Conservation Ecology: Citizen Science Project [Introduction]

This semester, I have been challenged to find a citizen science project and participate as part of NR 5724 Conservation Ecology (Dr. Megan Draheim). I love this assignment for two big reasons. First, now that I have found my project, I am excited about the idea of being able to make a contribution to a global data set. The second reason is because when it’s spring, I’ll take any excuse to get outside and go birding!

Over the next several weeks, there will be a series of blog posts about my citizen science project with updates, photographs, and reports from the field. (I love being able to say that!) This first post is an introduction. Not only will I share a description of what I will be doing, but I’ll talk some about why this citizen science project even exists and will also provide an overview of some of the conservation threats my project addresses.

Did she say birding?

Yes, birding. Quick background: I became interested in birds during my Master’s studies at Mississippi State University in 2013. I was looking at green roofs and how birds were interacting with them/using them to determine whether there was a difference in how birds utilized and responded to a conventional asphalt-shingle roof, prairie green roofs, and Sedum green roofs. To be able to collect data for the study, I had to be able to positively identify bird species to the genus and species level. After taking an Ornithology course with an ID lab, I was deemed ready to begin field observations. After my pilot study, I spent 6 months collecting observational data on birds that visited my sites. This sparked a passion for me, and to this day, I still enjoy birding as a hobby.

What’s the project? 

I will be a citizen scientist for!

Why does it exist?

We can learn a lot about habitat conditions in the landscape by knowing where the birds (and other critters in general) are. “Strong relations between population trends and spatial distribution have been suggested at the regional scale: declining species should have more fragmented distributions because decline causes range retractions towards optimal habitats, whereas increasing species should have more aggregated distributions, because colonization processes are constrained by distance” (Sirami et al. 2009). There is a need for data that describes the distribution of species (Vallecillo et al. 2016) because anthropogenic land use and cover change is increasingly impacting the landscape and threatens wildlife populations (McKee et al. 2013).  Birds (typically) are extremely mobile. Because of their ability to fly, they can move quickly and freely across the landscape in search of resources to fill their habitat requirements. Migrations occur on all corners of the planet and thus, it makes sense to work together with others at varying scales from local to continental to develop a global database for bird observation data. Hiring scientists to collect this data is cost prohibitive, so allowing citizen scientists to collect and report their observations is a boon to both understanding where birds are and to supporting conservation efforts.

Who runs the project? is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology & the Audubon Society. It is funded or supported in part, by the National Science Foundation, the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the Leon Levy Foundation.

What will I be doing?

I will be completing checklists via the ebird smart phone app. The app allows me to report what species are present while I am birding in different locations. To use the app is simple and straightforward. First, I select a location, date, & time. Then the app downloads the list of species I could expect to see and from there I report what I see and how many. This data is then shared compiled into the greater data set hosted through

Conservation Threats to Birds

  • Biodiversity is impacted by human population densities. (Mckee et al. 2013)
  • Urbanization creates disturbances that negatively affect the quality of proximate wildlife habitat. (Buxton & Benson 2016)
  • Climate change influences winter bird populations’ size and spatial distribution.  (Lehikoinen et al. 2016)
  • Animals are sensitive to habitat fragmentation, especially specialists, thus patch size is a limiting factor for species detection. (Keinath et al. 2017)
  • Tourism draws people to biodiversity hotspots; the resulting developments (habitat loss/fragmentation) and activities (physical disturbance) threaten bird communities. (Steven & Castley 2013)



Buxton, V., & Benson, T. (2016). Conservation-priority grassland bird response to urban landcover and habitat fragmentation. Urban Ecosystems, Vol. 19, Pp. 599-613. (Accessed 28 March 2017).

Lehikoinen, A., Foppen, R., Heldbjerg, H., Lindström, Å., van Manen, W., Piirainen, S., van Turnhout, C., Butchart, S. (2016). Large-scale climatic drivers of regional winter bird population trends. Diversity and Distributions, Vol. 22. Pp 1163-73. (Accessed 28 March 2017).

Keinath, D., Doak, D., Hodges, K., Prugh, L., Fagan, W., Sekercioglu, C., Buchart, S., Kauffman., M. (2017). A global analysis of traits predicting species sensitivity to habitat fragmentation. Global Ecology Biogeography, Vol. 26, Pp 115-27. (Accessed 28 March 2017).

McKee, J., Chambers, E., Guseman, J. (2013). Human population density and growth validated as extinction threats to mammal and bird species. Human Ecology, Vol. 41, No. 5, Pp. 773-8. (Accessed 22 March 2017).

Sirami, C., Brotons, L., Martin, J.-L. (2009). Do bird spatial distribution patterns reflect population trends in changing landscapes? Landscape Ecology, Vol. 24, P; 893-906. (Accessed 27 March 2017).

Steven, R. & Gastley, J. (2013). Tourism as a threat to critically endangered and endangered birds: global patterns and trends in conservation hotspots. Biodiversity Conservation, Vol. 22, Pp. 1063-82. (Accessed 27 March 2017).

Vallecillo, S., Maes, J., Polce, C., & Lavalle, C. (2016). A habitat quality indicator for common birds in Europe based on species distribution models. Ecological Indicators, Vol. 69, Pp 488-99. (Accessed 27 March 2017).


  • kgculbertson says:

    Hi Sara.

    I’m looking forward to reading your blogs and seeing some of your observations coming up. I am not a ‘birder’ but I do enjoy watching birds’ patterns/habits and chronicling what I find using iNaturalist (another app.).

    Will you be covering a particular geographic area? And, is there any species in particular you are eager to see?

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Kathryn,

      Thanks for stopping in and reading my blog. I have never heard of iNaturalist, but I’m interested in checking it out.

      So to answer your questions about geographic area: I don’t have a particular area that I am focusing on. This is because I am new to the area (have only lived here since late July of 2016) and I am not familiar with what can be observed here. So I am planning on birding everywhere I can in the NRV! My family goes on hikes a lot, so I am looking forward to birding on the various recreation trails the area has to offer.

      I am actually working on my first post related to the actual observations right now. Last Sunday, I tried out the app in my “backyard” in the morning and then we went on a hike along the Coal Mining Loop Trail off the Huckleberry Trail in the afternoon and I looked for birds while we walked. I should have that new post online here in the short future.

      As far as species I am eager to see? That’s a hard question! I don’t know the full range of species I could expect to see in this area. I may have to update my answer to that question later after I learn more about birds in Appalachia. I am excited about the not knowing, though, because that adds a little more excitement to the birding trips. ID-ing birds flat-footed on the trail can be a challenge, but it is a lot of fun!

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