Non–Scientist Contributions to Nature and Environment Studies

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Non–Scientist Contributions to Nature and Environment Studies


Studies concerning the natural environment and environmental change are organized and run by scientists whose expertise is in the area of study. Their knowledge is necessary to design experiments and analyze the obtained data in ways that will produce meaningful interpretations of the results.

However, non-scientists can contribute in important ways in these studies. People who are not trained in the particular subject area may have technical skills that are useful, such as in the maintenance and operation of equipment used in transport or in data collection.

Additionally, non-scientists can be trained to participate in sample collection. A well-known example is the Christmas bird population count organized by the National Audubon Society. The data collected from many thousands of volunteers is much more than could be collected by a single research team, and so is of great value. Volunteers in organizations devoted to preserving water quality have also been recruited to collect water samples and even to perform tests.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The participation of volunteers in annual census of bird populations dates back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a Christmas Day census of birds. The first count involved 27 people spread across North America. Since then, the annual count organized by the Audubon Society has expanded in time, being conducted from December 14 to January 5, and has grown in participation, with an estimated 50,000 observers taking part each year.

The data collected for over a century have proven valuable in assessing changes in the population and distribution of particular species of birds, and in revealing wholesale changes in the multiple species that can be an indicator of habitat change due to, as examples, surface or groundwater contamination, presence of pesticides, or climate change. The huge numbers of people involved obtain quantities of data that would be impossible for a single laboratory or group of scientists to collect.

Another study that relied on the participation of non-scientists as observers conducted in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States since 1973 has documented that the earlier blooming of plants in spring has occurred coincidently with climate-related temperature increase. The altered blooming timing of the flowers may be disrupting pollinator activity, threatening the survival of both the plant species and the pollinators. The individual observations (in this case, observing when blooming occurs) are easy to do and volunteers were trained for the task. Moreover, the task was part of a volunteer organization dedicated to natural preservation, and so became part of the organization’s annual roster of activities. This kind of dedicated sampling can be easier to maintain than in a lab faced with changes in research priorities and funds.

Non-scientists can be as dedicated to environmental preservation as a professional scientist. This zeal can be beneficial in keeping track of local environments and in reporting environmental incidents such as accidental spills and unauthorized disposal of noxious compounds. As this sort of information will be entered into databases, it becomes information that can be extracted and analyzed. Without the vigilance of the observer, the information would never have been obtained.

Non-scientists are also useful in transporting scientific staff to the locations of study, transporting collected samples back to the lab for analysis, and in maintaining equipment that is required for the study. Such support studies are vital to the success of any study conducted outside of the laboratory.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club, Ducks Unlimited, and the World Wildlife Fund, which are made up of many nonscientists, have and continue to be influential in protecting the environment directly through remediation activities, and also through their lobbying power and educational programs. As one example, the World Wildlife Fund is active in 100 countries and has a global membership of almost 5 million people.

Individuals can have a profound effect on nature and environmental awareness. A well-known recent example is former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, whose longtime environmental interests led him to star in the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. The film helped make the issue of global warming and the role of human activities in the warming of Earth’s atmosphere widely known and accepted. Together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.


HABITAT: The natural location of an organism or a population.

GROUNDWATER: Fresh water that is present in an underground location.

Impacts and Issues

Non-scientists contribute fundamentally to nature and environment studies through their expertise in maintaining the equipment and facilities required to carry out the studies and, perhaps more importantly, in the case of volunteers who help conduct a census or who obtain samples, through their sheer numbers.

A census involving tens of thousands of dedicated non-scientists can amass far more data than could a small team of scientists. Moreover, the care taken by the volunteers produces data that are as scientifically robust as that collected by the trained scientist.

The development of water tests that can be done on-site with minimal sample manipulation has made it possible for volunteers to collect water samples and actually perform the test. This participation from local grassroots organizations dedicated to water quality preservation has been enlisted by some government agencies. The results can be the collection of data at less expense than would otherwise be incurred by the particular agency, and the fostering of a more collegial relationship between the agency and those it serves.

Primary Source Connection

In his study, his painting, and his biographies of the birds of the United States, American naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon (1785–1851) created more than a decorative descriptive catalog of birds. He rendered a map of the natural environment of America, of its forests, marshes, and swamps; of its dark, nearly unapproachable regions; of its insects and its trees; and of its birds. His work served as a bridge for the human species to cross in order to enter a new and unexplored territory, one that was more than a landmass, but a living environment that people were endeavoring to appropriate, to become part of, and to make theirs. Audubon showed the contours and the nature of this world. As much as the great territorial explorers who revealed both the vastness and the wonders of the North American continent, Audubon, through his exploration and his art, revealed the diversity and the particularities of the continent’s natural environment. He also simply made a record of

the continent’s environmental wealth, not only regarding its birds, but their habitats as well.

Audubon’s inventory and the wonders it presented inspired a preservationist consciousness in Americans, one that was expressed concretely through the formation of the Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1886 by American naturalist George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938). Grinnell’s group, which he soon disbanded because its membership became too large for him to handle, was the beginning of the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905. From its beginning as a society of bird lovers dedicated to safeguarding birds, the Audubon Society has grown into a citizen’s organization devoted to environmental protection and conservation as well as bird-watching and education.


I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind’s eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and horrible swamps!…

The flight of this bird is graceful in the extreme, although seldom prolonged to more than a few hundred yards at a time, unless when it has to cross a large river, which it does in deep undulations, opening its wings at first to their full extent, and nearly closing them to renew the propelling impulse. The transit from one tree to another, even should the distance be as much as a hundred yards, is performed by a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top of the one tree to that of the other, forming an elegantly curved line. At this moment all the beauty of the plumage is exhibited, and strikes the beholder with pleasure. It never utters any sound whilst on wing, unless during the love-season; but at all other times, no sooner has this bird alighted than its remarkable voice is heard, at almost every leap which it makes, whilst ascending against the upper parts of the trunk of a tree, or its highest branches. Its notes are clear, loud, and yet rather plaintive. They are heard at a considerable distance, perhaps half a mile, and resemble the false high note of a clarionet. They are usually repeated three times in succession, and may be represented by the monosyllable pait, pait, pait. These are heard so frequently as to induce me to say that the bird spends few minutes of the day without uttering them, and this circumstance leads to its destruction, which is aimed at, not because (as is supposed by some) this species is a destroyer of trees, but more because it is a beautiful bird, and its rich scalp attached to the upper mandible forms an ornament for the war-dress of most of our Indians, or for the shot-pouch of our squatters and hunters…

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker nestles earlier in spring than any other species of its tribe. I have observed it boring a hole for that purpose in the beginning of March. The hole is, I believe, always made in the trunk of a live tree, generally an ash or a hagberry, and is at a great height. The birds pay great regard to the particular situation of the tree, and the inclination of its trunk; first, because they prefer retirement, and again, because they are anxious to secure the aperture against the access of water during beating rains…

Both birds [male and female] work most assiduously at this excavation, one waiting outside to encourage the other, whilst it is engaged in digging, and when the latter is fatigued, taking its place. I have approached trees whilst these Woodpeckers were thus busily employed in forming their nest, and by resting my head against the bark, could easily distinguish every blow given by the bird. I observed that in two instances, when the Woodpeckers saw me thus at the foot of the tree in which they were digging their nest, they abandoned it for ever. For the first brood there are generally six eggs. They are deposited on a few chips at the bottom of the hole, and are of a pure white colour. The young are seen creeping out of the hole about a fortnight before they venture to fly to any other tree…

The food of this species consists principally of beetles, larvae, and large grubs. No sooner, however, are the grapes of our forests ripe than they are eaten by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker with great avidity. I have seen this bird hang by its claws to the vines, in the position so often assumed by a Titmouse, and, reaching downwards, help itself to a bunch of grapes with much apparent pleasure…

The Ivory-bill is never seen attacking the corn, or the fruit of the orchards, although it is sometimes observed working upon and chipping off the bark from the belted trees of the newly-cleared plantations. It seldom comes near the ground, but prefers at all times the tops of the tallest trees. Should it, however, discover the half-standing broken shaft of a large dead and rotten tree, it attacks it in such a manner as nearly to demolish it in the course of a few days… The strength of this Woodpecker is such, that I have seen it detach pieces of bark seven or eight inches in length at a single blow of its powerful bill, and by beginning at the top branch of a dead tree, tear off the bark, to an extent of twenty or thirty feet, in the course of a few hours, leaping downwards with its body in an upward position, tossing its head to the right and left, or leaning it against the bark to ascertain the precise spot where the grubs were concealed, and immediately after renewing its blows with fresh vigour, all the while sounding its loud notes, as if highly delighted…

When wounded and brought to the ground, the Ivory-bill immediately makes for the nearest tree, and ascends it with great rapidity and perseverance, until it reaches the top branches, when it squats and hides, generally with great effect. Whilst ascending, it moves spirally round the tree, utters its loud pait, pait, pait, at almost every hop, but becomes silent the moment it reaches a place where it conceives itself secure. They sometimes cling to the bark with their claws so firmly, as to remain cramped to the spot for several hours after death. When taken by the hand, which is rather a hazardous undertaking, they strike with great violence, and inflict very severe wounds with their bill as well as claws, which are extremely sharp and strong. On such occasions, this bird utters a mournful and very piteous cry.

John James Audubon


See Also Conservation; Earth Day; Environmental Activism; Environmental Protests; Human Impacts; Hunting Practices; Organic and Locally Grown Foods; Sustainable Development



Cunningham, W.P., and A. Cunningham. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition, 2008.

Enger, Eldon, and Bradley Smith. Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Miller, G. Tyler. Environmental Science: Working with the Earth. New York: Brooks Cole, 2005.


Biesmeijer, J. C., et al. “Parallel Declines in Pollinators and Insect-Pollinated Plants in Britain and the Netherlands.” Science 313 (2006): 354-357.

Web Sites

We Campaign. “We Can Solve the Climate Crisis.” (accessed May 2, 2008).

Brian D. Hoyle