Three Generations of Citizen Science: The Futurist

Jessica Zelt's database of bird sightings helps us understand how climate change is affecting North American bird populations.

Editor’s Note: The history of citizen science in this country runs back more than a century, driven by a chain of creative, obsessive thinkers, leading armies of passionate volunteers. Read about two other innovators who have led the charge in studying birds, Chan Robbins and Sam Droege.

Picture this: You are led into a cramped, government-dreary office packed with dozens of decades-old filing cabinets, stacked atop one another like a layer cake of antique bureaucracy. Prying open one of the creaky drawers, you find it jammed with rows of 2-by-5-inch notecards. Peering closer at one of the cards, you make out a nearly illegible hand-scrawled entry: a date, a person's name, a location, and a description of a bird. Every drawer of every cabinet in this room contains these little cards—six million or so in total. Now you are informed that you must spend an untold number of years dedicating your life to transcribing all of them.

How about it? Do you take the job?

This is precisely what happened to Jessica Zelt, a young environmental scientist with a bright smile and an unwavering enthusiasm for all things feathered and furry. For reasons she herself seems unsure of, instead of running away screaming, Zelt eagerly signed on. "I remember they didn't look like much, just some scribbles on paper," she says. "I didn't understand their meaning."

So in 2008, not long after she completed her undergraduate degree, Zelt found herself as the keeper of the files. A weaker soul might have lost the will to live, or at least her mind, but over the next six years, Zelt, 31, managed to build a citizen science empire: digitizing the North American Bird Phenology Program. (Phenology is the study of periodic biological phenomena.) She and her volunteers tirelessly chip away at transcribing the collection and making those records—which chronicle the first arrival and last departure of migratory birds from locations around North America, going back well more than a century—freely available online for hobbyists and researchers alike. In doing so, they are unlocking data that scientists can use to understand how climate change is affecting North America's birds.

The project's origins trace back to long before Zelt was even a twinkle in her grandparents' eyes, to a schoolteacher named Wells W. Cooke. Cooke's framed portrait—he's dapper in a dark suit, with sincere eyes and a proto-hipster handlebar mustache—hangs on her office wall and, despite the generations separating them, when Zelt speaks about Cooke it's on a first-name basis, describing his exploits as if they were a friend's. A native of Massachusetts, Cooke moved to Minnesota in 1879 to teach, but from the beginning he was more interested in birds than in his pupils. In 1880 he began writing down the who, what, where, and when of bird arrivals and departures, and also recruited friends—citizen scientists long before there was a name for such a thing—to do the same. "People were more in touch with nature back in those days," Zelt says. "So it wasn't as odd a request as it might sound today."

The newly founded American Ornithologists' Union soon took note of Cooke's efforts and began spreading the word. Hundreds of thousands of observations from far-flung bird enthusiasts began filling Cooke's mailbox. He transcribed them all, hoping ultimately to use them to build a distribution map. The project's magnitude was so great that he developed carpal tunnel. Not one to be deterred, he learned to write with his left hand, but soon that hand, too, succumbed to the syndrome. "You can see his handwriting deteriorate over the years," Zelt says. "By the time he passed away, he could only write 15 minutes at a time with either hand."

The quiet discoveries lying in wait on the notecards have become a source of constant pleasure and surprise for Zelt. For starters, there are the bird names. Birders often referred to species by local monikers, and Zelt and her volunteers sometimes engage in elaborate games of detective to piece together the identity of a dunk-a-doo, a meatbird, or a hell-diver (answers: American Bittern, Gray Jay, Pied-billed Grebe). And the rec-ord keepers themselves sometimes turn out to be as interesting as the birds. Legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold was a contributor, and Theodore Roosevelt submitted entries from the White House lawn. The cards also reflect the changing tides of history, showing, for example, the advent of the typewriter and the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. The number of entries thinned during World War II, as many of the participants shipped off to war, some never to return home.

In 1916, at the age of 58, pneumonia—likely caught on a swan-watching expedition—claimed Cooke's life. According to a touching memoriam, published in The Auk by ornithologist T.S. Palmer, the "plaintive notes" of a bluebird, flicker, and mockingbird accompanied Cooke's funeral, as though those birds, too, were bidding farewell to "the father of cooperative study of bird migration in America."

Cooke's project, however, did not end with him; others took it up, and the observations continued to pour in. By 1970, however, bird distributions were well established, so Chandler Robbins—the U.S. Geological Survey ornithologist then in charge of the database—decided to discontinue it. Robbins, however, never disputed the value of the historic records themselves, although he was unsure of what, precisely, that value was. Others at the USGS were not so enlightened: Several times Robbins had to stand in front of his cabinets to save them from the dumpster.

The files' ultimate purpose finally revealed itself in 2003. Sam Droege, a USGS biologist who had inherited the records from Robbins, decided to use a few entries to perform a trial—mainly to see if they could actually stand in as legitimate scientific data. He found that the records were indeed valid, and realized that they could be a gold mine for scientists. "There's nothing else out there as extensive as this," he says, adding that the records could offer an unprecedented look at global warming's effect on birds.


To be useful, however, the files needed to be made available. That's where Zelt came in. "When I first interviewed Jessica in 2008," Droege says, "she was poised and smart. But there was also one of these ineffable things, just this feeling that she could pull this off." His intuition, it turned out, was spot on. "She has totally lived up to my expectations. She has made it happen."

Zelt is quick to point out that the more than 2,500 remote volunteers—many of them retirees but also students or simply people who like birds—deserve credit for the database. To recruit them, she began by issuing a press release about the project, which, to her surprise, was picked up by Wired, CNN, and ABC. At the time, no one was doing crowdsourced projects on such a massive scale, but interest immediately surged. Some were like Bob Hartman, 76, a retired NASA astrophysicist, who has been volunteering since 2009 because he loves birds; he likes to come by the USGS office just to read 100-year-old records created by people who felt the same way. "I keep thinking they'd be gratified to find out that all of that work is being used," he says.

Most, however, work remotely, with some contributing from as far away as Japan and the Philippines. Volunteers transcribe the digitally scanned cards into a database Zelt created. Two people must independently transcribe each card, and then a computer algorithm checks the data to see if they match. If so, the card is validated and added to the database. If not, it remains in the system, awaiting another round of transcription until there's a match.

Zelt tries to keep all of her workers engaged by sending out monthly bird trivia questions, giving prizes to the most prolific transcribers, and issuing an entertaining monthly newsletter. Droege points out that, really, though, "it's the personality of the coordinator that keeps the troops interested. People work for Jessica because they like her."

Today the database contains nearly 300,000 searchable records, with an additional couple million awaiting validation. Despite this progress, however, the project's continued existence is constantly under threat. Zelt's original contract lasted only a year, and since then Droege has had to patch together a piecemeal salary for her, starting over every few months and never knowing if this time it won't work out. But Zelt doesn't let fear of starvation distract her. "Yes, it's stressful," she says, "but I love the work. This project has been reimagined for a purpose that Wells couldn't have expected, and I think he'd be immensely proud."

Read about two other innovators who have led the charge in studying birds, Chan Robbins and Sam Droege.