Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.
Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.
Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.
Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.
The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.
– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.