Community Science: Why we do it, and why we call it that

By Lynn Fuller December 28, 2020

A bioblitz participant looks for birds in Oregon. A bioblitz is a community science event with a specific time frame and location. (c) Katie Boehnlein

What’s in a name?

The team at eBird Northwest has been thinking a lot lately about why we do community science, as well as what to call it when people share their birding observations–Citizen Science, Community Science, or something else? Whatever you call it, we encourage our readers to participate, it is one of the Seven Simple Actions that we all can take to help birds, and it has a long history of helping to shape conservation in this country and across the world.

We have transitioned to using the term Community Science, largely to avoid using the word “citizen” when we want to be inclusive and welcoming to any birder or person who wants to learn more about bird watching, regardless of their citizen status. We think the term Community Science embodies what is important: participating at the community level and working together to contribute to bird science. Even if you are birding solo, you are still part of a larger effort once you share your observations!

Both Citizen Science and Community Science are used in the literature, and there has been vibrant discussion about which terms to use. Those discussions go beyond birds as there are thousands of community science projects across the taxa, but we are sticking with the bird theme here.

Why participate?

The scientific literature about community science spells out many reasons that people get involved: wanting to help, learning about a local environmental issue, spending time out of doors, curiosity, or perhaps even discovering or advancing career paths. With the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that all of these reasons have amplified significance and community science is enjoying a resurgence.

The scientific community itself has also been undergoing a paradigm shift about how volunteers can provide the data needed in a rapidly changing world. When strong monitoring protocols are in place, volunteer efforts provide quality data. Participation may also lead people to engage in conservation. As Caren Cooper, author of Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery puts it in a 2017 TedX talk: “Citizen science is a movement that is challenging us to rethink how science is made.”

A quick poll of our own group at eBird Northwest hits upon many of the same reasons people participate in volunteer projects. Several of us contribute in an ongoing way by submitting our own personal observations to eBird, some of us are affiliated with community science projects with our respective employers, and one of us is brand new to birding. We have diverse backgrounds as a group, but we are all motivated to learn more about birds and to inform conservation.

Massive amounts of data support analyses and outreach – and guide conservation

Avian community science projects range from small local projects to global efforts and the data can guide conservation accordingly. eBird is one tool that has used volunteer data to generate compelling outreach on a large scale. For example, if you reported an observation of a Brown-headed Cowbird to eBird, then you contributed to this map:

When one of us contributes an observation to eBird, we realize it is part of a much larger effort to document the presence and abundance of birds–across the globe. Each observation is important in itself, but when hundreds of thousands of observations per day are entered into eBird, the power in numbers becomes impressive. (In October 2020, eBird logged in more than 15 million observations!)

In 2019, with the publication of Decline of the North American avifauna about the nearly three billion birds lost since 1970, we were able to really appreciate how volunteer data can be used on a large scale. The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), led, organized and quality-assured by the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment and Climate Change Canada, utilizes thousands of volunteers to determine the status of breeding bird populations across the U.S. and Canada. The long-term BBS data was a major data source for the 2019 report, as was Audubonʻs Christmas Bird Count.

What is revolutionary about eBird is that while observations help inform large-scale population analyses and trends, those same observations can also inform conservation action for local partners. As one example, Portland Audubon and partners are using volunteers and eBird to monitor Black Oystercatchers in Oregon in order to learn more about this species of concern and how human disturbance affects the population.

Volunteers can also help track what is happening with short term events, such as the recent die off of migratory birds in North America. As described in an October 2020 article, Dying birds and the fires: scientists work to unravel a great mystery, volunteers were able to quickly provide eyes on the ground in numerous locations, helping us to understand the effects of events like forest fires on birds.

As outlined in a 2016 article in Biological Conservation, Citizen science can improve conservation science, natural resource management, and environmental protection, volunteer efforts can inform conservation and land management in multiple ways. A higher volume of data opens the door to new types of analyses and a better understanding of birds and their habitat needs. The power of numbers is also apparent when compelling outreach reaches large numbers of people, such as eBirdʻs abundance or migration maps.

Conservation engagement pays off for people and birds

The benefits of both volunteering and being in nature are numerous, but participation in community science also promotes engagement in other ways. While it is certainly possible to be a part of a project purely for fun and science, we think it is an added bonus if participation sparks conservation action or a vote for bird-friendly policies!

We invite you to join a project of your choosing, in any way that works for you. All you need is motivation and whatever amount of time you would like to give. eBird, Project FeederWatch and many other projects can be done from any location (including indoors, if you want). You can learn more from your local Audubon chapter or federal or state wildlife agency, or check out some of the links listed below.


Read Audubon’s Birding Blind: Open Your Ears to the Amazing World of Bird Sounds


Learn More

eBird Northwest’s Community Science page

Find your local Audubon chapter

See the opportunities on Pacific Birds Be Involved web page

From Audubon: Why We’re Changing From “Citizen Science” to “Community Science”

Planning a Community Science (AKA Citizen Science) Research Project