Citizen Science

Wildlife CSI: Compost Scene Investigation

October 14, 2014

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A coyote approaches a compost pile. Photo by Flickr user circulating through a Creative Commons license.

What is Wildlife CSI?

Residential composting has become a popular, and environmentally friendly, method of disposing of food waste. But that food also serves as a critter buffet.

How does the local wildlife behave around the compost heap?

Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Investigation) is on the case, and you could be one of their investigators, joining a crack team of sleuths that includes crowbots

Yes, crowbots.

The project uses camera traps to catch pictures of birds and mammals that visit the compost piles, and they need citizen science help to identify animals in the images.

“As an ecologist with projects that generate innumerable wildlife monitoring camera images, my research relies on the curiosity and generosity of citizen scientists who contribute to our efforts by identifying and counting animals in crowd-sourced images,” says Scott Smedley an ecologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and lead researcher for Wildlife CSI.

Why is Wildlife CSI Important?

By classifying the images caught on camera, Wildlife CSI is working to better understand how composting impacts the foraging ecology of wild birds and mammals.

“Even though residential composting is becoming an increasingly popular, as an environmentally friendly practice, we know surprisingly little about how it influences wildlife ecology,” says Smedley.

“One weird thing that we have discovered is that red-shouldered hawks, a species that you might not typically think as a compost scavenger, are frequent pile visitors, even eating vegetable matter,” Smedley reports. “It turns out that these hawks show an interesting association with crows.”

And that’s where the crowbots come in.

“Most red-shouldered hawk encounters at the compost piles take place with crows, our leading avian visitor.  With crowbots (robotic crows), we hope to investigate whether crow presence actually draws the hawks to the piles,” Smedley explains.

Learning about ecology is not the only goal for Wildlife CSI; they are also exploring many ways that citizen science can benefit people.

The project can also benefit conservation by reminding people of their connection to nature.

“While clearly not a substitute for getting out directly into nature, virtual excursions such as Wildlife CSI may nonetheless have benefits,” Smedley notes. “Participants find viewing our wildlife images to be entertaining, relaxing, and perhaps at times even a bit too engaging (sometimes it’s hard to step away from the computer!).”

Through Wildlife CSI, Dr. Smedley is collaborating with Prof. Lisa Nisbet, an environmental psychologist at Trent University in Ontario on cross-disciplinary research to better understand how connecting to nature affects human well-being.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and some crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) gather at the compost pile. Image courtesy of Wildlife CSI.
A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and some crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) gather at the compost pile. Image courtesy of Wildlife CSI.

And Wildlife CSI is engaging students in citizen science.

“Since a little friendly competition is always enjoyable, we thought that would be fun to introduce an element of team-play to Wildlife CSI,” says Smedley. “Working with my colleagues in IT, we added the ability to have contests where the outcome is based on the number of images teams categorize and their accuracy in identifying and counting the animals.”

Many of the competitions have been between undergraduate students at Trinity. Last year the students of an introductory biology course provided over 110,000 image categorizations (an average over 750 per student)!

“Their citizen science experience is woven into the classroom to deepen the students’ engagement with ecological concepts that they are learning about,” Smedley explains.

And high school classes can get in on the fun too. Teachers from across the United States and Canada can sign-up their classrooms to compete in a Wildlife CSI contest.

Follow them on Facebook or check their blog for updates on new opportunities, updates on team standings, coverage of related ecological stories, and research reports.

That’s not all. Wildlife CSI has a pilot project, currently available in Connecticut only, to study how participating in citizen science can benefit veterans. 

How Can You Get Involved in Wildlife CSI?

It’s easy and free to get started.

Just visit their website and get started by watching the Instructional Video. Do not skip this – there are some handy tips!

Then check out the Field Guide to familiarize yourself with the scavenging wildlife of Connecticut. You’ll be able to come back to this as you need it. The tips for differentiating similar wildlife (like turkey vultures and wild turkeys) are essential.

Then you can get started by clicking Image Database. There is a quick registration (only name and email required) and a 20 image quiz to make sure that you have learned to identify the relevant wildlife. Then you’re ready to start!

If you run into any trouble you can visit the Wildlife CSI Blog or their Facebook page to discuss.

Contribute to a project that’s investigating wildlife, benefiting people, and bringing crowbots into the world!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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