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Crossroads of Citizen Science

Birds, Butterflies and Hams


*Email: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

Citizen science is big and growing, fueled in large part by the internet’s ability to connect many people in many places to central points for gathering data. More and more scientists are coming to appreciate the value of observations made and reported by large numbers of individuals in hundreds or thousands of locations. At the same time, individual non-scientists are learning that by collecting and reporting information on topics of interest to them, they can make a meaningful contribution to the body of scientific knowledge.

Hams have been involved with citizen science since before it had a name, starting with the ARRL-sponsored transatlantic tests in the 1920s, continuing through the CQ-led Radio Amateur Scientific Observations program in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s to current- day research into various ionospheric phenomena being coordinated by HamSci, the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation organization1.

There is similar citizen science going on in other fields as well, and sometimes those fields intersect in unexpected ways. A well-known example of this sort of crossroads is between biology, meteorology and seismology, based on long-documented observations that some animals seem to have a highly-developed ability to predict severe weather and even earthquakes and change their behavior well before we humans can observe any warning signs. How can a better understanding of what animals seem to sense help our own abilities to predict and prepare for these events?

Birds and Butterflies

Here’s another example, from personal experience. Over the past several years, my wife, Susan, and I have become semi-serious birders and milkweed “farmers,” working to provide habitat and food sources for monarch butterfly caterpillars. (Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed, which is the only food the caterpillars eat.) In the process, this past summer, without really intending to, we found ourselves “foster parenting” more than a dozen monarch caterpillars that seemed to be particularly susceptible to either severe weather or predators. We’ve been very fortunate that, as of this writing, we have had a very high success rate in raising and releasing these magnificent insects.

While some of the butterflies we’ve released have hung around our garden for a while, soaking up the sun and filling up on nectar before beginning their fall migration to Mexico, others have been in more of a hurry. And those have behaved in exactly the same way … flying straight up until they were clear of nearby houses and other obstructions, making two to three circles, then flying off over our neighbor’s house – heading due south.

Meanwhile, we’ve been continuing our informal birding education and have learned that one of the tools used by migratory birds to know when and where to travel is an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Apparently, some birds have been found to have a specialized organ near their eyes with that specific function. This information made the butterfly behavior make much more sense – those two to three circles in which they flew before taking off must be how they “set their compasses” and know which direction to travel. (I remember when getting a new car with a built-in compass several years ago, being instructed to find a clear location and drive in a circle several times to set the compass. These butterflies appeared to be doing exactly the same thing.)

Of course, there’s a significant correlation between changes in Earth’s magnetic field and radio wave propagation. Geomagnetic “storms” and other disturbances can result in aurora, HF propagation “blackouts” and many other ionospheric phenomena that affect propagation.

So here’s another crossroads – this one between biology and physics. What can atmospheric and space scientists learn from the ability of birds, butterflies and perhaps other animals to sense the magnetic field and use it to help determine their actions? And what can we, as citizen scientists, do to help collect and share information that may be helpful to professional scientists in both fields of study? Do behavioral changes by wildlife correlate with changes in propagation, as they seem to do for weather?

We invite your input, especially if you happen to be a professional in one of these fields and see the potential in this kind of scientific cross-pollination (speaking of butterflies) and the potential for citizen scientists to play a role. We’d also like to hear from readers who are involved with other pursuits that present additional “crossroads” between branches of scientific study, preferably with a ham radio tie-in (beyond my wife’s and my additional observation that hummingbirds seem to love sitting on my feedline while resting or waiting their turn at our feeder).

In This Issue…

This issue has a mix of articles that’s nearly as eclectic as the ham radio hobby itself, stretching from a project article on building a panadapter around a Raspberry Pi microcomputer to a perspective on the differences between ham radio in eastern Europe under Communism and after its fall (you might be surprised at the author’s conclusions). We’ve got two antenna articles, an introduction to the Islands on the Air (IOTA) program, a look at QSL cards as ham radio’s “postal history” and a look back at a pre-internet DXing tool with a close CQ connection. Plus, of course, we have the results of this year’s CQ WPX CW Contest and much, much more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

At the end of this month, those of us in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving at the start of the CQ World Wide DX Contest CW Weekend (I think I have the priorities in the right order there, HI). Despite our current state of political polarization with more than enough anger on both sides of the spectrum, we still have much for which to be thankful. We can start with our great hobby that brings together people from all over the world with a shared interest in radio, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, language or political persuasion. Someone with a ham radio call sign after his or her name is assumed to be a friend unless proven otherwise. So, for at least one weekend this month, let’s all try to put aside our grievances and give thanks for our health, our families, our friends and our hobby. And hold onto some of those leftovers to keep you fueled during the CQWW CW Contest!

Note: 1. See www.hamsci.org and May 2018 CQ, p. 32

– 73, Rich, W2VU
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