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Citizen Science in Your Own Backyard With Phenology

Updated March 30, 2020
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Katherine Jaeger

SDSU Extension Youth Outdoor Education Field Specialist

A young girl with a notebook observing a sprig of flower blossoms.

Have you ever noticed the first buds breaking on the trees outside? Perhaps you have made note of when you see the first robin of the spring? If so, then you have been studying phenology without even knowing it.

Phenology is the study of seasonal or cyclical natural phenomena. Occurrences such as plants flowering, mayflies hatching, and leaves changing color in the fall are all examples of phenology that you may have seen.

Scientists and researchers track these cyclical changes to make observations about issues that impact a range of species – including changing climates, diseases, or human-caused interruptions. However, scientists can only observe a small percentage of species, and they often rely on help from the general public.

Citizen scientists are regular folks who, with a little training, add research or observations to a scientific database. There are many different citizen science projects that you can participate in, ranging from weather observations to migratory butterfly counts to water testing.

Phenology is an easy way to get involved in citizen science without leaving your backyard, or maybe even without leaving your house! Just follow these easy steps:

  • Select and identify an individual of a species: If you have a lot of trees in your backyard, just pick one as your subject. Make sure you identify what the species is.  
  • Observe the species regularly: Daily is best, but weekly works too. Make note of the day and time of each observation in a notebook. Record any activity occurring, including a change in leaves, bark, animal activity, or coloration. 
  • Submit your observations to an online database:  Nature’s Notebook, run by the USA National Phenology Network, is a great database that collects information from citizen scientists across the county. 
  • Keep going! Ongoing observations from every corner of the country help scientists identify issues, project trends, and make decisions regarding natural resource management.

For more information, please review the USA National Phenology Network, or, if you are ready to join, set up an account on Nature’s Notebook.

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Youth Science