Show Off Your Backyard Birds And Bugs

5:33 minutes

a logo of a green circle with little bits of leaves and nature on the edges. it reads "city nature challenge 2020"April is Citizen Science Month, a chance for everyone to get involved with data collection and research, no matter where you are. 

This week, we’re highlighting the City Nature Challenge, an annual friendly competition that inspires people to get outside and document what they see in nature. In previous years, participating cities won awards for the most observations made, the most species found, and the most participants. But due to COVID-19, the competition aspect is slashed—people everywhere can take part.

Joining Ira to talk about the City Nature Challenge is event co-founder Lila Higgins, a museum educator at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County in Los Angeles, California. 

Learn more about the City Nature Challenge and other SciFri Citizen Science Month projects at sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. Join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our events here!

Get Involved With The City Nature Challenge!

  1. Visit iNaturalist.org, register, and join the Science Friday project!
  2. Download the iNaturalist app from the AppStore or Google Play and start photographing wild plants and animals, then upload your observations.
  3. Join our livestream event on Tuesday, April 21st at 4pm ET to rep your city biodiversity pride, play a rousing game of “WILD or NOT?!” and get tips on nature viewing while social distancing from City Nature Challenge organizers from around the country and world. Join via Zoom or Facebook.
  4. Check out City Nature Challenge’s Education Toolkit, including tips for teaching and learning outside and a massive library of educator-developed lessons and activities for all grade levels.

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Segment Guests

Lila Higgins

Lila Higgins is co-founder of City Nature Challenge in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Earth Day is over you might still have the bug for going outside and exploring the nature that’s in your backyard or hanging out outside your window. And you know you can find joy in this strange time by snapping a picture of a blooming flower or a buzzing bumblebee and sending those to the City Nature Challenge. It’s a citizen science project taking place all over the world.

And all you needed to do to participate is a smartphone and a sense of curiosity. Lila Higgins is one of the founders of the City Nature Challenge. She’s based at the Natural History Museum of LA county in Los Angeles. Welcome.


IRA FLATOW: So tell us about the City Nature Challenge. What information are you trying to collect?

LILA HIGGINS: So we started back in 2016 as a competition between LA and San Francisco, which city could find in most nature. We know that urban areas are kind of understudied on the biological side. And so we thought it would be a fun way to celebrate the very first national citizen science day back that in 2016 to try and fill in those data gaps in the urban spaces.

And it’s kind of snowballed since then. And now it’s a global competition of over 200 cities. And I think it’s 32 or more countries.

IRA FLATOW: When you say competition, what do you mean by that? We’re all competing with each other.

LILA HIGGINS: So in years past, it has been a competition, yes. And this year, because of coronavirus, with many of us in our homes, we have turned it into more of a collaboration, a celebration of nature and urban spaces, what can we all find together as opposed to competing with each other?

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tell us a bit about how once we collect all the data– and I mean, we I mean you, how might this data be used?

LILA HIGGINS: Yes. So the platform that most of the cities are using is called iNaturalist. And it’s an open source data repository. I call it like Facebook for nature nerds. And all of the data gets put into that platform, photographs, or sounds can be uploaded.

And then that is evidence for what is in the city. And we have a biological record. Just like a record in a museum collection that has a specimen, this has a photographic piece of evidence instead. And we have a date, a location, we know who collected it and what that species was.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I have an iNaturalist app on my phone. I use it, but do I have to send my photo to someplace in particular?

LILA HIGGINS: So, no, you don’t. The great thing about iNaturalist is the projects that we have created for the City Nature Challenge automatically aggregate within the boundary. So for LA, it’s the entire county of Los Angeles. And any picture or observations submitted during that time automatically goes into the city nature challenge.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Can I take a picture of my dog and send it in?

LILA HIGGINS: Well, some people do do that, but we really like it if it’s wild creatures, wild plants and animals. So domesticated animals like cats and dogs or like a rabbit that you might be having as a pet are not necessarily encouraged. The animals in zoos not encouraged.

And plants and potted areas, like in your house or in your backyard, cultivated plants are also really not necessarily what we’re looking for. We’re looking for those wild species. So a weed growing in the crack of a sidewalk, something that is grown there by itself without the aid of humans.

IRA FLATOW: So I guess you’re going to be a little bit limited in searching through your locale, because you’re going to be limited to your backyard or the cracks in your driveway or the sidewalk this year.

LILA HIGGINS: It’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. And I really feel the difficulty of it personally and from all of our organizers that we’ve been talking with around the world.

So we understand that it’s really difficult. And we understand that people aren’t going to be making observations in the same way, but I’m living with my parents. And I went into their garage. And I took some pictures of some brown widow spider egg cases. I have been in my parents backyard and taken pictures of little flies landing on leaves.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. Confess the dates. How long is this collection happening?

LILA HIGGINS: So it starts at basically 12 AM on April 24. And goes through 11:59 PM on the 27th. And so any picture, any observation made within that time period counts. You can upload them right then and there, or if you are really like taking a lot of pictures, you can upload them over the next week. And we announced the results on May 4.

IRA FLATOW: And all you need is one little app and you’re set.


IRA FLATOW: And if you want to learn more, let me tell our listeners about the City Nature Challenge. We’ve got a sci-fi livestream coming up. You can ask Lila and her co-founder Alison Young questions you might have about the event.

And that event is on Tuesday, April 21 at 4:00 PM Eastern time. You can find out more about the city nature challenge and other fun citizen science projects at sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. Thank you for coming on the show, Lila, and talking about it.

LILA HIGGINS: Thank you so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Lila Higgins is one of the founders of the City Nature Challenge based at the Natural History Museum of LA county in Los Angeles.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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