Is Rachel Maddow a citizen scientist?

On the list of reasons to watch The Rachel Maddow Show, one wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find “lessons in ornithology” near the top. Well, after Monday night’s show, that’s exactly what viewers got!

In the video clip below, Maddow explains how she was recently walking her dog in a western Massachusetts forest when she heard a bird song that she didn’t recognize. She immediately whipped out her smartphone and recorded part of the song. She then played the song on the air and challenged her audience to identify the bird.

(Ten points if you can correctly guess the bird before reading the rest of this blog post!)

Over the next day, hundreds of people provided their answers on the Maddow Blog and the show’s Facebook Fan Page. Many of the answers seemed reasonable (e.g., a chickadee), while others were wildly ridiculous (e.g., “her Blackberry running low on batteries”) or simply too offensive for me to repeat in a public forum.

The big winner was Craig Faanes, a retired ornithologist, who provided this answer on Facebook:

Rachel – I’m a retired from 31 years as an ornithologist (study of birds) with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. What you were hearing was a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolis) a common summer resident in your neck of the woods. The voice you heard is described as “poor sam peabody, peabody, peabody” but in Canada they say its “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”.

The Maddow Blog then posted a follow-up story, which featured this video of the White-throated Sparrow, “Whistler of the North,” in all of its chirping glory.

I found this story interesting because it captures just how easy it is to use emerging technology, such as mobile devices and social networking sites, to gather and share information with diverse audiences. In this case, Maddow was simply trying to identify a bird for her own personal knowledge, but the reality is that there are many citizen science projects that require virtually the same effort in order to contribute data to real scientific research.

And this doesn’t just apply to the study of birds. You can use a mobile phone (and some duct tape if you’re an iPhone owner) to contribute to projects across a number of scientific disciplines. For example, projects like What’s Invasive? need citizens to take pictures of invasive plant species in certain parks. JellyWatch and the Viburnum Leaf Beetle Project are looking for citizens to discover and send in pictures of mysterious creatures like jellyfish and beetles.

Though she may not have known it at the time, Maddow was halfway to contributing to a fantastic citizen science project, Sound Around You, which we highlighted on the blog last week. All she would need to do is install an application on her mobile phone and her recording could contribute to a world sound map being developed by acoustic scientists at the University of Salford.

Participating in real science can be that easy. Now, if only we can get Rachel Maddow to read this blog…

Categories: Animals, Birds, Computers & Technology, In the News, Nature & Outdoors

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