The Many Values of Community Science
December 13, 2022
A review by Jennifer Rycenga
Adventures of a Louisiana Birder: 1 Year, 2 Wings, 300 Species, by Marybeth Lima
LSU Press, 2019
272 pages, hardcover
Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, by Mary Ellen Hannibal
Experiment Publishing, 2016
432 pages, paperback
Have you ever had the experience of being absorbed in observing a bird and having a stranger ask, “What are you doing?” and “What do you see?” How to answer such questions? Famed Louisiana ornithologist Van Remsen counsels birders to treat birding as a “serious pursuit”; he suggests we describe ourselves as conducting “bird surveys” (Lima, p. 201). Remsen knows that not all birders are scientists in a formal academic sense. But when we observe birds, their habitats, and their lives, we are expanding the inventory of shared human knowledge.
Remsen’s assertion of our scientific intent is more accurate now than ever. We are simultaneously living in the Golden Age of Community Science and the Era of Climate Catastrophe—and its attendant anxieties. These distinctly different impulses are, though, well-matched: Every birding expedition, from the most carefully planned scientific project to our most casual observations, can be almost effortlessly documented on crowdsourced platforms. As climate change accelerates, datapoints are thus multiplying exponentially, providing a real-time thermometer many steps above anecdotal evidence.
Birders can be justly proud to have been at the forefront of what is called Community Science, through Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and maintenance of local records. The voluntary efforts of massive numbers of people, termed crowdsourcing in the internet era, can create eminently viable data. Yes, there are problems with data gathered in such a manner, namely, a scruffy signal-to-noise ratio. Yet this persistent problem is addressed by both magnitude—the number of people participating tends to mute the outliers—and the community oversight that social media can provide. As any regular user of eBird can attest, scientists and amateur birders can access data at a level of size and coverage that previous generations could only conjure in pipe dreams. A glance at any of the moving maps on eBird provides a sufficient demonstration, with the Gray-cheeked Thrush being a favorite of mine.
Community Science fits our early 21st-century moment in history. This is not merely because of its technological sophistication. It is because community science is where biological diversity meets human diversity. “Big Data” projects like eBird and iNaturalist are open to all users: young and old, beginner and expert, urbanite and rural recluse. People of all races, religions, educational attainment, and nationalities participate. This democratization applies to the birds, too: The House Sparrow and the Fork-tailed Flycatcher are equally important datapoints. Any birder, any bird, any backyard, any conditions—all are intrinsically interesting to record.
Our Golden Age of Community Science is generating a growing bookshelf of volumes documenting all this documentation. Two of my favorites embrace the key themes of human diversity and biodiversity: Marybeth Lima’s Adventures of a Louisiana Birder: 1 Year, 2 Wings, 300 Species and Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen-Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction are twins in yoking the themes of respect for science with the sense of vitality gained when people engage with each other in nature.
These two perceptive white women keep their eyes on the natural world but are equally passionate in connecting with the wider world—social, political, aesthetic, and interpersonal. Lima discusses community cohesion among birders, including the formation of spontaneous new communities in moments of crisis or of shared birding joy. Hannibal charts the individual efforts that make an abstract term like “crowdsourcing” possible—the community that creates community science. She particularly stresses how enthusiastic visionaries can be “moved movers”—participant-organizers who inspire others. Together these two authors reveal much about our moment, two decades into this already too tumultuous twenty-first century.
Mary Ellen Hannibal ranks among America’s finest contemporary writers on nature and the environment. Her previous work, The Spine of the Continent, published in 2012, eloquently makes the case for geographic interconnectivity to protect wildlife corridors, migratory routes, and habitats in the Mountain West. In Citizen-Scientist she emphasizes different vectors of connection, between humans and the natural world, and among people themselves. What makes Citizen-Scientist extraordinary is how she connects us, even in our shared despair over environmental crises, with the inexorable human capacity for creating meaning through art, history, the life cycle, and community.
Citizen-Scientist focuses on the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas of California. Charting the trajectory from the establishment of the venerable California Academy of Sciences, founded in 1853, to the remarkable legacy of Ed Ricketts (1897–1948) and John Steinbeck (1902–1968), who combined their scientific and literary skills in Sea of Cortez of 1941, Hannibal delivers us all the way to the upwelling ferment of the present. She presents a plethora of heroes, some living, some departed, some well-known to birders, others figuring more in general environmentalism and literature: Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (Hannibal, p. 357); “P22,” the Mountain Lion of Hollywood (p. 333); Sam Droege, inventor of the bioblitz (pp. 341–343); poet Gary Snyder (p. 243); Alison Young and Rebecca Johnson, who head the Community Science division of the California Academy of Science (pp. 227, 352); and the many transcribers of old note cards in the Bird Phenology Project (p. 337).
Citizen science is a contested term because of the various political uses of the term “citizen.” Hannibal eschews the narrow use of “citizen” as a legalistic term, preferring to interpret it as a connection among people. Similarly, she appreciates that “scientist in general refers to a man or woman alone, and citizen is communal—not only as one member among many in one place and time, but across those boundaries as well” (p. 330). Because of how it connects people to nature and to each other in the struggle to address the current ecological crises, she applauds how “Citizen science is taking off as never before, and it is needed as never before” (p. 12). She approvingly quotes one scientific researcher who sees community participation as vital: “Scientists alone can’t begin to document what’s normal, let alone how fast things are changing. We need a willing army to make that happen. In short, we need citizens—the locals who watch, and know, and love their backyards, their environments.” (p. 80).
Even more crucial than nomenclature, then, is the question of scope. In the birding community, there is a presumption—or at least a fervent hope—that most birders will participate in record-keeping, will share exciting sightings, and will contribute to knowledge. This comes in many forms—Christmas Bird Counts, posting on a local listserv, Project FeederWatch, Global Backyard Bird Count, Breeding Bird surveys, and more. What happens if this kind of care and structure were expanded to include all taxa? In the midst of the climate crisis, we’ve been handed extraordinary tools, and books like Hannibal’s present an opportunity to take stock of what has been accomplished, and how we can effectively increase the impact of how and why we give attention to nature.
Citizen-Scientist is saturated with levels of meaning. Prismatically examining Steinbeck’s assertion in The Log from the Sea of Cortez of 1951 that humankind “is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable” (p. 39), Hannibal happens on something many seasoned eBirders have learned: Embrace your local birds, and be “fascinated by the normal” (p. 81). We are connected to our locales, our communities, our birds, our ecology. The COVID-19 pandemic and environmental crises have kept many of us closer to home—even weaning us from our rarity chasing. My experience has been that fascination with the normal is what helps to reveal the rarity in your midst. Know the songs and calls of your local birds; the vagrant then sounds distinctly different. Relate what you are hearing and observing to the entirety that you know, and you will find that community science discloses the expected and the unexpected, whether you are in your backyard or South Georgia Island.
Birders and naturalists are following the way of Shakespeare’s Soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra as we accumulate knowledge: “In nature’s infinite book of secrecy / a little I can read.” As if she were a hummingbird plucking lichen for her nest, Hannibal pounces on this phrase—“nature's infinite book.” It suits her literary strategy, combining the evocative and scientific, the rhapsodic and elegiac, the introspective and social. This book intwines a love of literature with love of the natural world. Its twin literary anchors are Joseph Campbell’s study of the hero’s journey, and the natural history explorations of John Steinbeck and Ed (“Doc”) Ricketts. There are limitations to these choices, since they are canonical Euro-American male figures. But the modern-day heroes she locates—most notably in the Community Science world—take their inspiration and guidance from all sources, and are themselves remarkably diverse. Hannibal’s evocation of Shakespeare is used to underline how Indigenous American fire regimes were healthier for California’s ecology than Euro-American policies have been—a fact that is gaining increasing currency in the wake of devastating blazes in northern California since Hannibal’s book was published (p. 260).
Marybeth Lima’s Adventures of a Louisiana Birder is more ornithologically focused. Lima’s book parallels Hannibal’s in having a specific geographic focus, and in using interactions with nature to plumb enduring human questions of meaning. Lima launched her book with the initial goal of sharing the avian wonders of Louisiana. But then life—or, more accurately, death and near-death—intervened, compelling her to interweave birding’s therapeutic value and philosophic insights throughout her book (Lima, pp. ix–x).
Lima, a professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Louisiana State University, concentrates on the years when her birding became more goal oriented. Focusing on building an impressive Louisiana state list, she studied maps and field guides, challenged herself, and grew in knowledge and experience. All (of us) listers will resonate with her descriptions of the competitive goals she set for herself. After seeing The Big Year, Lima gains the full cooperation of her wife, Lynn, who liked the idea of birding being a bit more like a sport (p. 8). But as they moved toward obsessively listing, any dream of a Big Year was calamitously derailed by a nightmare of near-death. Adventures of a Louisiana Birder then grows from a mere chronicle of birds seen to a slice of the “infinite book” of birds and humanity.
When the narrative begins, Marybeth Lima and her wife are at the intermediate level as birders. The six-year span covered in Adventures of a Louisiana Birder therefore features individual species that are conveyed in writing with the idiosyncratic charm of lifer sightings. For instance, she describes the Burrowing Owl as “a small football with luminous eyes and thick yellow legs” (p. 15), or the moment when the “Smith’s Longspurs let loose on their rattle calls and rose up out of the fields” (p. 37). One theme she returns to often is how birding fosters cumulative knowledge growth, as she and Lynn became “clearly better birders than we’d been just two years before” (p. 84). An example is her life sighting of the Short-eared Owl. She “knew exactly what it was right away. It’s the confidence that comes from wistfully studying a bird countless times with the hope that on some wonderful day you will actually see it” (p. 80).
This sort of study broadens out to the community science experience when Lima meets a person in the field who had recently developed an interest in Odonata. Sharing his new passion, “Brad scrolled through a number of other dragonfly pictures on his phone, and all of a sudden I felt like I was immersed in a parallel natural universe that had been unknown to me before” (p. 116). That feeling of standing atop a precipice of one’s own ignorance, contemplating the dizzying potential dive into a new ocean of natural details is a sensation birders know well—first as beginners, and then when preparing for trips to new areas. Lima recommends embracing it by getting out into the field: “If you think you don’t know enough about birds to try a Big Year, I highly recommend doing one anyway” (p. 27). And for those of us who have used this moment of Community Science to branch out into learning other taxa, the sensation of exploring an authentic Earth-based natural multiverse becomes irresistible, as it had with Brad.
Lima’s encounters with Van Remsen demonstrate her ideal birding community. Initially overawed by his reputation, she quickly learns that he is an excellent mentor and birding buddy (pp. 194–195). To illustrate this, she relates how Remsen keeps a stash of bird field guides for local non-birders, “giving away bird bibles from the back of his old Subaru Outback” (p. 201). The kindness, camaraderie, and generosity she found among birders forms a refrain throughout the book (p. 204). It is also a welcome dose of nostalgia and hope in these still COVID-tinted times of enforced distance.
These two books are so utterly infused with life that it may seem surprising that they both use death as a narrative hook. The authors, through their own experiences, want to show how death is part of what gives meaning to our time in nature. The deaths in question are weighty: parents, spouses, species. Lima faces two catastrophic encounters: first when her wife Lynn barely survives an explosion of their boat’s motor, then when Lynn’s mother Mary moves in with the couple during her final year. Hannibal weaves in the story of her father’s death and extends that anguish to extinctions themselves.
The accident that nearly killed Lynn happened when the couple was birding with friends. The force of an explosion from a boat’s motor caused burns over much of Lynn’s body, and an excruciatingly painful and long recovery. Inevitably, this postponed any talk of a Big Year, but it did not dampen their enthusiasm for nature. When Lynn’s mother needed home hospice care, Lima specifically contrasts the Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration, “full of life and drama” with the quieter drama of her mother-in-law “starting to leave the earth and being at peace with it” (Lima, p. 160). This literal life-and-death perspective made Lima “more aware of life than usual; mundane actions seemed more noteworthy and colors seemed brighter. I almost felt more alive while bearing witness” to death (Lima, p. 161).
The loss of her father, which floats above and around Citizen-Scientist, evokes similar reflections from Hannibal. “It was a gift, really, to witness the unfolding of my father’s death, renewing as it did my personal sense of meaning in those who remain” (Hannibal, p. 390). This is in no way callous, and neither are Lima’s reflections: It is an honesty that vindicates our philosophic, poetic imagination. For both authors, there was an illumination about life itself in the face of death; such intensity in the face of death means “there was more, not less, happening here” (Hannibal, p. 389).
Birders are human: Most of us have experienced death in our families. But it is also the case that birders all witness death when in the field. Sometimes we even root for it when a Peregrine Falcon stoops into a flock of Rock Doves. Because we have seen the cycle of life-and-death, plenty and famine, predator and prey, we can concur with Hannibal when she reflects that “death in the tidepool is a regular affair but its life goes on” (Hannibal, p. 28). What we are facing, though, and an even greater motivation for community science, is the possibility of mass extinctions. With extinction, life does not go on. None of that kind remains to restart the cycle. Hannibal places that contrast—between the searing but meaningful loss of her father, and the utter loss when a species blinks out: “Extinction, I realized, is not just about the death of species. It is about the death of meaning. It is about negation itself. Why, I wondered, don’t more people grapple with the terrible erasure of creativity, fecundity, and loss of just plain old life that mass extinction poses?” (Hannibal, p. 239).
We birders should strut like grouse on a lek in proclaiming our status as community-science pioneers. The Christmas Bird Count, approaching its 125th year anniversary, is the longest continuous formal project to involve regular people in data collection. Hannibal recognizes eBird—already in its third decade—as a “behemoth citizen science project…and a standard-bearer for the field” (Hannibal, p. 141), a wildly successful 21st-century participatory electronic forum in volume, effectiveness, accessibility, and usefulness of data.
Monitoring birds, Hannibal notes, is one of the most effective ways of protecting the environment, since birds form “a significant weft upon which biodiversity is woven, and when this thread is fraying or snapped, you can be sure the fabric of life is in bigger trouble somewhere” (Hannibal, p. 366). But the sense of doom does not overtake the sheer joy of sharing in life while we are on the planet.
Participating in the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory’s fall hawk-watch in the Marin Headlands (Hannibal, pp. 357ff), she captured the ephemeral essence of the art of hawk-watching: “The birds traveled through the atmosphere like they were needles darning through an opaque fabric suddenly become translucent. They disappeared the same way” (Hannibal, p. 360). Working with the other hawk-watchers—raptor migration, like pelagic birding, is an inherently cooperative form of birding—she finds a magic in the particularity of time, space, and place converging, a “spiritual symmetry…(that) effortlessly integrated natural and human history and the overall pleasant feeling was, here we are in time, and aren’t we lucky?” (Hannibal, p. 376). Lima captures this feeling in the same register, balancing upheavals and insights: “My passion for birding began with tiny, tectonic shifts; it has burgeoned into a tidal wave by virtue of being nurtured by the good hearts of people, buffered by winds of life experience, and fed by surges of wild, natural places. Surfing this tidal wave has made me appreciate all aspects of life, both my own and that of the larger ecosystem of which I am part” (Lima, p. 212).
As these two thoughtful women come to know, love, and describe their local ecosystems, they embody one of the oldest slogans of environmentalism: Think globally, Act locally. Community science presents multiple opportunities to transform this maxim into a concrete reality, a determinate fact. Watch the constant video map of eBird checklist submissions or the iNaturalist entry page map in the “explore” function. As you see how much of the world is responding, you will perceive the gargantuan scope of that to which you, too, are contributing.
Community science encompasses more than the dialectic tug of global and local. Lima revels in birding’s “standing invitation to partake in lifelong learning” (Lima, p. 57). Community science enhances our capacities in a multiplicative way, in which each of us can challenge ourselves to expand our knowledge base, while we are also teaching others communally. At a recent BioBlitz, I watched with joy as botanists and lichenologists oohed and aahed over Peregrine nestlings, while birders were similarly astounded by the remarkable intricacies of Niebla, or sea fog, lichens. Community science is also an important way to “cultivate a scientifically oriented society,” a vital necessity in a world where science-denial and mischaracterizations of science are on the rise (Hannibal, p. 287).
The reasons to read, and reread, books like these by Hannibal and Lima are manifold, because what the authors are doing is multivalent. They are unifying realms, thinking aesthetically, philosophically, concretely, environmentally, and honestly. They do not pretend that there is a strict bifurcation between objectivity and subjectivity. Hannibal’s book weaves a spider’s web: It is never a completed work, but always renewed, remade. Lima spins a linear narrative of years—bigger and Big—that expand into life and death as surely as Hannibal’s more expansive approach. They both recount and cultivate the “gasp-stop of transfixed attention” (Hannibal, p. 28) when we encounter our lifer Swallow-tailed Kite and wonder how we could possibly convey what we are witnessing should someone casually ask, “What are you seeing?” The answer may well be, “Everything all at once.” But it helps to have such fine guides articulating that sensation for us.
Jennifer Rycenga is Board President of the Sequoia Audubon Society in San Mateo County, California, promoting citizen-science initiatives: Bio-Blitzes, iNaturalist, and eBird. When not naturalizing, Jennifer teaches at San José State University in Humanities. She lives with her wife and birding companion, Peggy Macres, and their indoor cats Lyssa and Ipo.