(This 942nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 12, 2009.)



Lilac blossoms from Wikipedia


Phenology, according to Wikipedia, is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how they are influenced by seasonal and yearly climate variation. The subject is principally concerned with the dates of first occurrence of biological events in their annual cycle.


Among the events studied are the date of emergence of leaves and flowers, the first flight of butterflies and the first appearance of migratory birds, the date of leaf coloring and fall in deciduous trees, the dates of egg-laying of birds and amphibians, and the timing of the developmental cycles of temperate-zone honey bee colonies. More generally, phenology also includes the dates of last appearance. Thus two phenological data would be the robin that first appeared in my yard last year on March 15 and was last seen there on November 5.


Collected phenology records provide information about climate change and global warming and cooling. As one example of this, European grape harvest records have allowed scientists to reconstruct summer growing season temperatures for over five centuries, from 1480 to 2005. Among the interesting correlations exposed by this study was the year 1816, also known as "the Poverty Year" and "Eighteen hundred and froze to death." Mount Tambora had erupted the previous year and volcanic dust in the upper atmosphere caused sharply lower temperatures. As one consequence, the 1816 grape season was delayed five weeks.


Now, as with the Ebird program for birds that I reported about several weeks ago, phenologists are calling upon community members to report their observations of local trees and wildflowers. You can become a citizen scientist by reporting to them on the web what you see in your own yard or in a local park each year: your first maple leaf, your first lilac blossom, your first dandelion.


There are two websites collecting this kind of information: the National Phenology Network and Cornell University's Project Budbreak.


I have registered at both to record my own observations of some of the individual plants that I recognize with my wife's help. I urge you to do so as well, whether or not you are a gardener or botanist.


The initial process of entering the location you will be reporting and the plants you will record is a bit daunting and some patience is required. Once you have done this, however, using either site becomes easy and you can record occasional observations of the individual plants you have registered: when their leaves bud, unfold and fade; and when their blossoms bud, bloom and, if appropriate, bear fruit. Hopefully you will continue to do this for many years.


Don't be put off by the request for latitude and longitude when you first identify a site. If, for example, you are identifying your yard, you are told how to obtain this information simply by entering your street address. (Once you have done this, you will know this exact location probably for the first and only time in your life.) If you make mistakes, you will be given an opportunity to correct your work.


A very different but quite possibly even more important activity is the North American Bird Phenology Program, based at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Begun in 1881 by ornithologist Wells Cooke and continuing until 1970, the Center collected migration records from ornithologists across North America. In its heyday, this activity involved 3000 participants and over six million handwritten cards were submitted. Little used in the past, the cards are now being transcribed by volunteers and will provide critical information on bird distribution, migration timing, migration pathways and how they are changing. No other program can better help us understand the effect that global climate change has had on bird populations nationwide.


Participating in this program involves transcribing the handwritten records into a modern database. My own experience suggests that it takes only about a minute per card. Even at that rate, over 100,000 hours of transcription time will be required to complete this project. To learn more about this important activity and hopefully to take part in it, visit the program website.


In any one of these three ways, you can contribute to our knowledge of the world around us.