12/21/2012 05:40 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Squirrelly Citizen Science

SciStarter asked Craig Newmark (of Craigslist fame) why he likes squirrels. He told us that it all started with a simple desire to feed birds. But the suet palaces he was using to dispense the raw, fat-based bird food were constantly getting hacked by squirrels. He tried everything; he even upgraded to "squirrel-resistant" models, to no avail.

It was then that Newmark really began to appreciate the rascally rodents. "Squirrels are smart, tough and athletic, real survivors, and that's very impressive," he says. "They're a candidate to replace humanity if we don't work things out."

Newmark, who regularly tweets about squirrels and is a religious observer of National Squirrel Appreciation Day (Jan. 21), has his house wired with "squirrel cams" and was even able to capture -- on video -- a female entering his house to explore.

But most squirrel observation is low-tech, involving a pair of binoculars and a notebook. These observations eventually work their way into peer-reviewed science., which I like to think of as the Craigslist of science, has a list of squirrel-related citizen science projects here. You can participate for free, and finding squirrels (especially the eastern grey) is about as easy as falling over. They dominate this area, and they're not shy!

Our citizen science projects are not limited to the East Coast, or even the U.S. There's the Black Squirrel Project in the UK and the Western Gray Squirrel Project out in the state of Washington.

If you think you're sly enough to outsmart squirrels, we have a limited-time competition just for you! In partnership with instructables and Discover Magazine, SciStarter is looking for safe and effective ways to keep squirrels and other ravenous vegetarians and omnivores from eating sunflowers. Why? Because sunflowers play a crucial role in citizen science bee observation projects. No sunflowers, no bees. And that would... bee bad.

Some species of ground squirrels hibernate, but tree squirrels don't. The eastern grey and other tree dwellers ride out the winter in tree hollows and holes, but you can still see them as fall turns to winter. So sign up for a squirrel project here at SciStarter, grab your coat and head out to the nearest deciduous forest, rooftop or really just about anywhere, and start observing!

Or just hang a birdfeeder outside your window.