Phenology: an opportunity for nature therapy and citizen and community science in the time of COVID-19

The bustling crowds of campus have been replaced by an emptiness, an emptiness made eerily tangible by the prickling of neck hairs and the tightening of one’s chest. As eagerly awaited plans are abandoned, fledgling romances fizzle out, and normally lively classes are broadcast through glitchy apps, it feels like university life is grinding to a halt.

I am one of a few incredibly lucky students who has been able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in these unprecedented times. As a caretaker for the Nichols Arboretum, I live in a cottage in the woods with just two housemates. Unlike my friends in dorms and apartment buildings, I don’t have to make the difficult decision to stay in shared housing or move. My caretaker duties have been largely uninterrupted because they ordinarily consist of solitary outdoor work.

This past week as I surveyed the Arb for litter, I was delighted to find the first flowers of spring: dainty white snowdrops, sunny winter aconite, and pale purple crocuses sprouting from the soggy ground. Migratory birds are returning, filling the air with their sweet chirps and warbles, and skinny groundhogs are emerging from hibernation and foraging busily. The return of life to the arboretum gave me some peace of mind even as human lives have been thrust into uncertainty and death tolls have mounted.

Winter Aconite

                                                    Winter Aconite

I know many people are grappling with difficult decisions, unemployment, illness, and more, while others are trapped in quarantine. But if you have some kind of stability and freedom of movement, I encourage you to step outside (while abiding by Governor Whitmer’s Stay-at-Home order) and take time to notice the changes in nature that spring ignites, whether in a forest or in an overgrown vacant lot.

Not only can I assure you anecdotally that spending time in nature is calming, numerous studies have found a correlation between nature and improvements in mood and mental health [1]. These days, maintaining mental health is essential, especially because stress weakens the immune system [2]. Spending time in natural areas is also conducive to social distancing.








Furthermore, documenting the arrival of flowers and animals can be a healthy way to channel anxiety. Staying at home and performing self-care are two of the most useful things people can do to protect themselves and society, but they don’t subdue the anxiety and desire for action that is driving people to hoard food and other supplies [3]. People who seek to be productive beyond practicing self-care and social distancing, checking in with loved ones, and donating blood, may want to consider contributing to phenology-related citizen and community science projects by uploading photos and observations of  changes in nature.

According to the National Phenology Network, phenology is the study of “nature’s calendar”—when flowers bloom, birds build nests, leaves change color, and animals migrate [4]. Year-to-year consistency in the timing of events like these is incredibly important for the survival of species. However, climate change is disrupting the synchrony of different species’ calendars, resulting in what is known as “phenological mismatch.” For example, caribou migration to the Arctic and calving are thought to be prompted in part by day length, which is not affected by climate change. Meanwhile, the arctic plants they eat sprout and grow depending on temperature. Climate change is causing plants to peak earlier, so when the caribou finally arrive there are not enough plants for them and their calves to eat [5]. Phenology is important beyond environmental conservation—it also helps scientists predict allergy season and helps farmers determine when to plant, fertilize, and harvest crops [4].



A number of conservation organizations run citizen and community science projects related to phenology, such as the National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook [6]. Nature’s Notebook has an easy-to-use mobile app that just requires an email, username and password. Once the app is downloaded, you can choose a site, such as the Nichols Arboretum, and choose plants or animals to focus on. After this, you can record observations of the specified plants and animals at their site. Nature’s Notebook also has some specific campaigns, such as observations of the invasive wild parsnip and Japanese knotweed plants in the Midwest. Observations from Nature’s Notebook have resulted in a plethora of useful studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

iNaturalist is another useful mobile app for recording observations of the natural world. With iNaturalist, you can upload time- and geo-tagged pictures of plants and animals and identify them yourself immediately or when you return home. iNaturalist members can also suggest identifications to each other through the app. In my experience, it usually takes less than a day for a random stranger to helpfully identify a plant I don’t know. iNaturalist also has specific projects you can join, such as “Mushrooms of Michigan.” Although it is not specifically meant for phenological studies, phenologists still appreciate having data such as those collected on iNaturalist [6].

Moss fruiting bodies (magnified 20x)

                                   Moss fruiting bodies (magnified 20x)

If you decide to begin participating in outdoor citizen and community science projects by documenting phenological observations, please remember to abide by Governor Whitmer’s executive order. According to the order, when engaging in outdoor activity, an individual must remain “at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household” [7]. This is incredibly important for protecting yourself and others, especially elderly and immunocompromised people.

Additionally, please be mindful of your role in overcrowding natural spaces. Recently, many parks, botanical gardens, and arboreta across the country have reported overcrowding, and some have even closed to protect their workers and the public [8],[9]. Please consider the following suggestions to help prevent overcrowding while participating in phenology-related citizen and community science efforts:

Spend time getting to know the species present in your own yard, if you have one. Even if there aren’t a variety of plants, you will likely be able to observe bugs and insects, and hear bird calls. iNaturalist has a sound recording option, and you can learn to identify and appreciate bird calls with the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology [10].
Visit parks at “off hours” such as early in the morning, as long as you are abiding by the park’s rules. Avoid crowded trails and spaces.
Keep your walks short by waiting until you are home to identify plants and animals from pictures.

You can also contribute significantly to citizen and community science from the safety of your own home by helping others identify their observations through the iNaturalist app and other platforms.

Siberian Squill

                                                       Siberian Squill

It is getting increasingly hard to stay positive these days, and I frequently find myself feeling alternatively depressed or panicked. However, spending time outside amidst nature brings me peace. Observing the signs of spring reminds me that this crisis will pass. When I am frustrated by how much my work has been stalled, documenting the changes on iNaturalist helps me feel productive. And although I miss my classmates, friends, and family, I have also gained a new community through iNaturalist, among the kind folk who help me identify plants and animals.


[1] Annerstedt, Matilda, and Peter Währborg. “Nature-Assisted Therapy: Systematic Review of Controlled and Observational Studies.” Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, vol. 39, no. 4, June 2011, pp. 371–388, doi:10.1177/1403494810396400.

[2] American Psychological Association. “Stress weakens the immune system.” February 23, 2006. Accessed March 20, 2020. <>

[3] Mosley, Tanya. “What Drives People to Hoard Toilet Paper And Hand Sanitizer.” Here and Now. March 19, 2020. Accessed March 20, 2019.  <>

[4] National Phenology Network. “Why Phenology?” Accessed March 20, 2020. <>

[5] Albeck-Ripka, Livia and Plumer, Brad. “5 Plants and Animals Utterly Confused by Climate Change.” The New York Times. April 4, 2019. Accessed March 20, 2020. <>

[6] Ward, Alie and Ellwood, Libby. “Phenology (FALL/SEASONS) with Dr. Libby Ellwood.” Ologies. September 24, 2019. Accessed March 20, 2020. <>

[7] Whitmer, Gretchen. “EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 2020-21 - Temporary requirement to suspend activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.” <,9309,7-387-90499_90705-522626--,00.html>

[8] “Several Maine state parks close due to the coronavirus.” WMTW 8. March 27, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2020. <>

[9] Ahmed, Shahan. “LA County Parks’ Trails, State Beach Parking Lots Shut Down After Overcrowding Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” NBC Los Angeles. March 23, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2020. <>

[10] “How To Make These Next Few Weeks A Little Easier, Courtesy Of Birds.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds. March 17, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2020. <>