So, you want to be a citizen scientist?

Black-throated green warbler © Sarah Pietrkiewicz

There’s a whole lot of science needing to be done these days, and not enough professional scientists to do it. But there is a solution! Citizen science — also known as community science — is a way for the rest of us to pitch in by helping to collect important data about the natural world.

Collaboration between the public and scientists has been ongoing for years, especially with smartphones and other technologies making it easier for amateurs to contribute information. During the pandemic, citizen science is once again growing in popularity. This is partly due to travel restrictions but in large part thanks to the stress-relieving power of nature and the fact that we can see more wildlife as cities have grown quieter.

A lot of our own work is supported by citizen science. WWF-Canada researchers use the North American Bird Conservation Initiative to track wildlife trends over time. Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup participants track the amount and type of litter entering our waterways, which is then used to inform policy. Water Rangers “empowers people without science training” to sample water in lakes and rivers and upload water quality data into an app. The In the Zone Garden Tracker logs native plants in gardens across the Carolinian Zone. And the STREAM program (see below) gets citizens wading safely into rivers to help scientists understand how water pollution and temperature affect the environment.

It might seem like a big task, but all you need is curiosity, some online resources and a book or app to keep track of your fieldnotes.

Step one: Learn about local wildlife
Find out what kind of animal or plant species live in your area. It’s easy to find resources for your province or territory online, such as Birds Canada, CanPlant and eButterfly. Or visit our habitat and species pages.

Step two: Pick a study area
Whether it’s your yard, balcony, the view from your window or a nearby greenspace or waterway, find somewhere you can safely monitor local wildlife.

Step three: Keep track of things like a scientist
Pay attention to not only what you see, but also what you hear, and then write the details down in your field notebook. Note the date, time, weather conditions and the species you see along with a description of their behaviour.

Step four: Analyze and share your data
Once you’re confident in tracking species, start looking for patterns. Do certain species only show up when the temperature goes above a particular degree? Or when a given plant is present? These are questions a biologist would ask. Once you’ve completed your analysis, add your data online, be it to a specific website like our own or a broader resource like iNaturalist, an app that helps you to identify different species and allows scientists to use your observations to better understand conservation science.

Citizen science allows you to learn while increasing scientific knowledge. It’s a win-win for nature.

This post originally ran in Fieldnotes, WWF-Canada’s email newsletter about our evidence-based work finding solutions in the face of an unprecedented crisis in climate change and wildlife loss. Click here to subscribe to future issues.