First, what is phenology?
According to the USA National Phenology Network, phenology "refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year—such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds—especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate." Simply, phenology is the timing of biological events. Think about that early spring years ago when you saw that Great Blue Heron in February (unusual in some parts of the country) or perhaps the longer winter that resulted in particularly late emergence of cherry tree flowers. You are now thinking about phenology! Some scientists spend a lot of their day think about timing of life cycle events in the organisms that they study, but they certainly aren't the only ones.
Why does phenology matter?
Climate change, particularly warming temperatures, cause some plants and animals to emerge earlier than they have in the past (advanced phenology). Changes in phenology could lead to mismatches between interacting species or result in conditions that are not suitable for animals. For example, warming temperatures cause some plants to begin making flowers earlier in the season than in the past, while some species are unaffected. If all of the species in the community respond differently to the same environmental cues, species’ flowering periods might begin to overlap, even if they have not in the past. If these plant species share common resources (e.g. nutrients, water, pollinators), they might now have to compete with one another for access to these resources. Keep in mind that phenology isn't only relevant to plants, but to many animals too!
Second, a (very) brief history lesson-
Phenology has been of interest for quite some time, although scientists have become keenly aware of how climate change affects phenology within the last few decades. Scientists were only able to make these connections between climate and phenological shifts because people have been recording when they observe biological events over the last few hundred years. Robert Marsham, hailed as the "father of phenology," recorded date of over 25 different springtime events, from first flowering to bird sightings in the 1700s. Not only have scientists and avid gardeners been interested in phenological observations for some time, but authors have even dabbled in phenology, including Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau.
For the history gurus reading this post, Project Budburst published a video on the history of phenology.
Third, get involved!
The USA National Phenology Network (NPN) is a program that focuses on facilitating collaboration between citizens and scientists to monitor phenological events. They created NPN's Nature Notebook, which is a project that helps folks get started as phenology observers in their own backyards. All you have to do is have a valid email address, an interest in phenology, and a few minutes to spare! In addition to becoming an observer, you can sign up to receive a bi-monthly newsletter titled "Nature's Narrative", which will keep you updated on all things phenology.
If you like reading blogs and are interested in learning more about phenology in plants and animals, check out the NPN's blog recommendations.