Have you ever heard of the rufa red knot? These hearty shorebirds pass through the Mid-Atlantic area for a kind of spring break each year — taking a rest during their annual 9,300-mile trek from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic. They stop at beaches within a few hours of the D.C. area to feast on horseshoe crab eggs.
Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refer to one long-lived red knot they’ve studied as “Moonbird.” This intrepid aviator, according to their calculations, has traveled enough miles in its lifetime to fly to the moon and at least halfway back.
Moonbird’s species is threatened with extinction due, in part, to human activity and climate change. Scientists in the United States and around the world recognize that as a species, red knots are in trouble. And they’re not alone.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 14 percent of the world’s bird species are threatened with extinction, along with a whopping 40 percent of its amphibians and 25 percent of mammals. These numbers include such familiar and charismatic species as giant pandas, tigers and African elephants. But they also include lesser-known animals such as red knots.
Kids, many scientists believe, are a piece of the conservation puzzle. There are lots of ways they can help, for instance, staying away from protected beach areas that are reserved for shorebirds such as the red knot.
Kids can also help by becoming citizen scientists. As citizen scientists, they observe nature, document what they see and share what they know.
“Observing wildlife and nature is the start of everything when it comes to conservation,” said Bill McShea, a conservation ecologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute for more than 20 years. “It’s the basis for what scientists do.”
If kids spot a red knot on a trip to the Eastern Shore, they can let scientists know through eBird, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The eBird website (or free mobile app) has a form with sections to identify the species and indicate the where and when of the sighting. The project has documented more than 100 million bird sightings, according to the eBird website.
Another citizen science program, eMammal, encourages kids to become camera trappers. Volunteers help professional scientists collect and upload animal photos captured by camera traps, or motion-sensing cameras. The photos become part of the Smithsonian archives that scientists use to gain insight into the secret world of wildlife.
“Those observations, feeding into a central place, is the way we’re doing science right now,” McShea said.
And the photographic data does help scientists, said Stephanie Schuttler, a wildlife biologist and a research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She said kids participating in eMammal at a school near a protected tiger reserve in India had identified six tigers roaming near the school after dark. The discovery helped Schuttler and other scientists identify and count individual animals and determine where they go when people aren’t around.
The kids’ work also promotes future conservation by helping them connect with nature.
“That starts discussions about wildlife,” Schuttler said, “and encourages conservation.”
“Kids have a lot of power to change minds about the importance of taking care of nature,” McShea said. “Most of our history is, when the people move in, the wildlife moves out. And we’re kind of running out of that option. The big question is: Can we find a way to safely coexist?”
A citizen scientist is anyone (adults included) who documents what they see in nature and analyzes or shares it for the greater good, often as part of a real scientific project. Taking part in a citizen scientist program is a great way for kids to get involved with helping protect threatened species. Learn more at the websites linked below:
● Check out eMammal.si.edu to learn more about becoming a citizen scientist at home or at school. The program is a collaboration of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution.
● Visit ebird.org to find out how you can get register to help document bird numbers and locations.
● Join up with bumblebeewatch.org, an effort to track and conserve North America’s bumblebees.
● At journeynorth.org/monarchs, help track the monarch butterfly’s spring migration across North America.