UC’s California Naturalist Program is integrating
citizen science into conservation
By Ann Brody Guy
“Birds are mobile indicators of ecosystems,” wildlife biologist Walter Clevinger tells a group of California Naturalist students bundled against the early-morning cold. At 7:15 a.m., the group had just crunched across a frosty meadow at Sagehen Creek Research Station, 10 miles northeast of Truckee, to check netting for ensnared birds. “They need food, cover, and water just like us. They help us understand how these meadows are changing and what’s causing the changes.”
Back at the picnic table that serves as a temporary classroom, Clevinger pulls a tiny dusk flycatcher out of a cloth sack and leads students through a series of procedures. He measures the wing and beak and determines the sex by blowing the feathers up on the belly — a female’s breast, reddish from increased blood flow, will “unzip” to help warm the eggs. The bird looks peaceful as it submits to Clevinger’s steady grip, resigned to the intimate transaction between species. He attaches a tag to its leg and releases it.
Next to him, Jen Cubias grips a pencil and clipboard through thick gloves and records information. The self-declared “bird nerd” has been volunteering at Sagehen this past summer, helping Clevinger gather data that is part of a national study on bird survivorship. She took the 10-week California Naturalist course herself the previous summer, earning one of the new statewide program’s first certifications, which are issued by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), a land-grant educational outreach organization known for its agricultural research and extension programs, and for running the 4-H Club and Master Gardener programs.
Sagehen’s summer course is one of ten being offered across nine California counties this year as the new program emerges from a yearlong pilot to scale up across the state. Other states, like Texas, Minnesota, and Virginia, have thriving naturalist trainings, but California’s is destined to be the biggest in the United States, and it’s an early adopter in a new trend to redefine naturalist work, merging conservation with public participation in scientific research, known as citizen science.
|Connect with the new naturalists
|Learn about the California Naturalist Program.
|Find a citizen science project in your county.
|Sign up for iNaturalist.
“Contributing to scientific research is a relatively new option for people wanting to volunteer for conservation,” says Heidi Ballard, a professor of education at UC Davis and principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that supported the integration of citizen science into the program’s curriculum. Aspiring naturalists can choose research participation — stewardship and education are the other options — for their service hours, which their local course providers may either suggest or require.
Read the rest of this story in Breakthroughs, the alumni magazine of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources.