eBird: Birding in the 21st Century

I don’t typically do this, but in keeping with the spirit of sharing opinions and information, I thought I’d write a little blurb for eBird.  eBird is an online database hosted by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, which acts as a portal for the citizen science movement.  Established in 2002, eBird is now a global repository for bird sightings, and catalogs millions of sightings worldwide each year.  Just recently, eBird reached its 100 millionth record, and is showing no signs of slowing down as more and more birders across the globe begin to input data.

I’ve been using eBird since 2008.  A good friend of mine from Ottawa got me onto the site, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  The allure of eBird is multi-faceted: it automatically catalogs all of your sightings and organizes them into multiple formats, allowing you to keep track of how many species you’ve seen within a given county, state, country, continent, or hemisphere.  It also creates lists of bird sightings for month, year, and lifetime, so you can keep track of Year Lists without any extra work.  All that is required is logging in and inputting your sightings for the day…eBird does the rest.

But it’s more than just a useful tool for the bird-obsessed.  The data are used by scientists to track and monitor migration movements and population trends, which is especially useful in creating policies that protect or destroy critical habitats or species.

eBird began as a repository for North American sightings, but quickly expanded and now covers every country around the world.  Individual reports are reviewed at a local level by volunteers, so rare or unusual sightings are reviewed and confirmed before entering into the data stream.  The eBird database is also updated about once a year, to include new species and other taxonomic updates that are critical to our understanding of birds and their evolution.

Data entry is simple, and with the smartphone app, you can enter data right in the field.  I’m still a traditionalist and keep a notebook and pencil with me on my outings, but the online entry form couldn’t be simpler.  You can create locations by using a number of options, including finding it on Google Maps, inputting GPS coordinates, or simply choosing from a list of local “hotspots” that you may already be familiar with.


Once the location is set, add a little information concerning the time and date of your sightings, and whether you were travelling, searching over a set area, or just happened to see something from you bedroom window.  You’ll be presented with a list of common and expected species for the location you chose, and you can enter in the number of each species, add species that don’t appear on your list, and even go as far as identifying the subspecies of a bird (if you know it).  Then just hit submit.  Any unusual species, or higher-than-expected numbers, will be flagged for review.  You can also add information about gender, age, and breeding information, include photos and make comments that might be relevant to the sighting.


Besides keeping track of your totals and checklists, eBird compiles all of the sightings entered into the database onto a searchable map, which allows you to locate sightings of a given species anywhere in the world.  This is a great tool for locating rare sightings in your area, or for planning a birding trip somewhere new.  Going to Yosemite National Park and you’re interested in where the best place to find an American dipper is?  Search “American Dipper” in the Range & Point Maps section to bring up color-coded maps of every sighting reported to eBird of that species.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

The only downside I’ve found with eBird is that it follows the Clements taxonomic profile, endorsed by the ABA (American Birding Association), and as such may not list as many species as other taxonomic profiles, such as the IOU (International Ornithologists’ Union).  This mainly affects birders outside of North America.  For example, the IOU recognizes three species of herring gull; Clements and the ABA only recognize one, and considers the three forms to be subspecies only.  This can pose a slight problem if you are an international birder, as some of your lists may not correspond to the eBird lists.  In my case, I have two species listed on my Life List that are only recognized as subspecies by eBird.

Overall, eBird is a tremendous tool, both for birders and professional scientists alike.  I’d highly recommend checking out the site on your own, and giving eBird a try.