I’m a huge fan of citizen science projects like the Big Butterfly Count. These schemes mean that any of us can contribute valuable data to research projects around the world, as well as play a part in vital conservation work. And whether you want to help out from the comfort of your own home, or get out into the field, there is something for everyone. I’ve picked out 10 of my favourite projects and platforms below.
What Is Citizen Science?
Before I introduce some of my favourite schemes, you might be wondering what citizen science is exactly. Citizen, or community, science is research carried out by amateur enthusiasts. Although the phrase was only coined in the mid-1990s, the actual involvement of non-professional scientists in research has been going on for a lot longer than that. In the 18th and 19th centuries gentlemen scientists (non-professionals with the time and money to explore their interests) often carried out scientific experiments.
There have also been more structured events such as the Audobon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has been censusing bird populations since 1900. The internet, though, has seen an explosion in the amount of ways that ordinary people can contribute to scientific research, via apps and other online portals. Some schemes are ongoing, where members of the public can continually enter sightings into a database. Others are annual events that take a yearly census of populations or conditions.
There are inevitably a few limitations to citizen science. Volunteers may have varying levels of expertise and so run the risk of providing inaccurate data through misidentifying organisms, for example. But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Conservation bodies and scientific faculties are often under resourced in time, staff and money. By utilising an army of volunteers, they can gather much more data than they would otherwise. They can then put this information to valuable use, often allowing them to identify where they most need to focus conservation work. Projects are also a brilliant way of engaging the public by making science accessible. Volunteers can learn a great deal about the natural world by taking part and this inevitably means they will care more about saving it.
So, here are 10 of my favourite projects.
1. Big Garden Birdwatch
One of the UK’s most popular citizen science events, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch has been taking place annually since 1979. The very first event asked children to send in their garden bird sightings and was run in conjunction with the television programme Blue Peter. An astonishing 34 bags of post came back! The event continued to go from strength to strength with adults joining in from 2001. Taking place at the end of January each year, participants spend one hour recording the birds (and, since 2014, other wildlife such as frogs and hedgehogs) in their garden. They then send their results to the RSPB. Nearly 700,000 people took part in 2022 and 40 years of data has provided vital information about the state of our bird populations.
For those wanting to carry on surveys all year, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) run an ongoing garden birdwatch project. Running since 1995, participants log sightings online on a weekly basis.
2. Breeding Bird and Wetland Bird Surveys
The BTO, RSPB and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) jointly run these two schemes. They are great for anyone who wants to get out into the field rather than watching from a window at home, although you do need to be able to confidently identify the birds you are likely to come across on the surveys. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) involves a recce visit plus two early morning recording visits to an allocated one-kilometre square during the spring. Surveyors walk two transects recording all the birds they see and hear to give an idea of breeding bird populations across the country. There is also an option to record mammals and butterflies.
The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) asks volunteers to visit an allocated site once a month throughout the year to count non-breeding waterbirds. The UK is hugely important for wetland birds and this information is vital for making sure we protect the right sites, as well as monitoring changing populations. If you prefer a less structured way of making sure your bird sightings count, the BTO and partner organisations’ BirdTrack project might be for you. You can log bird sightings from any location, at any time on the website or app. This not only lets you store sightings for your own records, but adds your data to the BTO’s records, helping them understand population trends.
3. Big Butterfly Count
The Big Butterfly Count is another annual event. It takes place every year over three weeks towards the end of July and beginning of August, at the peak of the butterfly flight season. Butterfly Conservation have been running the survey since 2010 and it is now the world’s biggest butterfly survey. Butterflies and moths are important parts of our ecosystems because they are pollinators and act as prey items for other species. This means that surveying them tells us a huge amount about the state of the larger environment. Volunteers can carry out as many surveys as they like over the count period and just need to sit for 15 minutes in a sunny spot and record how many of the survey’s target species they see.
4. Nature’s Calendar
Phenology is the study of the timing of various seasonal events in nature, such as the first snowdrop flowering of the year, the first leaf buds appearing in spring or the first swallow arriving to breed. Studying changes in the timing of these events over prolonged periods tells scientists a great deal about our changing climate. Individuals have been recording the signs of spring since the 1700s and between 1875 and 1948 the Royal Meteorological Society ran a national scheme. In 2000, the Woodland Trust joined forces with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) to start Nature’s Calendar. Anyone can now log the first appearance of the year of a number of plant and animal species. You can also log certain changes that our deciduous trees undergo throughout the year, such as leaf budding, leaf tinting and leaf fall.
5. Every Flower Counts
Plantlife’s Every Flower Counts has been running in tandem with No Mow May since 2019. The charity encourages garden owners not to mow their lawns throughout the month of May each year to help pollinators and other wildlife. At the end of the month, and then again in mid-July, they ask you to count every flower in a metre square of lawn or green space and send in your results. The idea is to provide a snapshot of the health of our lawns and to encourage people to think about leaving their gardens a little bit messier to benefit wildlife. For those wanting to monitor plants in more depth, or further afield, the National Plant Monitoring Scheme is a bit like the BBS but for plants.
6. The Shark Trust
As part of their conservation work, the Shark Trust aims to change people’s perceptions of sharks so that they will want to help save this vulnerable group of fish species. They run a number of citizen science projects. These serve to gather vital information about sharks as well as to engage the public and encourage people to think differently about sharks. You can record sightings as part of their basking shark project, log any shark entanglements you come across to help assess plastic pollution or look for empty shark egg cases (often called mermaid’s purses) on the beach.
7. Big Seaweed Search
The Big Seaweed Search is a joint project from the Natural History Museum and the Marine Conservation Society. The project was set up in 2009 in order to find out how our shorelines are changing as a result of climate change. Participants record any of 14 target seaweed species they find in a 5-metre-wide plot from the sea to the top of the shore. Volunteers can carry out surveys on any beach at any time of year. The records are helping researchers assess rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and the spread of non-native seaweed species. The UK has over 650 different species which provide food and shelter for a huge range of marine organisms and finding out how they are doing is more important than ever as our seas get warmer.
A BioBlitz is a really fun search of a specific area with the aim of recording as many species of organism as possible in a short period of time. Some take place over just a few hours while some might last a full day. The focus is on getting lots of people engaged in finding out just how much biodiversity is out there. The first BioBlitz took place in Washington DC in 1996 and found over 900 species in a park surrounded by industry and residential buildings. The National BioBlitz Network in the UK is a great resource if you want to run your own event or find out where one might be taking place near you.
This is a bit different because it’s not one project, but a platform for a multitude of them. Zooniverse sets out to link scientists and volunteers so that more research can take place than would otherwise be possible. You carry out all of the projects online, so you just need a computer and internet access. There are over 50 projects on the portal at any one time. and they cover a wealth of different fields from natural history and astronomy to history and language.
Natural history tasks may involve looking through record shots of a species to look for distinguishing marks. Other tasks involve counting the number of individuals of a particular species from aerial photographs. These sorts of tasks are often extremely time-consuming and so by finding people from all over the world to help out, researchers can find out much more information in less time than they would on their own.
Run by the Biological Records Centre (BRC) and UKCEH, iRecord is a hub for recording and collating wildlife sightings in the UK either via its website or a range of apps. Scientists can then access sightings records to aid their research. You can either choose to submit all of your sightings in one place, whatever the species, or just pick an app for a particular field, such as mammals, pollinators or butterflies. The apps and website also provide identification help for anything you’re not sure about. They are a fantastic way of recording your sightings when you are out and about.
For more information about any of the projects listed above, follow the individual links in each entry. And then why not try one out for yourself?