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Birds in Cyberspace: Extended Version
An online database enables birders to keep better track of their life lists and contribute valuable data used by scientists.

Edwin Fotheringham

On his trips as a truck driver transporting eggs from Iowa to Denver, Bill Pulliam jotted down bird sightings on paper scraps, noting each glimpsed magpie or red-tailed hawk and later filing the notes away at home. In 2004 he moved into an 1886 farmhouse in Hohenwald, Tennessee, and he continued to keep careful paper records of the birds he saw, this time while walking the land surrounding his fixer-upper.

Two years later, on a rare day when Pulliam wasn’t laying insulation or repairing the chicken coop, he pulled out some of his old field notes only to discover that moisture was damaging his precious records, jeopardizing his years of meticulous data collecting. He realized that all those species he’d seen as an avid birder since 1974 could quickly disappear. Seeking a solution to his record-keeping problem, Pulliam recalled a magazine article that mentioned a website that allowed birders to maintain their records electronically. The website, called eBird, was just what Pulliam—and birders like him—had been looking for. He soon found out, however, that eBird is more than a data storage site.

Originally conceived as a citizen science project, eBird was started in 2002 as a collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Its aim was to provide birders across the country with a way of storing their checklists and accessing others’; as an added benefit, they would be able to see their data represented in graphs and maps. Each checklist would record the date, time of day, location, and kind and numbers of birds seen, as well as whether the observer was traveling or stationary. The entries would be then added to a larger database the Cornell Lab uses to track migrations, distributions, and abundance of bird species by region, as well as other features, including rare bird sightings. 

 

Once Pulliam got the hang of his dial-up connection, he began the tedious task of entering three decades’ worth of checklists from his bound notebooks into eBird. At the time he had no idea how many species he had on his life list or how many birding observations he had recorded. But when he was finished, he finally had an accurate count. To date Pulliam has recorded almost 4,000 checklists and 591 species on his life list, and has observations from thousands of locations in more than 45 states. “One feature I like is that eBird gives you instant access for all of your lists,” Pulliam says. “I didn’t know how many species I’d seen in Monterey, California, but eBird does, and it’ll show me. I can go to my eBird data and have it show me every single cardinal I ever saw. I like having the fingertip access to all my information.” Pulliam says he also uses eBird to find out where he might be able to see new species so that he can plan vacations around good birding areas.

As useful as it is to birders, eBird doesn’t simply track their data. It also gives scientists a more complete picture of bird populations by helping them track migrations, identify possible Important Bird Areas, and, as the years go by, visualize the effects of climate change on birds, according to eBird project leader Brian Sullivan. “eBird is this idea of closing the gap between science and birding,” he says.

For example, bird scientists have recently noticed a drastic decline in rusty blackbird populations, and so eBird has enlisted its users to keep tabs on the species by describing what kind of habitat the birds prefer and by posting pictures of the males and females at different times of the year—almost like an Amber Alert for the ailing species. Sullivan hopes that by analyzing the information about rusty blackbirds supplied by eBirders, they’ll have a better idea about what’s causing the population crash.

“There are certainly other citizen science projects for dragonflies, butterflies, and reptiles, but birds are universal in their appeal to an average individual,” Sullivan says. “They occupy all niches in all ecosystems, and they’re easy to see and relatively easy to identify. eBird does a good job of walking the line between keeping birding fun and also giving birding some meaning beyond that.”

To ensure the data’s accuracy, eBird also has a quality-control feature. Users who submit checklists that seem “incomplete” or that contain an unusual bird sighting—say, a flamingo in Massachusetts—are contacted by a moderator. If the user can’t validate his or her list, it’s not included in the larger database. The moderator might also be able to help the person properly identify the bird.

eBird is available in the United States and Canada and just launched in South America. As long as people like Pulliam contribute checklists, the possibilities it poses for bird conservation—at least in the Western Hemisphere—are endless. “I kept my field notes for 30 years,” Pulliam says. “And for all those years I was wondering ‘Who’s ever going to use this information?’ ” Now he’s got his answer.

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How to Use eBird

eBird might seem kind of daunting when you first log on, but it’s easier than it looks. All birders, whether casual beginners or advanced note takers like Pulliam, can contribute their data to eBird with the Cornell Lab’s easy-to-use interface. If you already have your data in an Excel file or a similar spreadsheet format, eBird can convert those lists and upload them automatically in bulk. Below are a few tips to help you get started.

Step 1: Choose your location
A feature similar to Google Maps allows you to choose the exact geographical region where you recorded your checklist. If you carry a GPS, latitude and longitude can be entered as location data. Each location can be named—“My house,” for example, or “Clark’s Creek Park”—and used later. You can also choose from “hot spots” that have already been created by other birders in your area.

Step 2: What type of observation is it, and how many people were observing?
eBird classifies observations by the following types to determine how you captured your data.
Casual: All you need is the date
Stationary count: Meaning you stayed in one place for a certain amount of time and counted all the birds you saw or heard. Need date, start time, the duration of your observations.
Traveling count: You were walking or driving from point A to point B and counted all the birds you saw. Need the date, start time, duration, and distance covered.
Area count: You observed in a discernable area for a certain amount of time. Need the date, start time, duration, and area covered.
People count: How many people were in your group.

Step 3: What did you see or hear?
eBird asks if you are reporting every bird you saw or heard (i.e., is it a “complete” checklist?) and allows you to add your tallies next to a list of birds that is generated based on the location you entered. The list is organized by groups—such as waterfowl or sparrows—typically found in your area.

Step 4: Confirmation
The final step allows you to go over what you entered, add any special notes, and then submit it to eBird.

Once you’ve entered your data, you can look at your entries separately from the greater database, track your life list, see bar graphs of frequency and occurrence of different species in your data, and review tables of reports by week, month, or year. You can also compare your data with others’ in your region and see where it fits in to all eBird observations.

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