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Youth take on the role of citizen scientists in nesting study

Urbana, Ill. - At more than 30 sites across the state, 4-H members are serving as citizen scientists studying the preferences of different styles of nest boxes tailored toward Barred Owls in order to advance future youth environmental stewardship.

This project tracks the Barred Owl, a large owl species that lives throughout the state of Illinois in lowland bottoms areas preying upon various rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small fish. These owls nest in cavities in trees and show a preference for a more open top formation, however, very little study has been done on the nesting requirements of this particular species. Traditional owl nesting boxes are a box with a hole and roof overhead with limited success. The Illinois Raptor Center has modified the design to consist of a partially open top which they hope will deter other species from occupying the box.

Barred Owls begin looking for nesting sites in February.  A bi-weekly “Nestwatch” began with interested 4-H families in March and will continue through April. 

“Nestwatch will allow members to collect data on both styles of boxes," says Curt Sinclair, University of Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist. "The collected data will be tabulated in June with a final report given to the Illinois Raptor Center for further research and study.”

4-H places youth in the positions of citizen scientists with hands on learning experiences. 

“Citizen scientists observe, collect, and record data about the environment, which not only helps advance environmental stewardship but also what we know about the care of the world’s natural resources,” says Sinclair. “When youth get involved, they also get invested and this has been a great project to get kids outside and focused on nature.”

This project also teaches youth the importance and value of long-term data in environmental stewardship science. 

“We tell our members to stay the course and that good science takes effort,” says Sinclair.  “This project has been a great longer-term one that gets kids outside at various times throughout the year.  They feel really invested in the outcome when they’re the ones out there observing, collecting, and reporting the data firsthand.”

The barred owl nesting box project is a joint effort of Illinois 4-H and the Illinois Raptor Center of Decatur.

About Illinois 4-H: Illinois 4-H is the flagship youth development program of University of Illinois Extension and administered through the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences.4-H grows true leaders, youth who are empowered for life today and prepared for a career tomorrow. The hands-on approach in 4-H gives young people guidance, tools and encouragement, and then puts them in the driver’s seat to make great things happen. Independent research confirms the unparalleled impact of the 4-H experience, demonstrating that young people are four times more likely to contribute to their communities; two times more likely to make healthier choices; two times more likely to be civically active; and two times more likely to participate in STEM programs. 

About Extension:  Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. 

Source: Curt Sinclair, 4-H Youth Development Extension Specialist, Shooting Sports, Environmental Education,

News Writer: Carissa Nelson, 4-H Media Communications Manager, University of Illinois Extension,