects to inspire, educate, engage and inform popping up all over the place. Conservation and natural history citizen science projects have huge appeal; you can identify camera trap photos (eg. ZSL's Instant Wild), or visit Zooniverse where from a collection of projects you can spy on penguins on Penguin Watch or choose to measure plankton on my new favourite Plankton Portal.

Without getting into a long winded debate about what constitutes a true citizen science project I will boldly state that I think citizen science is anything that engages people with the process of science. Some wildlife citizen science projects provide really robust monitoring data that feed into national trends to understand how nature is doing (e.g. BBS), other projects are about educating the participants in identification (e.g. iSPOT). What these projects have in common is providing the opportunity and the space and the resources for anyone to have a go at science.

Involving citizen scientists in the study of wildlife is nothing new. In fact, since Big Garden Birdwatch began people of all ages have spent a combined total of over 200 million hours watching and recording their garden birds. But how does a gentle hobby such as bird watching qualify as 'science' you might ask? The study of bird populations and other wildlife is a serious business but for me and many other people, it's a wonderful way to combine my hobby and my passion for science.

Counting the number of each species that visit your garden during the one hour survey might seem trivial but each one of the 500,000 participants is taking part in a controlled, reproducible, wildlife survey that has run for 36 years. This makes Big Garden Birdwatch the largest, longest running citizen science project in the world! It's that simple - but it's still science.

Once all the data from the weekend has been collected and put together, it is given to one scientist here at the RSPB to analyse, assess and report back on: that scientist is me. For the past three years, every year, I lock myself away in a dark office for days on end to cast my scientific eye over all the bird sightings that people have made in the gardens. It may seem like an unenviable task to some but to me it's one of the most exciting. I'm first person to look at the yearly ups and downs of birds and other wildlife in people's gardens across the UK.

Big Garden Birdwatch is pretty unique in that there aren't that many surveys that cover garden or urban habitats, and even fewer that do so in winter. The watch takes place in the cold month of January when food resources in gardens are of great importance to busy birds trying to get enough to eat and keep warm. You may think twice before braving the January freeze but for some birds the temperatures are positively balmy in the UK compared to the bitter conditions they escaped from on the continent.

As well as all the interesting data that Big Garden Birdwatch tells us about our gardens and wildlife each year, for me is that it helps people to enjoy science.

It's the anticipation of what you will see during your survey hour; the surprise when something unusual turns up; the disappointment when your regular flock of long tailed-tits doesn't pass through at the right time; the satisfaction of completing your hour and filling in your form. And finally, seeing the results from all over the country coming in and finding out how your little patch compares. These things are the process of science and what got me interested in doing research in the first place. So if Big Garden Birdwatch can inspire a few more young scientists to think about taking up science in the future, that's a success to me.

Dr Daniel Hayhow is one of the RSPB's Conservation Scientists and is responsible for analysing all the data collected during the Big Garden Birdwatch. @RSPBScience


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