In Calgary, a whole cadre of volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ are crucial to conservation efforts

Red-Tailed-Hawk-ThumbnailBefore Shonna McLeod became a volunteer conservation scientist, she could often be found navigating through the boreal forest surrounding her hometown of Banff. However, an abrupt move to Calgary in 1987 left her with culture shock and a pressing desire to reconnect with nature.

Shortly after taking on a position at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, she was invited to participate in a bird conservation research initiative and while McLeod didn’t have a formal background in science, her contributions as a “citizen scientist” have since played a significant role in countless local and international academic studies.

As one of the Calgary Bird Banding Society’s (CBBS) pioneering members, she was quickly granted hands-on experience and the opportunity to contribute her findings to the project — which aims to study and protect wild birds by tracing migratory patterns and collecting other vital data.

“It is a breathtaking business to be able to learn the ways of the birds and then dispense that information to people who are interested in wildlife,” she said.

“Our data is shared world-wide and through this research we are able to find out where [their] migratory routes are and hopefully save green space in between so they have somewhere to stop over and rest.”

McLeod explains that this is done by placing a coded tag on the bird’s leg so that when it is recovered at another station, the information can be used to trace the banded bird’s previous whereabouts.

“I’ve had an [owl] recovered in Maine and that is what banders live for,” she explained. “Because when that happens we have added something to the scientific process and we know we’ve made a difference.”


Though the term citizen science is relatively new, ordinary people have long been helping Shonna-Processing-Bird-Age-and-Sex-WebSavedShonna McLeod, a citizen scientist with the Bird Banding Society of Calgary, shown here processing a bird in hopes of distinguishing the birds age and sex at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. Information was then documented by volunteers and used to track the bird’s migration patterns.
Photo courtesy: Shonna McLeod
academics conduct research. Doug Collister, president of BBSC, recalled that when he decided to conduct the study in 1995, he quickly realized that his mission would require more support than he and his partner could provide. But to his surprise, the community’s response was overwhelming and has carried it’s momentum for nearly 20 years — the society now boasts more than 100 members.

Volunteers help researchers and experienced banders extract the birds from one of the 10 ft. mist nets situated around the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.

When a bird has fallen unscathed into the pocket of one of the 10 ft. mist nets situated around the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, volunteers help researchers and experienced banders extract the avian. Before the bird is banded, they are measured, weighed, sexed and aged before they are released back into the wild.

“There would be no other way to do it; there just aren’t the resources,” he expressed. “To have to hire people to do this sort of [data collection] would just be prohibitive.”

“Not only that, but there is a general reluctance on the side of industry academia to do long-term studies,” Collister outlined. “So, to have these long-term data sets is extremely valuable and not very common and this citizen science model is one of the better ways to do that.”

“It also gives [participants] an opportunity to feel like they are making a difference and making a contribution and, of course, it is fun for them to learn, so that is a value on their side,” he added.


Tracy Lee, senior project manager at the Miistakis Institute in Calgary, is currently working to support conservation research through the development of local citizen science projects.

“Citizen science can lead to experiential learning and give people more deep-rooted understanding of the challenges that we are facing in the environment and another set of voices that is trying to address those challenges,” she said.

“From a researcher’s perspective, it helps create dialogue around what they are studying and sometimes that can lead to new insights into how they perform or think about their research.”

“Citizen science has the potential to build a community of concerned citizens and give a voice to academic research.”

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