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Levin: Citizen Scientists

Gloria Towne (All Around Towne Photography
Vermont Center for Ecostudies
Nathaniel Sharp adjusts the scope as he and others scan the tree tops on a birding event in November..

Science is the study of the world around us, and is not - definitely not – the sole purview of scientists. Anyone can do science. Paleolithic tribesmen hunted long-horned bison, remembered where they’d made the kill and returned periodically, hoping to achieve the same results. This amounted to quantifiable observation ... an experiment of sorts that resulted in an expectation backed up by mathematical probability.

Scientists are trained, of course - some for many years – in what’s commonly known as the scientific process. And the importance of their contributions to our knowledge is incalculable - from the taking of photographs of the rings of Saturn to the unraveling of the human genome. But you don’t have be a scientist to do science.

Charles Darwin wasn’t trained to be biologist. He made himself one by hours of observations and deep thinking. He was also a copious note-taker.

Diane Fossey worked as an occupational therapist before she took on gorillas; Jane Goodall was a secretary without a college education.

And in 1929, in Columbus, Ohio, to spice up her life as a homemaker, Margaret Nice, mother of five, fixated on two pairs of song sparrows that nested in her yard. Eventually, she marked nestlings with recognizable bracelets made of bits of brightly colored children’s toys; and then, slowly (over years) unraveled the mysteries of song sparrow territoriality.

By 1941, when Nice concluded her study, she had mapped the territories of dozens of pairs of sparrows in the nearby sixty-acre field, and marked hundreds of nestlings, and demonstrated to “scientists” how to document the life history of an animal by collecting volumes of data. A revolutionary approach at the time, Nice’s work became the cornerstone of modern field studies.

Between December 14 and January 5, seventy thousand “citizen scientists” will participate in the one hundred and nineteenth annual Christmas Bird Count, conducted in twenty-four hundred official locations in the Western Hemisphere. Vermont hosts twenty-three locations and every year results vary.

Last winter, the counts collectively tallied more juncos than chickadees; and the Saxton’s River Count recorded a black vulture … a black vulture in Vermont. In winter no less.

Such a thing might have given Darwin pause.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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