How Detroiters contribute to local nature study th...

How Detroiters contribute to local nature study through citizen science

up-close image of frog with its head sticking out of the water

Every year September through November, a small group of avid nature-lovers spend hundreds of hours near the southern edge of the Detroit River doing a remarkably straightforward task: counting hawks. Members of the Detroit River Hawk Watch sit for up to seven hours a day at the Lake Erie Metro Park counting as the birds of prey migrate south. 

It’s not as simple as you might think. Aside from the seeming monotony of staring at the sky, birds are difficult to identify when they’re hundreds of feet in the air. And since the data gets fed into a national database of population levels frequently used by academics, the watchers must adhere to strict protocols to maintain scientific rigor.

via Detroit River Hawk Watch Facebook Group. Credit: James Philips.

Yet aside from one paid worker, all the members are volunteers. Also known as citizen scientists, dedicated individuals like the hawk watchers are essential to research projects across the nation, including in Metro Detroit. Because resources are scarce, the data likely wouldn’t get collected without them. 

“We could not do this project without our volunteers,” says Jessica Fletcher, a wildlife biologist at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which administers the hawk watch. “For lay people to be so dedicated to scientific integrity is astounding.”

The commitment of the volunteers is indeed impressive. The hawk watch has been running for 22 consecutive years. And in 2019, watchers spent 562 hours counting over 128,000 birds. 

Justin Schell, director of the Shapiro Design Lab at the University of Michigan, runs the Citizen Science Fellows Program. He estimates that there are around 25 projects throughout the state that require the work of scientifically minded volunteers to identify and collect data on a range of subjects. Some, like counting bird populations, are part of years’ long studies that help scientists track trends. Others, like taking regular water samples or setting up home air monitors, give residents a real-time look at the health of their community. 

“They’re the public and not part of the credentialed scientific community, but they also aren’t just gathering data,” Schell says. “They’re often taking part and partnering within these projects.”

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For the hawk watch, many of the volunteers are on an advisory committee that meets on a semi-annual basis to discuss issues and ways to improve the project. In some cases, Schell says, volunteers harness their knowledge to advocate for change in governmental or industry policies, as many have done in Detroit’s 48217 zip code—Michigan’s most polluted zip code. 

There are also plenty of projects that almost anyone can do and which are a great way to introduce children to science. Since 1998, Friends of the Rouge has been training people to track frog calls in wetlands around the Rouge River. A couple of times a month, volunteers are asked to go out for just a few minutes at night and identify eight species of frogs and toads by their calls. 

Sally Petrella, the organization’s watershed monitoring manager, says it’s “one of the easiest things for people to do.” Which means it attracts a lot of people every year, especially families. Last year, Friends of the Rouge had about 120 frog and toad surveyors. Though the coronavirus forced the group to retool this, 258 people signed up for this year’s training. 

Citizen science volunteers with Friends of the Rouge. Photo courtesy Friends of the Rouge.

“We asked people if they were willing to self-train if we emailed or sent them the materials and then we later provided an introductory video and a live webinar,” said Petrella, adding that more than 70% of those registered for the workshop agreed to self-train.

The organization also uses volunteers to monitor levels of macroinvertebrates like mayflies and dragonflies—“basically fish food,” says Petrella.

The work is as important as it is easy. As an indicator species, frogs say a lot about the health of the local aquatic ecosystem. “All of their data collection is part of a larger set of information we use to identify areas that are either doing well or in need of projects,” Petrella says. “All of their observations are very important.”

Engagement is an essential component of these projects. To get someone excited about sitting all day counting hawks—with no pay save the peace of nature—requires the right kind of outreach. 

“There aren’t a lot of young people or working people willing to come out and spend literally all day staring at the sky,” Fletcher says. “So outreach has been a challenge at times.”

Fletcher says it’s important to have a dedicated, experienced core of citizen scientists to advocate on the group’s behalf and do some recruitment. The hawk watch will also accommodate people’s schedules, encouraging them to come out for just a couple hours a day to learn from others and build the next generation of dedicated volunteers.

“I go to the count site as often as I can, but those are the people who live and breathe and know it by heart,” Fletcher says.

The program Schell runs at U-M helps fellows craft projects that effectively engage residents to either be citizen scientists or trust the gathering process—it’s about much more than just recruitment. “A lot more work needs to be done to enter the community if you’re not (already) part of it,” Schell says. “Researchers need to establish trust and norms, and make sure that their instructions and communication are really good.”

But if administered well, they provide a rewarding way for people to engage in science. “This is a huge part of their life,” Fletcher says about the hawk watchers. “They’re obviously dedicated birders, but it’s also about knowing that you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.”

This piece is part of a summer-long editorial and community engagement project: JOIN DETROITERS DO SCIENCE !! in partner with Graham Media Group.

We’ll be offering ways to help get you thinking about the outdoors — and how your local environment and health are connected — while also keeping you safe and socially distant. JOIN US HERE!

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.