Yalies hunt for biodiversity

Beginning this semester, the Yale Office of Sustainability and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History have partnered to create Citizen Science, a new initiative that aims to engage Yale community members with urban ecology on campus.

The goal of the Citizen Science initiative is to train a group of Yale students, faculty and staff to survey and record the biodiversity on campus, said David Heiser, Peabody’s head of education and outreach. The program is currently focused on identifying local bird species, and held its second of five bird walks Tuesday afternoon, he added.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reception we’ve received with the bird walks,” said Julie Newman, director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. She estimated 50 people participated in Tuesday’s walk, which consisted of “a complete mix” of Yale faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students.

Seventeen unique species of birds were recorded on the first bird walk held on Jan. 23, Heiser said. Fifteen different kinds of birds, including cardinals, robins and turkey vultures, were observed on Tuesday, Newman added. While some participants have prior bird-watching experience, Newman said that any member of the Yale community, regardless of experience, can get involved.

“It was something unlike anything I’ve done before,” said Sarah Armitage ’12, who attended Tuesday’s walk. She added that the walk allowed her to explore unfamiliar areas of campus while learning how to identify different bird species and distinguish their calls.

“One of the great things about Yale is that you can become involved in things even if it’s not your main focus,” Armitage said.

In addition to hosting monthly bird walks throughout the semester, the Peabody will also hold a series of training sessions in March for those interested in becoming “citizen scientists.” Citizen scientists will be trained in bird and plant identification, and will play an active role in data collection, Newman said. Over the years, she added, the data collected will be compared with climate and weather data to understand bird migratory patterns and plant phenology.

The idea to create the Citizen Science initiative arose from Yale’s 2010 Sustainability Strategic Plan stating a commitment to developing ecosystem and land management plans as well as a commitment to understanding biodiversity within the urban ecosystem, Newman said.

Although the program is in its early stages, Heiser acknowledged possible expansions of the initiative. One possibility, he said, is to divide Yale’s campus into sections, each containing a “section captain” who would potentially coordinate monthly bird walks with other citizen scientists and serve as an authority on the likelihood of finding certain species. He said there are plans to survey plant, butterfly and dragonfly species this fall.

“I think the more that people are able to recognize what’s around them and begin to really observe, the more they will care about taking care of our surroundings,” Heiser said.

The Citizen Science program is the biggest joint initiative between the Peabody Museum and Office of Sustainability, Heiser said. Newman said that the partnership between the two institutions has been successful.

“It’s a great demonstration of what can come when two Yale entities partner together,” she added. “It really draws on the strengths and expertise between both of our offices.”

Citizen Science training sessions will be held at noon on March 1 and March 26 in the Peabody Museum auditorium.

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