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Review of Sharman Apt Russell, Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

I started keeping bird lists in 1947 when my school’s Audubon Club suggested we list birds and describe their behavior. This was New York City, and I had lots of fun observing pigeons and English sparrows. Then, one wondrous day.  we were taken to Central Park to see the spring migration. Tanagers and goldfinch, hermit thrush and grosbeaks and warblers of every kind tumbled all around us. I was hooked for life.

Bird watching,” my friends jeered when I entered my teens. “We are watching boys now. Grow up, Annis!

I never stopped. That’s me on the left, leading a bird walk along the Rouge River in Michigan

I kept right on bird watching and guess what? My childhood hobby has become seriously useful; since  Audubon enters my sightings on its data base I can actually call myself a “Citizen Scientist,”





At the age of 57, Sharman Russell signs up an amateur volunteer to help a conservation biologist at Arizona State University observe, collect, and breed Western Red-Bellied Tiger beetles.

permission tiger beetles

In middle age, she writes, “We need to keep growing brain cells by challenging ourselves to get off the beaten neural pathway. As one scientist said, ‘Crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up.’ Another researcher adds that adult learning should include a ‘disorienting dilemma’ or something that ‘helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.’”

The book is a great read – detailed, philosophical , even funny:

Certain aspects of beetle behavior make sense to me – something I would do if I were a beetle. Might I not create an umbrella of leaves and feces and carry it over my head as a screen against predators, like the larvae of the tortoise beetle?”

I like nature writing that is reflective, even philosophical. Russell is really good at this.  Of the western two-tailed swallowtail butterfly she writes

This is my favorite butterfly. I like its size. I like its design. I like how the males patrol canyons up and down looking for mates and carrion juices, smelling with their feet, seeing with simple eyes on their genitalia. The mix-up of senses is entertaining, but really it’s that beauty passing by, the lazy lift of large yellow wings and glide of grace through interstices of pine. It makes my chest ache. I feel a movement in my ribcage – a lifting, a hollowing. I feel a yearning, whenever I see a Western two-tailed tiger swallowtail, that often shifts to happiness.”

This is a great read, and a book you can go out and act on.  Why not  pull up one of the links Russell provides –  SciStarter, Frogwatch, or GalaxyZoo – and become a Citizen Scientist yourself?



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