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Intriguing internships: science meets humanities in bird survey

  • A passion for birds
    A passion for birds  American Studies graduate student Matt Anthony spends almost all of his free time birding, often with amateur naturalists. Now he's interning with the Breeding Bird Survey and researching the history and culture of citizen-science.  Courtesy photo
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Many William & Mary undergraduate and graduate students take advantage of the summer months to broaden their skills and gain experience in their chosen fields through internships. This story is the second in a series exploring some of the intriguing internships that students are engaged in this summer. — Ed.

American studies doctoral student Matt Anthony’s first language might be humanities, but he’s using it to decode the natural sciences at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

There the William & Mary student is spending the summer working with the North American Breeding Bird Survey, one of the largest and longest running citizen-science projects in the United States – a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service. Anthony concedes he has not even the slightest bit of scientific background. He was a double major in history and English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland before completing a master’s degree in American studies at Penn State Harrisburg.

“My undergraduate thesis and my master’s thesis were both looking at the cultural history of country rock music in the 1960s and 1970s,” Anthony explained.

But since he was 10 years old, he’s had an abiding love of birds that’s only increased over the years. Coming to Williamsburg, he became active in the W&M Bird Club, which also coordinates with the local Williamsburg Bird Club. He spends most of his free time birding.

Back home in Maryland over the winter, Anthony helped with the annual Christmas Bird Count, and fell into conversation with Dave Ziolkowski, Patuxent program biologist, about the contributions of citizen-science projects to ornithology and conservation.

Ziolkowski told Anthony that “a lot of people working on the projects are people who are coming out of these biology backgrounds, so they have their feet pretty firmly grounded in the science aspect of it, but that there are comparatively few people working on those projects who have a humanities background and have the sort of historical and cultural framework to understand the citizen half of it,” Anthony recalled.

That got Anthony to wondering if the human part of citizen-science wouldn’t prove a useful field of inquiry. He’s laying the groundwork for the idea this summer at Patuxent, where he is a paid intern working with the data sheets that Breeding Bird Survey observers submit every summer.

“As far as I know, his only science class as a graduate student was my ornithology class, and so it’s really impressive that he was able to land an internship with the Breeding Bird Survey,” said W&M Biology Professor Dan Cristol.

Life at Patuxent

“[The internship] puts me in the middle of one of the biggest citizen-science projects out there right now, and one of the longest running,” Anthony said. “I’m able to see the inner workings and get to know some people who can really shed some light on how these things work and what kind of things they are hoping to do with citizen-science. It’s almost like a combination of job and research.”

Anthony gets direct contact with observers when questions come up about what they were trying to convey as they recorded their routes. But because he’s a birder himself, he can bond with them just from their data.

“We have comment sheets that go out, and people will use that to comment on the route, to suggest improvements, or they will talk about other animals they have observed in the field, or birds they observed after the count period, or they will sometimes tell stories from the field,” he said.

“It’s neat because you can kind of reconstruct what they experience in the field. So if I’m looking at these sheets and I see that they haven’t reported any herons and then suddenly stop number 35 has 15 great blue herons, then I know they passed a marsh or a body of water.”

On citizen-science

It’s these citizens turned scientist that so intrigue Anthony.

“You have so many people out there who are amateur naturalists and who have both an interest in and a very extensive knowledge about the natural world, whether it’s birds or wildflowers or whatever it may be,” he said. “Often these people are reservoirs of very specific local knowledge ... They know an awful lot about birds, bird behavior and bird distribution. They know this bird is found at these places, or this bird hasn’t occurred in this county before, or this bird used to breed here 10 years ago but now they don’t. They are sources of knowledge that would otherwise be unreported.”

Capitalizing on that knowledge by submitting their observations to worldwide science projects “puts them in conversation with the scientific process so that it’s no longer abstract,” Anthony said, and gives them an increased stake in conservation.

In that sense, he said, citizen scientists exemplify the same sort of “middle ground” between science and the humanities that he’s hoping his research will.

“People in the humanities or the social sciences very rarely are in dialogue with the natural sciences,” he said. “Even in an interdisciplinary program like American studies, I think those conversations don’t happen as much as they could.

“There hasn’t been much work done on citizen-science, or even on birding culture that takes a historical and cultural studies perspective,” he continued. “I’m hoping that by doing that I can see what citizen-science means in terms of historical context of how science and how recreational naturalism have been done in America and see what that offers for how we understand citizen-science today and how we could pursue it.”

Cristol said he’s interested in what Anthony will find. Traditionally, all sciences were advanced by the observations and reasoning of people who weren’t formally trained (in fact, hard-and-fast disciplinary boundaries are relatively recent). Today, only astronomy, in particular comet-hunting, has been advanced by average Joes, he said.

“Citizen-science is a big interest of mine, so when Matt came along I was really excited to be able to help him do something interdisciplinary,” he said. “Much of ornithology in the 20th century was carried out by amateurs. In fact, my Ph.D. advisor, Val Nolan of Indiana University, was a law professor with no science training. But he spent his life studying birds in his spare time and wrote a major, award-winning monograph and many scientific articles.

“That could never happen in today’s academic climate, but with the establishment of numerous citizen-science portals, citizens once again have a way to contribute to science. However, there’s much to be learned about the good and bad aspects of citizen-science, and so Matt’s study is going to be timely, and I hope will garner a lot of interest from the public and scientists alike.”