Citizen Scientists Unite
At the Prairie Ridge Ecostation, everyone can
contribute to environmental research.
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor / Photography by C.L. Goforth
Imagine going into the field with binoculars, pen, and notebook and collecting data to assist scientific researchers from local universities and environmental agencies. Yes, you! A scientist. Or to be more exact, a citizen scientist.
With the increased popularity of apps like eBird and iNaturalist and environmental education events springing up all over North Carolina, ordinary people are coming together to take part in important research projects. One of the best places to be involved with citizen science is right here in our backyard: Prairie Ridge Ecostation is an urban natural area that welcomes citizen scientists of all ages and experience levels. It’s connected to the immense green space of Umstead State Park, Schenck Forest, and the North Carolina Museum of Art’s park and nature trails.
Prairie Ridge Ecostation is a unique educational facility that is part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The ecological station—ecostation for short—is an exceptional place to view wildlife and native plants in their natural habitats. “It’s a place where people can actually get out into nature instead of just reading about it and looking at the exhibits,” says Christine Goforth, head of citizen science for the museum.
Walking trails cross the 45 acres of former cow pasture, allowing visitors a close-up view of a variety of ecosystems such as prairie, forest, ponds, and streams. Because Prairie Ridge feels so remote from the hustle and bustle of the city, it’s easy to forget you are still in an urban space. With an extensive species checklist that cites hundreds of animals and plants, Prairie Ridge is a citizen scientist’s ideal location. “We get animals you wouldn’t expect to see in the city—bobcats, otters, beavers, and coyotes,” Goforth says.
Prairie Ridge is not just another nature park, though. There is a significant research component that’s evident upon visiting the ecostation as I did on an unseasonably cold March morning. I joined a small group of amateur naturalists to help professional educators collect field data on bird populations. Afterward, the group walked down a grassy path where a crowd of families gathered around a long table. Children of varying ages watched enthusiastically as researchers from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Natural Sciences Museum worked together, along with community volunteers. Leaning in to see better, the children asked questions while researchers held previously banded birds and recorded detailed information on a checklist. The children watched in
awe as the palm-sized birds flew back into the wild.
The Citizen in Citizen Science
Goforth defines citizen science as a partnership between the public and professional researchers to answer scientific questions. She emphasizes that anyone with an interest in science and a desire to participate in scientific research can become a citizen scientist. Many universities and private agencies are reaching out to the public to help solve complex problems. Even the United States government uses citizen science. The website CitizenScience.gov states, “Through citizen science and crowdsourcing, the federal government and nongovernmental organizations can engage the American public in addressing societal needs and accelerating science, technology, and innovation.” Currently, there are 43 ongoing citizen science projects at the ecostation. One of the most popular is NestWatch, which studies the reproductive success of birds by monitoring resident nest boxes. Goforth explains that everyone loves seeing baby birds, but people are reluctant to touch the nests because they’ve heard the mother bird will smell humans and abandon the nestlings. They are surprised to learn that this piece of folklore is not true. “Birds really don’t have a sense of smell,” she says. Education is a substantial part of citizen science.
But, NestWatch isn’t just a cute baby bird–watching project. Collected data is sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is vital in the study of bird populations and how they are affected by climate change, habitat loss through urban expansion, and the replacement of native food sources with non-native or exotic plant species.
Citizen science is important because with more people collecting data sets in more places, it allows researchers to expand their reach scientifically. It also allows people to become part of the process of science through first-hand experience “If you don’t understand why something is important, you’re not going to care about it or support it,” Goforth says. For her, one of the most rewarding parts of citizen science is watching people realize their scientific contributions matter. “It’s so inspiring and makes them want to keep doing it,” she says. “Doing something yourself is a really great way to learn it.” And with Prairie Ridge Ecostation nearby, we
an all be aspiring—and inspiring—citizen scientists.