eBird ease, and power

Are you eBirding?  Here’s why I think you should be.  I wrote the following in response to some questions about eBird on our OKbirds listerv.  The eBird-hesitant tend to worry that the learning curve is steep for eBird or that no one would be interested in their bird observations.  I hope that this post illustrates the ease of eBird, and that its power lies in the large number of rather mundane checklists it archives, rather than just focusing on rare or extralimital occurrences.


eBird records of the Snowy Owl irruption, Dec. 2013–Jan. 2014.

People enjoy birding in various ways and for different reasons.  If you are someone who 1) keeps a list of a specific place where you go birding and 2) estimates the number of individuals of each species you encounter,  then you are collecting the type of data that is valuable to eBird.


This guy is birding. Later that day he entered the list of birds he encountered into eBird. At that point, he was eBirding!

I was fortunate to have been “classically trained” in ornithology, by which I mean we were expected to keep journals using 50% cotton “ornithology paper” written in special ink  and with meticulous attention to detail on where I was, with whom, at what time, in what habitat, and, of course, a complete list of all species encountered with an estimate of number for each.  I have 2 or 3 really cool volumes of these notebooks on my shelf collecting dust right now.  For real museum ornithologists, such products can be immensely valuable.  For the great majority of us, however, they represent an inordinate investment in time for little practical return.  In my own case, I simply stopped taking those notes because I didn’t have time to invest hours in note transcription after long days in the field and short nights until the next dawn.


Sample page from one of my field notes journals. Almost 20 years later, this is really cool. I just couldn’t keep up with transcribing notes like this all the time, and it was a shame that no one else was using the data I collected.

Enter eBird, which I first discovered in about 2001 while working on the sampling design and data management for Pennsylvania’s 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas.  eBird offered a simple, effective platform to record and archive the most important data to me:  what species and where?  Rather than spend an hour or two transcribing notes from the day into my journal, I could capture the same data in about 5 minutes in eBird.  Even more important, my data were then much safer from fire or water damage that could occur in my home and fully archived in a searchable database that I and anyone else in the world can access for as long our species is able to maintain a functioning society.

Thanks to eBird, I have no trouble keeping up with archiving the data from my field checklists.  I enter data from every serious field trip I take and every quick jaunt to a park or walk around the neighborhood that lasts at least 15 minutes.  I enter lists from my backyard when I’m home and can count the feeder birds through the day.  It’s so quick and easy, I’ve entered just about all of my data from my old journals too!  The benefit isn’t just to you, however:  even if you never personally upload your own data, you can log on to eBird and conduct easy searches using data from other folks.  I’ve used this for birding – eBird records helped me home in on my life Sharp-tailed Grouse in Nebraska a few years ago – and for science, for example to study distributions of birds, migration timing, etc.


Here’s a quick comparison of the occurrence of Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee in Oklahoma. These kinds of summaries are only valuable when we have a lot of data submitted, and the more we have, the more valuable they are.


Recent records of Eastern Wood-Pewee at a western edge of its range in Oklahoma. At each one of those points, I can click to see who submitted the record, see what other birds were observed at the same location, and – increasingly – see a photo of the actual bird at that location.

eBird will probably never provide the complete flexibility in data recording that I could do in my journal, but in recent years it has increased its functionality in that regard.  It’s now easier than ever to record specific details (like age and sex) of birds observed, there are comment windows in which I could write summaries of vegetation cover sampled or other notes of relevance, and people can now upload photos linked to their checklists. For people who are more interested in managing their own lists (e.g., life list, county list, backyard list) eBird does that too.  I won’t go so far as to say that every serious birder should be using eBird because some folks really don’t care about collecting, archiving, and sharing data like I do, but in my Ornithology classes I impress upon this next generation that eBird is as essential a tool for modern birding as are their binoculars.

If you have an email address – and you do – signing up for eBird is quick, easy, and free.  To get started, just go here:  http://ebird.org/content/ebird/

It’s great that folks are offering eBird tutorials, but please don’t wait for one if you want to check it out.  eBird really is user-friendly.  You’ll need to have an email address and come up with a user name and password for yourself.  Once you’re logged in, just play around with “Explore Data” tab and you’ll be guided, step-by-step, through some simple searches that will show you what eBird can do.  When you’re ready to submit your own data, there’s a “Submit Observations” tab to click and, again, step-by-step instructions.  You’ll need to come up with a name for the place you went birding, you might have to zoom into the location on a map (super-easy if you know where you were), and then a checklist will pop up.  You simply enter the number of each species observed.

Note that the checklists are geared toward the current state of knowledge for birds in an area at a certain time of year.  If I tried to report a Summer Tanager from Stillwater today, my record would be flagged and I’d get a message asking if I was sure I had identified the bird correctly, because all of our Summer Tanagers should be in the Neotropics right now.  I wouldn’t get that message in June because we’d expect Summer Tanagers to be here then.  Please don’t be intimidated if you enter a record that gets flagged!  One of the best ways to grow as a birder is to be told when we’ve reported something unusual and we’re challenged to provide the kinds of detail that can confirm our observation.  Most of the time we can’t and that’s a great learning experience but sometimes we can – especially now that so many people are carrying cameras these days.


Let’s see them scoff at my Summer Tanager record now!

Okay, it’s time for me to stop rambling and you to get eBirding!

This entry was posted in animal behavior, birding, birding community e-bulletin, birds/nature, Christmas Bird Count, editorial, environment, life, Links, migrants, nature deficit disorder, No Child Left Inside, wildlife and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to eBird ease, and power

  1. JoshuaJ says:

    Reblogged this on Wildlife Conservation and commented:
    A great article by my former advisor and birding mentor on the ease and usefulness of eBird.


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