Transnational Citizen Science: An Interview with Lilly Briggs, Coordinator of BirdSleuth Costa Rica

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Interview by Kirsten Greer.

Lilly Briggs is a graduate student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, with an area of concentration in the conservation of neotropical migratory songbirds. She also helped coordinate BirdSleuth Costa Rica, an environmental pilot project designed to engage children and youth in bird conservation. As Transnational Ecologies is working with Costa Rica’s Centro de Apprendizaje para la Conservacion de Sarapiqui (Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Centre) to develop shared environmental history curriculum, we look forward to drawing from Lilly’s expertise. Kirsten Greer interviewed Lilly recently about her travels and her encounters with birds and education.

Lilly’s passion for birds started when she was nine years old in the small town of Chelsea, Quebec. Lilly had already lived in different parts of Asia before settling in the countryside near Ottawa, where her father worked for Foreign Affairs. Perhaps her transient life allowed her to be more attuned to the migratory nature of birds, traveling from one place to the next.

Her father was a keen birdwatcher and set up several bird feeders at her family home. Lilly loved watching the numerous visitors to her house, which included grosbeaks, sparrows, and chickadees. The gregarious Blue Jay emerged as her favourite bird that frequented regularly her birdfeeders, garnering her the nickname “Blue Jay”.

Lilly decided to attend Dalhousie University for her undergraduate degree. After graduating, she worked at the Falls Brook Centre in rural New Brunswick, where she reacquainted herself with the birds of her childhood, and realized the importance of bird conservation. She decided to pursue a career in environmental studies and applied to the Masters of Environmental Studies program at York University. Sparked by Dr. Bridget Stutchbury’s influential bookSilence of the Songbirds, songbirds emerged as her primary research interest.

At York University, Lilly completed courses in ornithology, and worked with Dr. Eugene Morton on the Blue-Headed Vireo in Pennsylvania. For her MES, she decided to pursue a practical project that contributed directly to bird conservation. Upon learning about the BirdSleuth curriculum, designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, Lilly identified a missing link in the North American program: education in bird conservation along the birds’ migratory routes such as in Latin America. BirdSleuth is a supplementary science curriculum focused on fostering curiosity about birds while collecting data for one of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Projects.

This is how Lilly came up with the pilot project BirdSleuth Costa Rica. In partnership with the Lab, as well as La Selva Biological Station in northern Costa Rica, Lilly modified the existing BirdSleuth modules to include the local avifauna. Lilly says that citizen science is a great way to make people feel hands-on about conservation, and an opportunity to let people, even children, see their contributions in action. With BirdSleuth, children and youth learn about the different species of birds and about scientific concepts, such as population monitoring, animal behaviour, and ecology.

In order to adapt the Birdsleuth program for Costa Rica, Lilly had to condense the program down from six to four lessons for the purpose of the field test. She also had to translate all bird names into Spanish for the schools. She helped students submit their bird observation data to eBird, an online database used by scientists to learn about bird populations and distribution.

Lilly enjoyed seeing some of the students become excited when they observed bird species learned in the class room. As she puts it, it was “curriculum put in action”. Students often shared their knowledge of birds and installed bird feeders at their homes.

The Birdsleuth initiative in Costa Rica has illustrated how particular programs developed in North America need to be adapted to local contexts. Lilly learned that most of the Spanish bird names she had studied (and put into the curriculum) were not used in this particular region. The local names for birds were assigned mainly to the most visible ones or ones with very definitive features. More importantly, one name could apply to a whole group of similar looking birds.

However, what surprised Lilly the most was how birds were often taken for granted in a place that is viewed as a leader in ecotourism and conservation. Part of the explanation could be linked to the socio-economic conditions of the region where she worked, which was very rural and one of the poorest areas of Costa Rica. Most schools did not have computers to contribute to the eBird database, and could therefore not see their contributions in action. Furthermore, the migratory birds she observed in Canada were, although present, not as visible in Costa Rica, except for the Turkey Vulture. This made it harder to link the transient lives of birds from Canada to Costa Rica.

Lilly says that if she has an opportunity to run Bird Sleuth Costa Rica again, she would modify her approach to the project. For example, one teacher in particular made helpful changes to the modules, which she would implement. Another alteration would be to provide a variety of visual tools to illustrate the migratory behaviour of birds, showing photos or video of birds in American and Canadian landscapes. This would help the children see the different habitats and along the bird’s journey. Finally, Lilly would like to incorporate more tangible activities to make the project more accessible to the students.

This summer Lilly is hoping to continue the BirdSleuth program in Costa Rica, pending funding. What started as a childhood interest in birds has now morphed into a lifelong pursuit for the conservation of birds at a transnational scale. If you have any questions about Birdsleuth or would like to become involved in the project, please feel free to contact Lilly Lilly is also a member of the NiCHE’s Transnational Ecologies Project.


Featured image: Mangrove birds in Damas, Costa Rica, 2009. Image by kansasphoto on Wikimedia Commons.

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Laura Jean Cameron is a Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University, Kingston, and coordinates the Sonic Arts of Place Lab. As a Canada Research Chair in Historical Geographies of Nature (2003-2012), her work has investigated a range of field sciences as place-based practices and as cultural encounters. Before arriving at Queen’s, she held a Junior Research Fellowship in Historical Geography at Churchill College, Cambridge (1999-2002). She is the author of Openings: A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997 and co-author with John Forrester of Freud in Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017. She also co-edited Emotion, Place and Culture, Ashgate, 2009 and Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness, UBC Press, 2011. Currently she enjoys writing in various genres about fieldwork, emotions and nature, collaborating on sound installations, and hosting the Fireplace Series: Interdisciplinary Conversations, a podcast series you can listen to here:

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