Coloradans to help save condors, track bees

January 2, 2014
There are lots of ways to spend time online but a group of scientists in Boulder hope that you'll add this one: help save the California condors. 
The birds have been endangered for decades and almost went extinct in the 1980's. Now perhaps the biggest threat to their survival is lead poisoning from eating carcasses that have been shot with lead bullets. 
To help the small, highly-managed population of condors stay alive and even multiply, scientists are sorting through hundreds of thousands of photographs of condors feasting in an effort to detect patterns and figure out how to get clean food to the birds.
"We're really interested in pecking order, social interactions," Program Manager for Citizen Science at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado-Boulder Alexandra Rose says. "We suspect that if we can determine which birds are essentially losers and are excluded from the ability to eat the [clean] carcasses, those are the birds that are getting in trouble with lead poisoning."
Rose and her colleagues are enlisting the help of "citizen scientists" -- anyone who wants to help out from a couch or a desk -- to look at the photos of condors eating and take notes about what they see.
"We would be thrilled with around 5,000 to 10,000 participants," Rose says. 
Condor Connections is one of several citizen science projects the museum is undertaking as part of a growing movement. 
"If you ask the general person what a museum is, they'll say it's a great place to go see an exhibit," Rob Guralnick, Rose's colleague and a curator at the museum, says.  "But we're hoping that by opening these other doors online, virtually, we're also getting people to know what else happens in a museum day by day, and how important these collections are, and how cool they are."
Rose is also coordinating a citizen science project called The Bees' Needs which collects information about bee species native to Colorado.
In the summer of 2013, Rose and her colleagues handed out 250 wooden boxes -- which Rose drilled herself -- to individuals and families across the Front Range asking them to track when bees came into the box to eat and nest.
This year, the project will double in size, enlisting 500 volunteer bee trackers.
"We live in an incredibly diverse part of the world," Rose says, talking about the variety of bees buzzing around Colorado. "We have around 563 native bee species in Boulder County alone."
Rose adds that the bees are so poorly understood that scientists don't know whether individual bee species are in decline or not.
Guralnick is leading Notes from Naturea third citizen science project from the museum that  asks volunteers to look at field notes collected as far back as the 1880's and transcribe the notes so the collections can be digitized. 
"The citizen scientists talk to one another and are constantly chattering about what they find," Guralnick says. "Sometimes a collector will mention 'got bitten by a snake,' or 'tromped through the wilderness and fell over' -- some neat little anecdotes that end up on these labels." 
Notes from Nature and The Bees' Needs are taking volunteers now.
Condor Connections plans to start taking volunteers later this month.