The dawn of citizen science

Frank Chapman suggested counting birds rather than shooting them. (Image: American Museum of Natural History)

Frank Chapman suggested counting birds rather than
shooting them.
(Image: American Museum of Natural History)

As electronic devices have become more advanced, mobile and readily available, citizen-science projects that utilize smartphones, tablets, and laptops have been popping up like corn in a hot saucepan (consider the Global Big Day). It’s tempting to think that citizen science is a child of the digital age however public input into scientific research has been happening for centuries (Dickinson et al, 2010).

The fields of astronomy and ornithology have led the charge for citizen science with prominent efforts beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1874, the British government funded the ‘Transit of Venus’ project to measure the Earth’s distance to the Sun. The project engaged the admiralty to support data collection all over the globe and recruited the services of the most prominent amateur astronomers of the time.

Bird monitoring goes back even longer, with amateurs collecting data on timing of migration beginning in Finland in 1749. In 1900, the American Museum of Natural History’s ornithologist, Frank Chapman, initiated the Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to regular holiday bird-shooting contests. This project popularized ornithological monitoring in the US and is now run by the Audubon Society. The US Geological Survey began engaging the public in bird monitoring even earlier, in 1880, and became a major player in monitoring of birds with the well-known Breeding Bird Survey launched in 1966.


Dickinson JL, B Zuckerberg, & DN Bonter (2010). Citizen Science as an Ecological Research Tool: Challenges and Benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics,41: 149-172.

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