Calling All Urban Wildlife Fans: How to be a Community Scientist at Home

The scientific community’s knowledge of urban nature is minimal because of their inability to access all urban areas as vast as Los Angeles. This is where you and your family can help!

Those hummingbirds quickly fluttering by your window, the small lizard doing pushups on the pavement, the praying mantis calmly hanging out on your railing, the squirrels zipping across the street and up the trees, the butterfly landing on your hand — local wildlife is all around us. And if your family is up for scientific exploration in your immediate surroundings, biologists and wildlife experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) and on iNaturalist are recruiting community scientists of all ages to report local wildlife observations! We spoke to wildlife biologist Miguel Ordeñana, NHMLAC’s manager of Community Science, to get the lowdown.

Child holding a magnifying glass | Maiz Connolly

Why the World Needs Community Scientists

The scientific community’s knowledge of urban nature is minimal because of its inability to access all urban areas, especially such a vast as Los Angeles. “For the scientific community to answer questions regarding what the distribution of animal species is in a place like L.A., we can’t do it without the public’s help,” says Ordeñana, who as a child was inspired by wildlife in residential areas. “It is difficult for scientists to personally access people’s backyards without painstaking effort. Also, the scale at which we’re trying to answer questions, it’s just impossible for us to reach that type of geographic area with just a small team and limited funding. With the help of the community, we can really expand our knowledge of an urban setting.”

Anyone of Any Age Can Be a Community Scientist

If you thought only people who have science degrees could contribute to scientific research, Ordeñana stresses otherwise: “Anybody can participate in science, from a very young age. Some professional scientists are being paid to do science, and community scientists who are volunteering their time, but that doesn’t make their role in science projects less valuable,” he shares. “A lot of children especially have made amazing discoveries within the urban wildlife field without having a Ph.D. or even having gone through high school. One that comes to mind that’s featured in our Nature Lab exhibit is Reese Bernstein, who recorded the first Mediterranean House Gecko in L.A. County in 2010.” At nine years old, the SoCal resident who loved and studied lizards as a pastime was at a friend’s barbecue in Chatsworth, when he saw a reptile that he knew what was not an ordinary lizard but a type of gecko. Bernstein and his father contacted Professor Robert Espinoza at CalState Northridge and NHMLAC. Greg Pauly, curator of Herpetology at NHMLAC, initiated a gecko hunt with the help of the Bernstein family to begin tracking the range of the established population. Ordeñana adds, “Later, Bernstein even coauthored a scientific paper about finding the gecko with Greg and the professor so at around age 11, he became a published author.”

Miguel’s daughter holding up a jar | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Miguel Ordeñana

Great discoveries in science have no age limit or geographical boundaries. “This is an example of how easy it can be just to make such a big impact just by being curious and looking at your neighborhood differently, whether you’re in an apartment complex or at a human-dominated setting like a party,” says the biologist, who was the first person to discover the existence of the most famous mountain lion in the world, P-22, living in Griffith Park. “You can be anywhere at any time to make an impactful discovery. And hopefully, our museum is a resource for people to learn about how to look for wildlife in urban settings, because it can pay off really quickly and really easily, and our world will be a better place for it.”

Tools of the Trade

A child taking photographs on a phone | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Miguel Ordeñana

Equipment:

  • Smartphone or digital camera: to photograph the animal in its habitat
  • iNaturalist app (for Apple or Android devices): to get the animal’s GPS location and enter data

Other helpful tools:

  • Ruler for scale (for tracks, scat, animal sign)
  • Binoculars
  • Magnifying glass

If not available, you can also use the following:

  • Pen and pencil: To write and draw with
  • Notebook (aka nature journal): To record your observations and sketch what you see.
  • Access to a phone or email: Observations can be emailed to nature@nhm.org, texting 213.663.6632, calling 213.763.3466, or tagging NHMLAC with #NatureinLA on social media.

Ordeñana notes that having a smartphone or a digital camera to capture images of the animals to share with scientists is helpful and ideal, so “you can also grab the GPS location, date and time by using an app like iNaturalist, which allows you to turn that Instagram-friendly photo into something that’s actually a really usable data point for scientists around the world.” However, there are other ways to share your animal observations, he says. “You can write down notes in a nature journal, and let us know what you find over the phone, or you can mail us your notes.”

How to Look for Wildlife

You can find nature in your home or just right outside your door, whether you’re in a large apartment complex in downtown L.A. or a house in the suburbs of the Valley. If you have a backyard or a balcony, or even the sidewalk in front of your home, urban wildlife is roaming your streets and alleyways and flying overhead and around. Some tips are to look for habitat, where animals can find food, water or shelter (puddle, pond, irrigation box, under a rock, etc.). Also, make sure to look straight into the horizon, up into the sky and trees, down onto the ground and underneath leaf litter. But there are precautions you should take, according to Ordeñana:

Children examining plants | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Miguel Ordeñana

  • Stay within your comfort zone: “Engage in your personal space in a new way and look for nature in your home or around the apartment complex, anywhere that you feel safe.”
  • Look at the animals, but avoid touching: “I would recommend not touching animals. They may have sensitive skin, and also, they are going to defend themselves. The oils or lotion on your hands can injure or damage them. For instance, who wants to get stung by a bee?”
  • If you do touch or disturb the animals to get a better photo, put them back exactly where you found them: “You don’t know how important some of these little details are within their surroundings. Let’s say that you lifted a log or a rock, and you found a snail or a slug. You should put it back under that rock in the same place and in the exact orientation because it could have been providing a certain amount of protection from the sun at a certain angle, or a certain amount of cover. That’s just an example of how delicate the little microclimate that they create for themselves. Also, don’t forget to wash your hands.”
  • When you explore for wildlife around rocks, lift the rock toward you: “This gives you protection between you and the animals if it decides to run it runs away from you, or tries to move toward your face.

What Data to Record of the Animal

  • Photo or sketch of the animal
  • Physical characteristics
  • Behavior
  • Location (as specific as possible)
  • Date and time
  • Weather
  • Sounds

Urban wildlife comes in all sizes, so you can start small with an accessible insect that you experience every day, such as a beetle or a ladybug. As an example of a larger flying animal, Ordeñana shares what kinds of notes to take: “If it’s a bird, try to describe the general shape of the bird, its wing length. And then also take note of the color or colors of the animal, and estimate the size of the animal, its scale,” he says. “For instance, is it the size of an avocado versus the size of a lime? Also, location is very important, as well as the date and the time. Other things that we sometimes ask is the weather and what the animal was doing. Was it eating, was it fighting with another animal, was it running away from you? All those things are really good things to note! If you’re able to capture the sounds of the animal, iNaturalist accepts those, such as a birdcall.”

Current Community Science Projects at NHMLAC

The museum is happy to accept any organism observations, but if you want to jump on one of NHMLAC’s current initiatives, their Community Science team would appreciate your help with these projects:

“For the Painted Lady migration study, right now, we’re asking people to go out in their personal spaces and their comfort zones to observe Painted Ladies,” says Ordeñana. “Basically look out for about ten minutes in the same direction onto the street, and count how many Painted Ladies you see go by and in what direction around 12 p.m., when it’s warm, because that’s when they are most active when it’s warm, and a lot of people have been successful at documenting them.”

Even while the museum is closed, science and the community fun continue with your participation! Check out the many online resources and Community Science-oriented training sessions coming up for your family to enjoy: