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Munson Center Workshop Trains Las Cruces Residents How to Become Citizen Scientists

Apr 10, 2019

Counting the number of birds in your backyard or bees in your garden isn’t rocket science­­­­–it’s citizen science, an activity people of all ages and abilities can join.

A handful of residents met at the Munson Center to learn about a few of the many citizen science projects out there.

Stephanie Hawkins is the education curator for the Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science.

Hawkins said some people can feel intimidated by science or that it’s not for them. But she said science is for everyone.

That’s also the message of American Spring Live, a special broadcast by Nature showcasing how springtime varies nationwide due to climate change.

Through resources like SciStarter, a database of thousands of science projects and Nature’s Notebook, a national plant and animal phenology observation program, Hawkins said getting started is simple.

“It’s really easy, it's things that we do every day like look out the window and notice that there are new birds at our bird feeder that we haven't seen before. What are they? And reporting that information to an ornithologist, someone who studies birds and that can help them understand the species that live in this region or maybe migration patterns or any number of other things that they may have questions about," Hawkins said.

That’s exactly the point of Celebrate Urban Birds, a project launched in 2007 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hawkins said Celebrate Urban Birds introduces others to science through birdwatching.

Arthur Cuarón, a U.S. Navy veteran and retired welder, already has a head start on that. As a member of the Doña Ana Photography Club, Cuarón enjoys photographing local birds like the ladder-backed woodpecker. He encourages residents to get outdoors and experience science through nature.

From left, Sharlene Wittern and Betty Jane Bidalled peruse brochure materials for Celebrate Urban Birds, a project that introduces others to citizen science through birdwatching.
Credit Michael Hernandez

"It’s interesting. Go out there and take a hike somewhere and you'll see different not only birds but all kind of wild animals out there in the areas right here around town, Las Cruces," Cuarón said. "You've got the Organ Mountains out there on this side and the other side, Aguirre Springs and Dripping Springs and all those different areas. There's beautiful stuff to see out there.”

Naturally, discussion about birds pairs well with bees. Take the Great Sunflower Project, the largest citizen science project focused on pollinators.

The effort began in 2008 to track the diversity of declining honeybee and native bee populations. Hawkins said participating is as easy as counting bees in the community garden next to the Munson Center.

“Just as we’ve been standing here I've noticed that there are bees fluttering around the flowers behind me and they could sit here for a few minutes and pick a patch of flowers and count the number of bees that land on those flowers, write it down in a notebook and then when they have a chance to get to a computer later on, log on to greatsunflower.org and then enter that data on line and then that will count toward that bee research study," Hawkins said.

Another nature enthusiast, Betty Jane Bidalled said her career as a speech language pathologist didn’t give her much chance to study non-human biology.

Now retired, Bidalled is eager to learn more about the environment and potentially join Celebrate Urban Birds.

"I think I'm most interested in the bird survey partly because I'm in the process right now of redoing my backyard. I have been thinking of attracting birds and butterflies and so by learning more about what the studies are, I will probably be better able to select plants, etc. that will feed my observations of butterflies and birds," Bidalled said.

Whether it’s tracking birds, bees or other animals, Hawkins said taking part in large-scale projects can help people better understand how science works.

I think it's really important because it increases science literacy so the more you're involved in your environment and learning and asking questions and making observations, the more you're going to understand what's happening around you," Hawkins said. "And that creates a more engaged community or a more engaged self and the more we are all involved in what's happening around us, the more of an impact we can make so that we can leave a better world for our kids.”

A better world for kids, adults and the countless species inhabiting the planet.

Nature’s American Spring Live event will air on PBS and Facebook April 29 through May 1.