Challenging Enthusiastic Birders

Because so many participants return to the program year after year, lab staff have developed additional research projects to give them a chance to engage in deeper inquiry. One project, called the “Seed Preference Test,” was designed to find out which of three kinds of seeds ground-feeding birds liked best—sunflower, millet, or milo. The hypothesis developed by the lab staff was that sunflower was the preferred seed, but participants from the Southwest discovered otherwise. The birds in their region loved milo, also referred to as sorghum. Staff were intrigued by this surprising observation and wanted to find out if milo had been getting a bad rap. So they extended the experiment for 1 additional year.

The research project resulted in a small media buzz. It was featured on Good Morning America, boosting enrollment to more than 17,000 participants. About 5,000 people completed the observations, documenting half a million bird visits and showing seed preferences for more than 30 species. The findings confirmed the reports from the Southwest about seed preferences for birds in that area, proving that the lab staff’s original hypothesis was incorrect.

Another research project added to FeederWatch was the House Finch Eye Disease Survey. This project was initiated by FeederWatch participants, who observed house finches with puffy eyes during the winter months. Since then, participants have noted how the disease, identified as conjunctivitis, has spread throughout North America’s house finch population, causing their numbers to decline. Citizen scientists have proven to be an integral part of the scientific research team, documenting a serious population decline that could help in the understanding of disease outbreaks in other animal populations.

What is particularly interesting about this phase of the project is the number of questions staff received about the experimental process. Many of these queries focused on hypotheses that participants were developing to help explain their results. This kind of activity showed that not only were participants fully engaged in the project, but also they were taking scientific inquiry to the next level. They were using scientific methods and applying them appropriately to answer their research questions. As a result, participants were learning about science in the context of real scientific research.

Citizen scientists are becoming indispensable to the research efforts of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They are contributing to scientific knowledge about ecology and bird-feeding patterns in their regions. In fact, their findings have been included in articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

“We are not just being nice in letting the public participate in these projects,” says Bonney. “Their scientific data are extremely important. Increasingly, the scientific community is depending on this work to further our understanding of North American birds.”2

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