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Chances are, you’ve been building the skills needed to do citizen science projects already — obsessive pandemic bird feeder watching, anyone? — so recording and sharing your observations are a natural next step. What’s more, getting youngsters involved in projects like these now may make that middle school science project way easier years later.

Most of these projects require minimal training — the ability to count and an interest in nature are the basic tools needed. You likely have the other equipment, like a pair of binoculars, a porch light, and yes, even your smartphone.

The following projects allow for casual participation and are easy to do with young children. And with frequencies varying from a single day per year to weekly and season-long runs, you are sure to find a project that will satisfy the nature nerds in your life.

Firefly watch

As far as ease of participation and accessibility go, Firefly Watch is the perfect gateway project to get folks of all ages into citizen science.

“You just have to be old enough to count, and be sighted,” says Alex Dohan, the statewide education department coordinator at Mass Audubon, and coordinator of Firefly Watch. “It’s definitely family-friendly.”

Firefly Watch started in 2008 and was originally based at the Museum of Science in Boston. When its founder retired, the project was taken over by Mass Audubon — the oldest Audubon organization in the country — where Dohan has managed it since 2018.

Participants are asked to spend 10 minutes per week watching fireflies — alias lightning bugs — in their backyard, or in another habitat they can visit consistently. During those 10 minutes, they’ll count the fireflies during three 10-second intervals, taking note of their flashing patterns.

Data is reported through an online form. The counting period varies by region, but in Western Pennsylvania, it would be mid-May through late August.

If you’d like to encourage more fireflies to visit your backyard, Dohan offers these tips:

  • Leave as much leaf cover as you can, to allow firefly larvae to burrow under it and hatch the following year.
  • Turn off any outdoor lighting that isn’t needed for safety, or install motion-sensor lights. Avoid bug zapper-style gadgets, because they’ll kill fireflies, too.
  • Don’t use pesticides on your lawn, and mow it less often — every two weeks or less.

Aside from the beauty of their soft glow on a summer evening, Dohan points to more practical benefits of having lightning bugs around. “If you don’t want slugs in your garden, firefly larvae are a good thing to have,” she says.

Wild turkey sighting survey

Turkeys are clearly the star birds of the fall season, for better or worse, but the time to look for them is during the summer. If you’ve seen turkeys wandering around your yard or community, wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena of the Pennsylvania Game Commission wants to know about it.

“The objective of the survey is to know what the reproductive success of wild turkeys is across the state,” Casalena says. “That helps us to assess population trends to determine the structure of the hunting season and what implements can be used.”

All you need to do is count the number of “big birds and little birds,” per the PA Game Commission’s website. At this time of year, that’s easy, because baby turkeys — called poults — are still quite small. Casalena is particularly interested in what she calls the “hen-to-poult ratio.” (Males can be counted and reported, too.)

While there has been a Wild Turkey Sighting Survey conducted in Pennsylvania since 1953, it was only in 2016 that the PA Game Commission invited the public to participate. Previously, data was collected only by commission staff, which limited the observation area. 

“We were capturing a large enough sample size for statistics, but we weren’t capturing enough from different habitats across the state, like people’s backyards,” Casalena says. “When we engaged the public, we were increasing the sample size significantly.”

Casalena compiles an annual report for each sighting survey’s results, and the data is shared with approximately 30 states.

The current Wild Turkey Sighting Survey began on July 1 and runs through Aug. 31. The observation reporting form, as well as photos to help you identify the sex of the birds, are available on the PA Game Commission’s website. Any turkeys you find can be counted, whether they’re on your own property, walking along the road, in a cemetery, or in other public areas. 

A turkey hunter herself, Casalena is quick to point out that the data collected in the survey is for research only. 

“Turkey hunters never like to let other people know where the turkeys are,” she says. “[Survey] data is only used for population tracking and not for law enforcement, and the public can’t see it, either. So hunters aren’t giving up their ‘honey pots’ by participating in the survey.”

A second annual turkey survey takes place in winter, typically from Jan. 1 to March 1. 

“The winter survey helps us locate where we can trap turkeys in the winter and put leg bands on them for research purposes,” Casalena says. 

If you find a turkey with a leg band, alive or dead, Casalena asks that folks use the information on the band to report it. “That’s another way of helping with citizen science,” she says.

National Moth Week

Step outside at night and turn on a light — that’s all it takes to attract moths to your yard and observe their eerie beauty. And that’s exactly how easy it is to participate in National Moth Week, according to co-founder Liti Haramaty.

“Any light that is close to a place [the moths] can rest on” will do, says Haramaty.

A marine biologist at Rutgers University, Haramaty co-founded National Moth Week (the last full week of July each year) with entomologist David Moskowitz in 2012, expanding on moth nights the two had organized in earlier years.

“To my surprise, it was a great success,” she says.

The week has two goals. The first, Haramaty says, is “to collect data on moth distribution and biodiversity.” The second? “To just get people outside and looking at the wildlife in their backyards.”

While other projects require counting or collecting data, all you need to do for National Moth Week is take photos once your light and resting spot are set up (a white wall or white cloth will do). Participants then submit photos using the iNaturalist app, Project Noah website or a number of other platforms. The organization also runs a flickr group where participants share their findings.

“There are 10 times more species of moths than butterflies — many of them have not been discovered yet,” Haramaty says. “New species have already been discovered from photographs people have submitted. You don’t have to know what the picture is of — just upload it and other people will identify it for you.”

It may be easy to dismiss moths as pests, but that’s not how Haramaty sees it. “Moths are very important ecologically,” she says. “They are pollinators, especially for species of flowers that open at night. They’re also a food source for bats and birds; many of the caterpillars will be eaten by hatching chicks.”

Several local organizations have scheduled events for this year’s National Moth Week, including the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, Latodami Nature Center and Tree Pittsburgh at Northern Tier Regional Library.

FrogWatch USA

If you’re a fan of things that go “croak” in the night, then FrogWatch USA is the project for you. 

Cori Richards-Zawacki, a professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, has been training Western Pennsylvanians to track local frog species since 2016 (full disclosure: this author is a trained frog watcher).

She and her colleague, Chris Davis, identified FrogWatch “as an easy extension of their existing outreach programs.”

“It’s an easy way that we can keep tabs on amphibians,” Richards-Zawacki says. “There are many threats facing amphibians right now, including disease.”

Frog watchers are trained to monitor wetland habitats, identify the calls of local frog and toad species, and then report their data through a standardized online form. Monitoring takes place after sunset and can occur year-round, as even the absence of calls is valuable information.

“These populations can blink out while we’re not looking,” Richards-Zawacki says. “Having as many ears and eyes on the ground as possible is helpful against that.”

While it can be more challenging to find wetlands to monitor in the city, trained frog watchers can monitor any wetland habitat, including man-made ponds in Western Pennsylvania.

Training sessions typically happen in the late winter, as frogs are preparing to emerge from their cold weather hideouts. Richards-Zawacki and her team provide detailed information on the frog species native to Western Pennsylvania and how to report calling activity. Since the pandemic, the Pymatuning team has conducted all training via Zoom.

“One benefit of Zoom training is that now we can hand over our PowerPoint presentation to participants and they can play the embedded frog call files as many times as they want,” Richards-Zawacki says.

“I’m surprised at how many people know things about their local wetlands already, and they’re in tune with the habitats around them,” Richards-Zawacki says of participants. “There’s a lot of folks out there that are in tune with their environment and I’m always excited to see young people interested in the project.”

Richards-Zawacki credits citizen science with laying the foundation of her own career in biology.

“I got involved in science myself as a young teenager because of participating in a similar project in my home state of Michigan,” she says. “So I’m a good example of how important programs like this are in getting people involved in science and interested in nature.”

National Audubon Society Christmas bird count

In terms of tradition, the Christmas Bird Count has the other citizen science projects beat: It’s the oldest in the country, dating back to 1900. According to Brian Shema, operations director for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, our area has been part of the project since its earliest years. 

“We have data in Pittsburgh to 1903,” he says. “From about 1950 on, we have a really complete set of data.”

Prior to the start of the bird count, hunters observed a tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt, during which groups of hunters would split into two groups, with the winning side bagging the most birds and other critters. An early Audubon official, ornithologist Frank Chapman, proposed a counter-tradition — an annual Christmas Bird Census.

The highly coordinated project occurs annually on the Saturday following Christmas Day. Shema is the official compiler for Western Pennsylvania’s count, which also means that he coordinates all participation. 

“We welcome families, newcomers, but they need to contact me to participate,” Shema says.

All counting happens within designated “count circles,” each of which is 15 miles in diameter. If your backyard happens to be within one of the circles, you can count at home, or you could count in a park or other area. Shema says he regularly pairs up families or individuals with groups of experienced birders to count together.

While it’s not strictly necessary, the Audubon Society does offer training sessions on how to conduct a count, during which volunteer naturalists go over counting methods and bird identification skills.

“We want to make sure people feel comfortable and be sure that they’re equipped to participate,” Shema says.

“Because the Christmas Bird Count is done in these prescribed circles and on the same day every year, we can track changes in bird ranges,” Shema says. “That’s the power of citizen science — without all the people participating, we would never be able to count all the birds we need to count.”

Great Backyard Bird Count

If staying closer to home and having date flexibility is more your speed, you’ll want to check out the Great Backyard Bird Count. Run by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this project takes place over a four-day period every February. 

Participants spend at least 15 minutes on one of the four designated days counting each bird they see or hear during the time period. After identifying the species using a field guide or similar tool, all data is reported directly through the eBird or Merlin Bird ID mobile apps.

“There’s not as many people involved to assist, but it’s more flexible,” Shema says.

You can participate even if you don’t have a backyard. This bird count accepts data from anywhere you find birds, even along your street or in a public park.

“In wintertime, we are counting resident birds, non-migrating birds,” Shema says. “The wintertime birds are the ones we share habitat with for our whole lifetimes.”

Melanie Linn Gutowski is a historian and museum educator.

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