It’s not often you can call people “birdbrains” and have it be a compliment.

Then again, what else would you call someone knowledgeable enough to distinguish a female osprey from a male? Last week, a squad of St. Joseph Elementary School fourth-graders tutored residents at the Brookdale Missoula Senior Living Center in the technique of gender-matching birds of prey viewed on remote video cameras. As you might imagine, there was a fair amount of who was teaching whom.

“If it has a lot of speckles on the chest — we call that the necklace, and that’s the female,” fourth-grader Jack Libel explained to Sharon Kunzer. “The male doesn’t have as many, and he’s smaller.”

At the next table, resident Veronica Burkett was running fourth-graders Catie Scott and Kayla Phelan through the osprey calls she’d learned to identify through her routine morning camera observations: “I’ve got fish,” “Intruder alert,” “Hal’s coming back,” “Harriet’s coming back.”

“And they can turn their heads all the way around, like an owl,” Burkett said. Hal and Harriet nest on a pole above Dunrovin Ranch near Lolo, where SuzAnne Miller has spent years building an online community of bird-watchers with her webcams. This week, she stepped the project up a level by demonstrating how the fans of Hal and Harriet can turn their pastime into citizen science.

“This is building community within the community,” Miller said. “We’re building an enormous data set that nobody could do on their own, and we all get to know each other in the process.”

Over the past several years, Miller noticed that the members of the international group of osprey watchers coming to Dunrovin’s webcam were also chatting digitally amongst themselves. They’d send alerts when the birds did something remarkable, such as when eggs hatched new chicks. But they’d also pass personal details, like birthdays or reasons for being absent for a vacation. Miller realized many people were finding a cure for loneliness by building online friendships through a shared love of birdwatching.

She also saw the potential of yoking that community for the sake of science. Osprey mate for life, and swap jobs of incubating eggs and catching fish to eat. But no one is sure if that’s a 50-50 deal, or if one gender does an unequal share.

To answer that requires two things: a lot of bird-watching and the skill to tell males from females. Miller set up an experiment where someone would watch the Dunrovin nest-cam for 5-minute intervals randomly sprinkled through the day, five days a week. The watcher, usually a Brookdale resident, would note who was on the nest, whether they had a fish, what the weather was and other details.

All that data would be sent to St. Joseph, where it got spread throughout the grades. Kindergartners might simply count how many times birds were or weren’t on the nest. Eighth-graders could correlate the success finding fish with weather conditions. And everybody was watching to see whether Hal or Harriet spent more time on the eggs.

Burkett said the osprey camera beat NBA basketball finals or the nightly news for prime TV entertainment. Brookdale activities manager Kim Stutzman backed her up, noting that at least a quarter of the home’s residents are regularly watching and talking about the osprey.

Miller has more than 50 schools around the nation working on the project, often in conjunction with local senior homes. She’s working on a National Science Foundation grant proposal to expand the effort even further.

One drawback to participation is lack of robust broadband service at many senior residences and nursing homes. Another need is for remote camera upgrades that can let trained watchers turn or zoom the lens: something useful when an osprey occasionally drops a fish and scavengers come to steal a snack.

“Every school can see what they contributed in the data files,” Miller said. “And the seniors all read up on osprey behavior, and they love it when the kids call and ask questions. It’s a single point everyone can connect to.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.