Citizen Science

Twice a week, I sit at my dining room table with my tools, to wit: my binoculars; my Cornell bird-counting sheet; my drawing pad, pencil, pencil sharpener and Helix Professional Pencil-Cap eraser; my kitchen timer, set to 32 minutes; my rotten potato to throw at the squirrels; and my steaming hot cup of Constant Comment tea with a great big teaspoon of sugar in it.

What am I doing with all this paraphernalia? I am doing my Citizen Science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and don’t think I don’t like saying that. I say it with pride, even though my daughter doubles over, wincing and doing a spit-take, every time.

“Mom! That is the nerdiest thing anyone could possibly say!” she … uh … reminds me.

But I don’t care. I’m old, and this is what I do. I do my Citizen Science. Without me (and several hundred thousand others like me), Cornell couldn’t collate and analyze our results each year; they wouldn’t know if house finches are disappearing from the Northeast or not, and if so where the heck they’re going; or if those finches are suffering from eye disease again this year, and if so in what numbers; whether or not we’re having an irruption (yup, that’s the right spelling) of redpolls this winter … and zillions of other bits of data, and what to do about it all.

It occurs to me, as I put my binoculars down and cross out the “8” on the House Sparrow line on my bird-counting sheet and replace it with a “14,” that my father also started watching birds in his old age. He had a feeder behind his kitchen in his last (Slingerlands, N.Y.) house, and he would run to the window and call out, “Look! There’s a cardinal!” And he would smile and stare at it even as he added more quietly, “Aren’t they beautiful? They’re very common.”

I think I know how he felt. Cardinals are very common at backyard feeders in the Northeast; I too can’t take my eyes off them, and they always make me smile. And I think he liked being authoritative; he had a very old Petersen’s Bird Guide, which I inherited, and he read every page, even the parts about California condors and roadrunners and other birds he knew he’d never get to see, because it covered the whole U.S. and he was already old. He just liked knowing all about what he called “my little birdies.” And dad loved his Constant Comment.

If you call me on Sunday or Monday mornings from now through March, you’ll have to leave a message. I’ll be at my dining room table with all my tools arrayed before me, doing my Citizen Science.

(Note to files: I must ask Cornell if it invalidates the data if you get up in the middle of birdwatching to chuck a potato at the squirrels that hog the feeders. I vaguely recall from the one science class I ever took in college that there’s some theory called — Heimerdinger’s Cat? Schroedermacher’s Uncertainty Principle? – something with a funny name like that. I flunked the course, but loved it because of that funny name. And now, what was it? Anyway, I’m sure this theory said that you invalidate your results if you interject yourself into the thing you’re investigating. I must find out if I’m to let the squirrels have their way with my feeder, or if it’s OK to get up and hurl a few spuds at them.)