Solving Puzzles with Citizen Science: Snowy Owls Edition

This post is officially subtitled: “Citizen Science is Cool: I Used It To Find a Snowy Owl and You Can, Too!”

If you have not heard of citizen science, imagine a big puzzle. It represents everything that is known about a concept or species:

Through methodical observation and research, scientists are able to piece together most of the picture of story. For example, from decades of observation and research, we have put together a pretty complete story about about Snowy Owls:

  • They are one of the world’s largest and heaviest owls with a wingspan of around 4.5 feet (think the span of the keyboard on an upright piano) and about 5 pounds (think of a 5lb bag of flour)
  • Males are almost entirely white; females are heavily speckled.
  • They prefer open grassland habitat in the tundra.
  • Their main diet consists of lemmings, but also eats rodents, rabbits, birds and fish.
  • … And so on!

Yes, we do know a lot! However, the picture is not complete:

For example: Scientists have a hard time tracking Snowy Owl population sizes because their habitat (the Arctic) is so remote. Scientists are not rich, magical people and do not have the money (nor the means) to travel and record every single individual in the expanse of Arctic where it resides. Up until recently, scientists did not even have any way to track Snowy Owls deviating south from their wintery home range. That is, until databases like eBird came along — where normal, everyday people can submit sightings which help scientists put the bigger picture together!

YOU may have the missing piece!

Only with YOUR piece, can we understand the whole!


Photo: Floyd Davidson

Understanding our natural world requires immense amounts of data collection — an amount that cannot be collected by scientists alone.Luckily, some sciences — particularly the natural sciences — can have their knowledge base contributed to by ordinary citizens. Contributing to citizen science projects is like helping to put a big, magnificent puzzle together. The more people participate, the more detailed and complete the picture becomes!

eBird (developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the brain of all bird science in the USA) is a citizen science database to which you can submit your observations of birds. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to submit everything you see in case there’s something you can’t identify. Just make a list of things you know, count them up, and submit your notes using a simple online form. All of our observations put together can help scientists answer big questions like how a bird’s population or range changes over time. These changes will become increasingly important to track as our climate changes. This information is useful for scientists writing papers, but is mostly hugely helpful for conservation efforts — everything from restitching local ecosystems to demanding legislation that protects and preserves our land, air, and water (on which we ALL depend, not just birds).

One of the coolest things about eBird is that the data is accessible to the public. If you ever have a species you want to see, go to eBird to check  out the data — click on “view and explore data”, enter your location, and type in the species you want to see.

Here’s eBird’s collection of Snowy Owl sightings across North America, submitted by citizens just like you:

How does it compare to a current range map? (Once possible impact of citizen science: range maps could be changed according to the data that comes in.)

Now, here’s a screen shot of a search for Snowy Owls in Southeast Michigan — there are a bunch of observations clustered around a marina Lake St. Clair:

It’s about 35 minute drive away from my house… wouldn’t be fun to spend an afternoon trying to find it?

Oh yeah, if you want to go birding based on ebird sightings, here’s a tip — you can click on some of the tags to get more info (and sometimes comments). I was curious about what people had to say about these snowy sightings, so did some digging around.

Here was one comment about the Snowy Owl in the marina:

Miles McNally: “Sitting on the roof of a house right next to Roy’s Boat Marina.” (link)

Helpful for me if I want to try and find it.

Here are some other comments about other Snowy Owls sightings around the Great Lakes:

“Owl was being bombarded by approx 25 American Crows.” – Josh Bouman, Sarnia, Ontario (link) (That’s not supposed to be amusing! Mobbing may very possibly injure, kill, or otherwise affect reproductive success of the bird being attacked.) Be careful when you’re looking for these birds (especially when you’re trying to take pictures of them); flushing these big, white birds of prey can increase their chances of being mobbed.

This one is interesting! A possible sighting in downtown Detroit:

“I have to post this even though I’m not sure of the date. I was leaving work at the Free Press Plant on the Detroit River just downstream from downtown Detroit. I stopped at light at Fort St and saw something up the street at the next light Lafayette that I thought was a sea gull. Now this was in the middle of the winter and very dark out. When the light changed I drove up Rosa Parks and the bird had landed on the top of a sign in the median…As I approached it flew to the flat roof of a small warehouse on the S/E corner…I am posting this because it was the oddest sighting I have ever had…Though I’ve seen owls from time to time in the dark up near the Au Sable, this remains (I wrote this 11 27 2010) the only owl I’ve been able to ID…This must of made it down this way during an irruption and it will go down as my rarest sighting probably for sometime!” – Spencer Vanderhoof, Detroit, Michigan (link)

Here’s an interesting (and nearly lethal) encounter with a Snowy from the West side of the state:

“Incredible and extremely unexpected! I was so focused on the rocks down by the water in search of Purple Sandpipers that I didn’t see anything else. Suddenly this massive Owl appeared from a crack in the rocks beside the cement directly in front of me. He lunged at my face, but then quickly turned and headed towards the south pier. He was on the south pier when I left. I was glad to finally get the bird in Ottawa County, but thankful to still be alive!”  – Zachary DeBruine, Ottawa County, Michigan (link)

According to eBird’s recent article on Snowy Owls (“Got Snowies?“), the appearance of so many owls might indicate a food shortage in the typical parts of their range. While that may be the case in some ways, the situation may be more complicated than we think — some research suggests that there may actually be a booming population of rodent life that has caused Arctic raptor populations to also increase, leading to overcrowding that has driven inexperienced youngsters further South. But we don’t know for sure.

Why is this happening? How far South will they go? Keep your eye on ebird to find out! And obviously… keep submitting your own data. SOme interesting discoveries may come out of it.

Anyways — now to the good part. I went to the marina and saw lots of things:

Rafts of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of flying ducks:

Lots of diving ducks — what I think are mostly Greater Scaup (because they don’t seem to have the rear-head bump):

And I saw the Snowy Owl, sitting on the roof of a lakeside condo like he owned the place:

Here are some zoomed/cropped pics:

Here, she (?) turned around…

… and took off into the neighborhood!

Thank you for the bit of beauty,  majesty, and mystery, Miss Snowy Owl. Hope a dire situation didn’t bring you here. If only you actually were actually as magical as I like to think you are, and had the power to bring snow with you wherever you went! It’s been awfully snowless this winter so far…

Cheers to winter and all of its lovely creatures (whether they are thriving or hibernating in it)! Happy Holidays!

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One thought on “Solving Puzzles with Citizen Science: Snowy Owls Edition

  1. I truly appreciate this post. I’ve been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You’ve made my day! Thank you again! ddgbgdbdeegf

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