Do you trust your nature stalking skills? Do you like to watch birds migrate, plants flower? Read this!
Phenology is the science of ‘periodic events’ in nature and how they are affected by various factors such as changes in climate. This periodic events include plants flowering, birds migrating, eggs hatching… and so on. For phenology, the ‘first time’ (or the starting) of these events is mainly important which means, of course you’ll see trees drop their leaves in autumn but the important part is when the first leaf fell (quite a movie name, I know:D).
Nature’s own watch!
The term ‘phenology’ was first coined by Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren in 1849. He was also the first to use it in a scientific paper (the paper was; Souvenirs phénologiques de l’hiver 1852-1853). Now, the term was used in 1849 but we, humans, are using phenology since -almost- the dawn of our history. No doubt that you’ve heard or even witnessed and participated in some festivals to celebrate phenological events like first blooming of a certain flower or starting of the main harvest of the year. But way before we begun to ‘harvest’ we were hunting and collecting and still using the phenological events to show us when to. How?
Imagine that all watches, phones, pc’s, calendars… everything that may give you a clue about the time, is gone and a mysterious machine made you forgot all about the date you are in. So now, you don’t know which year and month (and of course season) you are in and what time it is. If someone asks you, in any random moment, what time it is or is it night or day or noon, which month or season it is, what would you do? How would you answer? You certainly look out of your window, measure the sunlight, search for signs like; if there are any leaves on trees and if there are, what color they are, is there any fruits or flowers, etc. and then give an approximate time, don’t you? Now when you think about it you can see how our grand grand grand grand… grand parents managed to know when to hunt, when to sleep and when to hide, waaaay before all these clue-givers, phones, watches,… were invented:)
What’s the use of phenology?
Natural cycles are like perfectly programmed clocks, in normal conditions everything goes on as it’s always gone. But today almost nothing is lived ‘in normal conditions’ isn’t it? If you are like me, I mean if you can spend hours just browsing plant or animal photos on Instagram, I’m sure you’ve noticed that lots of people are sharing photos of blooming trees in winter and say ‘Is it even possible in December?’ or under a robin photo they ask ‘Here? Now?!’. Well of course seeing a flower popping out of snow is always a pleasing image but the truth behind it may not be so pleasing. These type of responses are so sensitive and precise, that they are very great indicators for about how climate change is having its impact on the earth. With these precious clues scientists can predict, how certain populations are and will be affected, will there be a chance for their survival or not, etc. And guess what? You don’t have to be a scientist to join the crew!
There are a lot of citizen science projects for phenology and yes, you don’t have to be an expert on anything to participate. Every project has it’s own protocols, regulation, education materials and rules to follow but in short you’ll be doing a thing that you enjoy doing, stalking nature! Mainly, you’ll be recording ‘phenophases’ for the plant that you’ve choosen(I speak of plants mainly but these projects are including animals too). A phenophase is, any of many observable stages in a plant’s life cycle (for example, the duration that you see fully opened flowers on that plant).
“I want to join! But how?”
Ok, so you’ve decided to participate, great! First thing to do is, choosing the right project for yourself. There are many alternatives to choose from both local and global. After you made your choice, read the instructions on the projcet’s web site, be sure you understood what you are expected to do and get the education materials if provided. These education materials mainly tell you what you can observe, how will you observe plants/animals, how to mark them (so that you won’t forget which tree you were observing:)), how to choose your site (your observation area; can be your garden or a park…), how can you seperate different phenological phases from eachother (such as flowering, budding…) and of course how you will record your observation data. Did you get everything? You have no questions? Then you are ready!
A couple of important things to mention…
Now, as a person who worked in a phenology project myself (alas not as a participant:/), I want to underline some very very important points. I strongly support citizen science projects, in fact I want this blog to create an impact like a citizen science project would do and raise people’s awareness and interest for plants around them, and while some submit their plant photos, others can enjoy browsing those photos while learning what they are (I’m sure it will happen sooner or later:D). I do believe these kind of projects affect people’s -especially children’s- perception about nature because nothing can be compared to a hands on experience. Yet, before you participate in any phenology project you must think very carefully. Will you keep up with your expected programme? Did you really understand what you will be doing? Did you cleared out what to do if you’ve missed a phenophase, how to report it? And do you really feel ready to start?
These questions -and many more others- may seem boring, after all I said you don’t have to be an expert. I don’t want to be a buzzkill but these boring points can ruin everything you’ll do for a project and devalue all the data you’ve collected and if not reported/noticed can lead to biased results in studies which will use those data.
But hey! Don’t turn away from participating, I’m just trying to say that, being punctual, precise and yes, ‘honest’ is a key point in citizen science projects – not for just phenology. It’s a great fun to be a part of and your help will mean a lot but so long as you take it seriously. And the good news is, even if your answer is ‘no’ to all these questions, it can be solved with just some more reading (yaayy education materials!:D) and a bit more dedication;).
Here is a very short list of some leading phenology projects around the world but there are many more out there, so search and find the best project for yourselves: