Wild Ideas: eBird and the Great Backyard Bird Count

After many years of considering participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), I finally did it this year. I got on board partly out of concern for our native birds and partly to force myself outside, since the recent bitterly cold weather was turning me into a couch potato.

During the Great Backyard Bird Count, citizens are invited to submit counts of birds they see, even those found at bird feeders, such as these common winter residents.
During the Great Backyard Bird Count, citizens are invited to submit counts of birds they see, even those found at bird feeders, such as these common winter residents. Larry Sherertz

The GBBC lasts four days, over a weekend, every February (Feb. 13-16 this year). The count was launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. According to the GBBC website, it “was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.” More than 100,000 people “of all ages and walks of life” across the world have joined the count to create an annual “snapshot” of the distribution and abundance of birds.  

The GBBC data are actually a subset of the larger bird-survey database accessed through the eBird website, which grew out of the GBBC and was launched in 2002. Through the eBird website, users can track bird numbers and movements across time and space throughout the year, and observation data can be submitted throughout the year.

The Lab also sponsors the All About Birds website, which I also use and mention frequently in this column. That site focuses more on the natural history of birds, including profiles of species, but also serves as a portal to the eBird site and to other citizen-science wildlife surveying (“mapping”) projects, including Project FeederWatch and NestWatch.

Registration with eBird, which is free, is required to submit observations. Knowing enough about local birds to be able to identify them correctly helps in recording observations, but there are numerous good printed guides, websites (including the Lab’s) and apps (notably eBird’s own and “Sibley Birds”) that can help with that.

The interactive aspects of eBird are part of what enticed me to submit data. Data for particular regions, down to the county level in the United States, can be brought up on the site by navigating through the “Explore Data” tab. When I submitted my surveys (or “checklists,” as the site refers to them) for the GBBC, I saw my results within an hour, added to others in Rappahannock County. There are also extensive maps of sightings across the world, which can be brought up by searching on a species, place, or time. And participants can download, print and email their data. I found a free database template online for recording wildlife observations that I’m trying out.

Winter feeder attended by a blue jay, mourning dove and cardinal .
Winter feeder attended by a blue jay, mourning dove and cardinal . Larry Sherertz

Data submitted to eBird can come from several modes of observation: traveling (for example, walking a trail, driving a refuge loop, field birding), stationary (staying in one place, such as watching your feeders from a window) or incidental (spotting a bird while you were doing something else). Except for the GBBC, historical data (observations that were recorded in some other way in the past) can also be submitted.

Data are compiled by the eBird sites in several ways, such as species first or last seen for a particular period, most species seen and the number of checklists submitted by a participant, along with that person’s name and the location of the siting. Although GPS coordinates are used to specify the site for eBird, the site name is whatever the participant chooses to call it, so while it can be general, such as “Sperryville” for one Rapp participant in this year’s GBBC, it can also be very specific to that observer’s need. For example, because of the weather, I stuck close to home, so used “Old Hollow House Yard” for this count. That’s the only site on the property I used for this particular survey, but I have other sites on the property and off that I use outside this particular count.

Those submitting data for GBBC or eBird in general don’t even have to go outside. As many people do, I submitted one checklist from watching the bird-feeding station I have on my deck through my living-room window. I did it because most of the birds in my yard at the time were feeding there, as I found out while I was surveying birds outside around the yard. Cold and snow were undoubtedly a factor in their clustering there.

Participating in the count, because the submitted data appear so quickly, can bring out the competitive instinct, as I realized every time I checked the checklist submissions during this year’s GBBC. Seeing the checklists of the other seven Rappahannock participants (most of whom I know), it was hard not to compare their data with mine, especially in terms of who counted the most species.

The overall species count for Rappahannock was 41 this year. I wasn’t surprised that I counted only 11 species, well below the top local participants, because I generally spot fewer species up here on this forested mountain than in more open places this time of year. I did manage to be the only one to submit a sighting for two species — a pileated woodpecker and a winter wren — which was gratifying. In viewing results from bordering counties, I found Rappahannock came in second only to Fauquier in terms of species spotted (47) and number of participants (10).

Competition aside, it was great to see how many species, and which ones, were sighted here and across the world — and to see so many other people contributing their observations. Although this year’s GBBC was the first time I’ve submitted observation data to eBird, I enjoyed it so much that I plan to do it more throughout the year. Not only does submitting data help in wildlife conservation, participation in such surveys is a great way to learn more about our wild neighbors.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”