A Call for Citizen Science

I’ve just finished reading a review copy of  Nobel Prize-winner Peter Doherty’s Their Fate Is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World. This book is a good follow up to several of the pieces I read recently in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, including the piece on how we determine which species extinctions to try to prevent and also the excerpt from David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic that documents the jump of animal diseases to humans.

Doherty’s book is written for popular audiences (at least those patient enough to wade through a number of technical passages) and he’s open about his purpose from the start: he wants his readers to become “citizen scientists” who “contribute [to science] by helping collect key data on, for example, what’s happening to the birds, to the butterflies, or to the life forms that live in or on the banks of our rivers and streams.”

Doherty gives us two pressing reasons to “enlist” as citizen scientists. First, many diseases originating in birds can be threatening, even deadly, for us—think of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Catching a new virus before it develops human-to-human transmission, is crucial to launching a successful attack against it: “Data from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], which tracks ‘seasonal’ epidemics in the USA, show the [flu] virus traveling to every state in the space of 4-6 weeks. Contrast that with the four years it took West Nile Virus to get from New York to California using a bird-mosquito infection cycle.” That’s the difference between a virus spread by sneezing and one spread by mosquito bites.

Second, birds can show us the current impact of climate change through changes in population size and ranges. Yes, Doherty—like pretty much every scientist I know—not only acknowledges climate change, but is appalled by our inability to respond with force and commitment to the threat it presents. In his estimation, we come off as something less than the dinosaurs killed by an earlier period of climate change: “While our willful behavior may ultimately ensure our elimination, and that of many other life forms, there is no way that the big dinosaurs could have deliberately contributed to their own extinction. Consciousness, reason, callous greed, deliberate ignorance and true malevolence are very much unique to Homo sapiens sapiens.”

So what does Doherty want us to do? He wants us to participate in programs like the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch. “Indications that a population is at risk are most likely to come from the careful, systematic counts made by birdwatchers and amateur ornithologists [who] participate in [programs like Audubon’s] Backyard Bird Count Program. You don’t even need to leave your own property to be part of this study.”

And if this work sounds unimportant or dry, think again: “While our birder ‘citizen scientists’ might be more like the passionate amateurs of the French Resistance of WWII than paid members of the contemporary US National Guard, American democracy is characterized by volunteerism and broad, public involvement. Being an unpaid ‘birding James Bond’ might appeal to some though, but rather than a Walther PPK or a Beretta, the weapons of choice for our ‘bird spies’ will be leg bands, and binoculars made by Zeiss, Swarowski or Leica.” Forget your stereotypes of little old lady birders; you’re working for national defense.

While it might be easy to laugh at the call to arms, or rather call to field glasses, Doherty’s point is crucial. In the face of threats to our health and our planet, we can take action, we can make a difference, even if we are neither particularly powerful nor particularly wealthy.  Doherty shows us what birders can do. We need a whole series of such manuals to help inspire other communities as well.