Growing Movements & Saving Birds With Behavioral Science

How can organizations grow participation in science that protects our world? And how can we design research to study behaviors that matter?

Contributors to the Great Backyard Bird Count. Photos clockwise from top left: Cindy Brown/GBBC; Saneesh CS/GBBC; Lynette Spence/GBBC; Pete Davidson/GBBC.
Students designed the subject line and call to action in this email that we tested
  • The control message used the lab’s standard annual email, with the subject “GBBC e-News.” A call to action linked to more information about birds.
  • A conservation message, with a headline that “It’s up to us to bring birds back!” The call to action linked to a FeederWatch, a popular donation-based program to spot and save birds
  • A intrinsic motivation message (shown above) promised results from the bird count. The call to action linked to eBird, where people can report the birds they spot without paying a donation.

What We Discovered

We started by looking at email opens. Among people who received the standard newsletter, 41% opened the email. Across all groups, most of these were people who contributed at least one checklist to the bird count before we sent out the email. While 14% of people who never contributed checklists did open the follow-up email, 100% of those who contributed checklists opened the email (p<0.001).

What Does This Mean for Community Science?

What do we learn from this messaging experiment?

People shared more observations when we gave them information on the outcome of their contributions and explained that help was still needed

We also learned that people who submit bird lists during GBBC are much more likely to engage with content and opportunities later on — but that some of those who never submit a list are also potential long-term contributors. While non-participate might indicate lack of motivation or opportunity for on-going contribution, some non-participants might just have not seen any birds that day. Future initiatives should look separately at first-time contributors as distinct from people who signed up but haven’t managed to contribute yet.

Clear, persuasive messages and straightforward pathways for participation can increase people’s contributions to community science

Even if you’re not in conservation or community science organizations, you can still learn something from the study. By measuring the behaviors that matter to your organization, you can go beyond open rates and view counts to measure impact of your interventions on behavior.


Many thanks to Becca Rodomsky-Bish, Max Klein, Tina Phillips, and the students of COMM 4242 for putting together this amazing study!


Clockwise from top left: Belize Audubon Society/Audubon; Justin Dutcher/GBBC; Parvaiz Shagoo/GBBC; Bethany Gray/GBBC.



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J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American