Skyler Price: Citizen Science Sparrow Swap Internship

Have you ever seen a small, dainty, blue-colored bird with a dark tan chest? If so, you have probably seen an Eastern Bluebird, one of the area’s most beautiful native bird species. While bluebirds are known for their distinctive cerulean feathers and melodious songs, it is a much lesser known fact that bluebirds often fall prey to an unsuspecting, sometimes quite menacing, predator.

One on of my last days as an intern with Sparrow Swap, I was able to go out to our nestboxes. At one of our nestboxes located at NC State’s Agroecology Farm, we found baby blue birds!

This spring semester I had the opportunity to serve as an intern with Sparrow Swap, led by Dr. Caren Cooper in coordination with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University. The project’s main focus is to find the best methods to protect the precious Eastern Bluebird from the House Sparrow, more commonly referred to as HOSP. HOSP’s are known to prey upon bluebirds and their nests. HOSPs often attack bluebirds, sometimes even killing them, in order to take over their nest. To help mitigate the effects of this invasive species, Sparrow Swap has been working with dedicated citizen scientists through SciStarter to find the best way to manage the HOSP population and reduce the number of bluebird deaths.

Probably one of my favorite parts of Sparrow Swap is how it incorporates citizens across the country in its research. I have always been interested in the Citizen Science program, and it was incredible to work on project that relies on the help of citizens to accomplish its project goals. I was surprised by how much people wanted to help; volunteers would even send in numerous datasheets filled with observations of multiple nests that they checked on a weekly basis, even though this is above and beyond what we asked of them.

Perhaps the most challenging, and satisfying, part of this experience was assisting the team with organizing the thousands of data that they had collected in the last 3 years. Since I joined the project right when they had finished gathering their data from 2018, there were a lot of pieces that needed to be organized, double-checked, and triple-checked to make sure that our data was accurate. When I first started to help with the data management, I remember feeling incredibly nervous at first. While it feels like a miniscule task, I kept thinking, “What if I mess something up? Or miss something and our results do not accurately reflect the data?”. Even more importantly, I did not want to make a mistake and ruin the hard work of the Citizen Scientists that had spent so much time helping us.

Fortunately, I was able to quickly learn how to navigate our database, as well as sift through the hundreds of datasheets and numerous excel files, thanks to the help of graduate student Suzanne Hartley. One of the greatest things about being a part of the Sparrow Swap team was being able to work closely with Suzanne. She helped me a lot through this experience and gave me a glimpse into what being a graduate student is like.

These baby bluebirds have a safe home thanks to the work of the Sparrow Swap team and all of the Citizen Scientists that have helped us!

After this internship, I hope to complete my degree and earn my BS in Environmental Sciences, with minors in Global Health and Environmental Toxicology. This summer I plan to begin studying for the GRE, so that I can be ready to apply to graduate school during my senior year at NC State. After earning my bachelor’s degree, I hope to pursue a Master’s in Public Health and eventually work at a government agency, focusing on the intersections of public policy, environmental health, and public health.

My experience with Sparrow Swap has been fantastic; I have gotten a ton of practice with data interpretation and management, as well as be able to learn more about the Citizen Science program and work directly with citizen scientists from all over the United States. It is rewarding to know that my efforts, along with the rest of the project team and the citizen scientists, is helping to preserve the nation’s bluebird population.