The Growing Value of Citizen Science

Lisa Ballard
Citizen scientist - credit iNaturalist and Tony Iwane

The valuable contributions of citizen scientists are as old as the ability to record what you see.

During the 1804 to 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back, that group recorded observations about 178 plants and 122 animal species.

That information was new to the explorers and even today, more than two centuries later, their written accounts still inform our understanding of wildlife population trends over time. And Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were not scientists.

Starting in the early 20th century, fire watchers stationed in observation towers across the Appalachian Mountains and other regions raised an alarm whenever a wildfire flared up. They also kept written logs about the daily weather. Now those detailed records provide an important look at how weather patterns have changed over time.

Closer to Home

These days, individual citizen scientists are more apt to collect data closer to home – like from a local stream or in their own back yards. And there are a lot of people making those observations.

For citizen scientists, local projects are easier, more meaningful – and more popular. For instance, when Samantha Briggs joined the Izaak Walton League five years ago, she inherited the oversight of the League’s Save Our Streams initiative, one of the longest-running citizen science programs in the country. Since then, she and her team have trained about 1,500 volunteers who assess conditions in local streams and then report their findings to the League.

Since its inception more than 50 years ago, 10,000 people have monitored water quality by participating in Save Our Streams (SOS), one of the few water programs that is national in scope.

When you fill out a questionnaire or complete a phone interview from your state's wildlife agency about the number of birds you harvested or the big game you put in your freezer, you are contributing valuable data towards management of those species.

The League’s Winter Salt Watch program is another example of citizen scientists providing vital data. With Salt Watch, no training is necessary. Test strips arrive in the mail, and volunteers follow easy directions. Like most data-collection programs, volume counts.

Last winter, the League distributed 2,500 Salt Watch test kits and volunteers provided more than 2,600 test results from 22 states. This winter, the program will set new records for the number of tests distributed and results received. These test results collected by citizen scientists will provide useful information about chloride pollution levels in streams and will serve as a basis for advocating for better de-icing policies and procedures for roads, parking lots and sidewalks.

People bring different levels of engagement to citizen science, Briggs says. “Some people put in hours and hours of volunteer time over many years. For instance we’ve got about 600 traditional SOS monitors who return to gather data. But we also have thousands more Salt Watchers and other clean water advocates who volunteer with school groups or just one day – because that’s all they have time for or want to do.”

But every piece of data helps, she says.

Tips for Good Citizen Science

Michelle Prysby at Virginia Tech directs the Virginia Master Naturalist program. This statewide program trains volunteers to help state agencies with conservation stewardship projects, education outreach and data collection, which sometimes tie into Izaak Walton League programs.

For data collection, Prysby offers a few tips to help ensure that volunteers gather useful data:

  1. Choose a project that aligns with your interests. That might include learning more about a plant or animal species or contributing to a conservation initiative you care about.

  2. Follow directions and report data accurately. There will be protocols to follow to ensure the samples you collect are what’s needed. Without good data, the professional scientists might not see important patterns.

  3. Communicate and coordinate with your team leader. This is essential, especially for smaller, local projects. Every person’s data contribution is important.

  4. Get permission. Even if you are on public land, you might need permission from the agency that manages it to perform a research task. If you’re handling wildlife, you may need a permit from a state or local government.

Vital Information

This testing fills an information gap. “State and federal agencies don’t have the resources to monitor every stream regularly,” Briggs says. “They target specific stream sites, and they might get there every two to three years. By the time that information is available to the public, the results are old. Our volunteers fill in the gaps.”

Especially with the limited government budgets for gathering data, the role of volunteers has never been more important. An amateur bug club in Germany that has collected insect data using a consistent method for decades was credited for first raising alarm several years ago about what scientists have confirmed as a dramatic and alarming drop in insect populations globally.

The information obtained from long-term citizen science programs would have been impossible or very difficult and costly to obtain otherwise.

FeederWatch Keeps Tabs on Birds

The FeederWatch program was first conceived in the 1970s by the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, Canada. The concept is simple: each person records the bird species that visit their yard. In 1987, Long Point began partnering with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and together they have expanded the program to about 30,000 birders across the U.S. and Canada.

The FeederWatch program helped to document a population decline in the evening grosbeak, a stunning yellow, black and white songbird found in many northern states in the U.S. “Evening grosbeak numbers have plummeted over the last few decades,” says Emma Greig, Cornell’s Project Leader for FeederWatch. She says that program was one of the first to demonstrate the population drop. “We weren’t clear why it was happening, but at least we could show the decline. Now, we can look for the reasons.”

FeederWatch provides critical data on population trends for about 100 bird species that visit feeders. The data is then overlaid with other information to determine if changes in land cover or warming temperatures might be increasing or decreasing the presence of bird species in a given area.

Greig says 65 percent of FeederWatch participants renew each year. “Good retention like that makes a good data set over time. People are counting the same way, so you know if changes are actually happening.”

Samantha Briggs leads the League's clean water programs, which focus on citizen science and local conservation. Samantha Briggs

The Scientific Method

Science is really just “making observations and recording them, with a little bit of critical thinking mixed in,” Greig says.

In broad terms, the basic protocols for collecting data are the same regardless of the subject matter. The American Museum of Natural History describes five basic steps in the scientific method:

  • Define a question to investigate.

  • Make a prediction or create a hypothesis that is a possible answer to the question.

  • Gather data or run a model to test the prediction in a way that other scientists can repeat.

  • Analyze the data, looking for patterns that would reveal connections between key variables.

  • Draw conclusions, decide whether or not the evidence supports the prediction and share the findings with others.

The process of gathering data might happen in a laboratory or in the field. It might be an experiment or series of experiments by one expert or a team of experts. It might be a modelling process, or it might be a monitoring project involving an army of volunteers, such as the Save Our Streams program.

“To me, science-based means there’s data to back it up,” says Samantha Briggs, an environmental scientist and the League’s Clean Water Program Director. “There’s research behind it that’s been analyzed and interpreted by experts in that field.”

Getting Started

When you volunteer for a citizen science program, the organization or scientific team will train you and provide what you need to collect the data they seek. You’ll likely need a smartphone, tablet or laptop with a specific app on it, which is how most data is submitted. And you will need good observation skills.

Within the Izaak Walton League, Save Our Streams is a good fit if you’re an avid angler or concerned about water quality. You may already be comfortable in waders, which can be useful when collecting water samples. Also, macroinvertebrates in water – like caddisflies, scuds and stoneflies – are familiar to many anglers. Likewise, if you care deeply about curbing water pollution, Winter Salt Watch is a no-brainer. You dip a test strip in a stream and submit the results online.

Regardless of the program, the key to good citizen science is following instructions. “For us, it matters how you count birds, so you don’t count the same birds over and over,” says Greig of FeederWatch. “A person thought they had 60 chickadees in their yard, but really it was the same five or six birds returning over and over.”

In the case of FeederWatch, you also need to know what species a bird is, and the ornithology lab provides tools to help. “You don’t need to know all 600 bird species in North America,” continues Greig. “There are only about a dozen species in most back yards. Sure, it can be tough to identify various sparrows from each other, but you get better at it the more you watch.”

If you make a mistake, Greig isn’t worried. There are checks in the data system to account for that. The staff follows up on unusual reports or sightings, which might indicate a misidentification of a bird or an important shift in a range pattern that should be documented.

What’s in It for You

Contributing in a meaningful way to a body of research can be extremely rewarding. The data you collect might alert scientists or government agencies about a problem, such as pollutants in a waterway, that requires attention or action. Likewise, if your water samples reveal good water quality, that adds useful data points to a baseline for future comparisons.

Bottom line, being a citizen scientist in a conservation-related project gets you outdoors and connects you with nature in a purposeful way. It builds your observation skills, improves your ability to identify plants and animals, and makes you more aware of the natural resources in your area.

What’s more, you’ll make connections with others, which can lead to more interesting opportunities. Most importantly, the data you collect contributes in a vital way to protecting what you value, whether it’s the stream out your back door or the entire planet.

Find a Citizen Science Program

These national programs depend on observations of volunteers who collect data. There are many more – some are national and others are regional in scope. Many are offered through universities and state agencies.

Clean Water

Save Our Streams • Izaak Walton League

Save Our Streams is the only national program that trains volunteers to take water samples, the information from which is used to advocate for acceptable standards of water quality in local waterways. Since 1969, this program has helped document pollution issues. Data collected through the program is used to urge local municipalities and state agencies to take cleanup actions.

Learn more about this program

Winter Salt Watch • Izaak Walton League

For the Winter Salt Watch program, which requires no training, volunteers receive a free test kit in the mail, dip test strips in local waterways and submit their findings online. Each individual’s test results are added to a national database that’s used to identify lakes and rivers where chloride (from road salt and other deicers) has reached levels that are dangerous for aquatic wildlife and drinking water.

Learn more about this program

(A number of state agencies also conduct water quality research that depends on volunteers. Contact your state’s natural resources or environmental protection department to learn about opportunities.)

Climate Change

Alpine Flower Watch • Appalachian Mountain Club

For over 20 years, hikers in New England have recorded the flowering times of six alpine plant species using the app iNaturalist. The goal of this program is to see how climate change affects flora in the alpine zone. Once the dataset is long enough timewise, researchers will be able to look for changes and patterns in this fragile ecosystem.

Learn more about this program

National Park Service

The National Park Service offers a number of opportunities to record data documenting trends in climate and how they affect flora and fauna on a regional and national basis.

Learn more about this program

Monarch Butterflies

Much of what we know about monarch butterflies and their migration patterns is a result of citizen science programs. During the 1990s, monarch butterflies numbered in the billions. By 2014, their numbers had dropped by a startling 90 percent. Volunteer monitoring projects across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada have provided a more complete understanding of this iconic insect and helped it recover.

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project • University of Minnesota

This program was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota to collect long-term data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat.

Learn more about this program

Kansas Biological Survey Monarch Watch • University of Kansas

This program relies on volunteers across North America to monitor monarch populations during their fall migration. The butterflies have tags that reveal the geographic origins of the butterflies that reach their wintering habitat in Mexico and other data. It uses a network of “waystations” – flower gardens or natural areas where milkweed grows.

Learn more about this program

Project Monarch Health • University of Georgia Institute of Ecology

Volunteers collect parasite spores from live monarch butterflies to help researchers better understand and map the spread and parasite load of the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. This parasite doesn’t affect people, but it stunts butterfly growth, decreasing survival rates.

Learn more about this program

Butterfly Count

North American Butterfly Association

The Butterfly Count takes place annually on a specific day. Each person counts all species of butterflies within a 15-mile radius. The results contribute to a yearly report that tracks geographic distribution, population sizes and the impact of weather and habitat changes.

Learn more about this program


If you’re a birdwatcher, you’re in luck. Citizen science programs that collect data about birds are among the most widespread. Some are focused on a specific species and others are broader in scope. Not sure where to start? The two programs below are among the best known.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Conceived in 1900, the Christmas Bird Count started as a day that 27 hunters laid down their shotguns and simply counted birds, out of concern for declining wildlife populations. Today, volunteers number in the tens of thousands. From December 14 to January 5, participants count types of birds and the number of each type. The data is used to determine population trends among various species and to develop conservation strategies, not only by Audubon but by numerous other conservation groups and government agencies.

Learn more about this program

Project FeederWatch • Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As the name suggests, this program collects observations of backyard birdfeeders from thousands of locations around the country. The data is used to help identify negative population trends before they reach a critical point and to understand changing migration, breeding and wintering patterns of various avian species over time.

Learn more about this program

This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2022 issue #1. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Lisa Ballard is an Ike from Red Lodge, Montana, and a long-time contributor to Outdoor America. An award-winning writer and photographer, she is passionate about conservation of our natural resources and dedicated to getting people of all ages outdoors.

Top photo: Citizen scientists can easily record and submit observations using smartphone apps like iNaturalist. Photo credits: iNaturalist and Tony Iwane.

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