Birdwatching and eBird

When I was younger, I heard of people getting really interested in watching birds (birding), and my first impression was that it sounded stupid. Keep in mind, at this age, I was already very interested in plants, ecology, geology, and nature in general. But why would anyone want to go out and watch birds? The more I heard, the stupider it sounded. I heard of people driving miles to see a single rare bird, often returning without seeing it. It sounded like fanaticism.

People Birdwatching in a Forest

University of Delaware Ornithology Class, Birdwatching

Now, I am an active birdwatcher…it’s one of my favorite activities.  What turned me around to this strange activity?  I think it is highly likely that many of my friends don’t fully understand what I get out of this activity or why I participate in it with such enthusiasm.

Hopefully this post can inspire others to explore this activity, but in the absence of doing so, I hope it can at least help them to understand why I enjoy it so much.

Why in the world would anyone want to birdwatch?

Two Cedar Waxwings in Flight in a Berry Tree

Cedar Waxwings, Georgetown, ME, August 2007

  • Birding is infinitely challenging. – Identifying birds can be very difficult.  No matter how long one has been a birder, there are always more ways to take one’s understanding to the next level, distinguishing similar species from each other, learning different songs and calls, and learning how to identify the age and sex of various birds, to name a few examples.  The process of getting better at birding is exciting and fulfilling.
  • Birdwatching exercises the senses and builds skills that are difficult to otherwise develop. – Birding is an exercise in patience and sensory awareness.  It is oddly meditative, and helps one to become acutely aware of sights and sounds in a way that few other activities in our modern world do.
  • Getting better at birding equates to developing one’s understanding of ecology. – Even the basics of learning to locate and identify birds requires learning about bird behavior and habitat preferences, and these concepts open the door to understanding complex ecological relationships and understanding ecosystems as a whole.  These skills can help enrich your life in diverse ways, such as empowering you to make better conservation choices, and making you a better gardener.
  • Bird intelligence makes birding fun and highly amusing. – Birds are intelligent and have a surprising amount of personality; many species have complex vocalizations that communicate specific information, and you can learn to understand it.  Also, many species have complex social interactions, both within and across species.  Watching birds can be highly humorous, especially since birds exhibit a surprising number of behaviors and attributes that are common in human interactions.
  • Birdwatching can contribute to science and conservation. – By taking notes and recording your observations while birdwatching, you can help track bird populations which can guide both scientists and activists in focusing their efforts to protect endangered species.

Using eBird to Contribute Birding Data to Science:

eBird is an online database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society (two key organizations in the world of bird study and conservation).  I always use eBird when I go birdwatching.  This involves several things, which involve minimal work, and in my opinion, make birding more fun and fulfilling.

Screenshot of eBird

eBird Screenshot, showing life list tracking features

Whenever I go out, I systematically record the date, time, duration, and location of my birdwatching.  I then (as most people do) try to locate and identify as many species as possible.  And then I take notes, recording and counting whatever I identify.  Lastly, I enter my observations into eBird’s website.  eBird’s website has more information on how to count, how to record and report your data, and how to make your data as useful as possible.  eBird also provides many benefits to birders, such as keeping track of life lists for the whole world, individual states, even counties and individual locations, and allowing you to view the collective data in different ways, which can be an excellent way to locate species you have not yet seen, and can also help you see gaps in the data to know where your observations would be most useful.

I encourage all birders to contribute to eBird, because it allows your observations to be used for scientific and conservation purposes, to track populations and guide conservation efforts.  I personally find birding to be much more fulfilling, knowing that my time spent is working towards some greater goals that will contribute to preserving and protecting species and ecosystems in our future.

How did I personally get into birding?

I am a musician, and it is natural that what drew me into being interested in birds was bird song.  One of the first things I remember about bird song was listening to robins singing, while I sat on the porch of the house where I grew up.  I noticed that robins’ songs were broken into syllables, and that they strung the syllables together in complex patterns.  Upon listening, I realized that the patterns were not random, but I could not figure out what any patterns meant.  This fascinated me.  To this day, I have never seen anyone who understood exactly what information, if any, is contained in the juxtaposition of syllables in a robin’s song–perhaps this is an open scientific question.

When I moved to Delaware, I started hearing more birds.  I became fascinated with Mockingbirds, how they imitated other birds and even human and mechanical noises.  One Mockingbird would repeat the whole sequence of a well-known car alarm, beginning with honking and followed by a series of sirens.  Delaware was teeming with birds, especially during spring migration, and I started hearing songs I didn’t recognize.  The desire to figure out what was singing was what drew me into birdwatching–I wanted to see the birds so I could look them up in my field guide and figure out what they were.  When I discovered eBird, eBird was young and there was very sparse data in my area–I was surprised to find gaps for even common species like pigeons, which I saw frequently.  This made me even more motivated to learn more about birds, so I could begin contributing data and filling in these gaps.  And I was hooked!

What can you do?

  • If you already watch birds, visit eBird’s website and consider contributing data from systematic counts.  Even contributing casual observations helps.
  • If you want to get involved in birdwatching, search the internet for a local bird club, bird list, or ask your friends if you know anyone who is an active birder.  State and local chapters of the Audubon society can be a good resource for birding if you want to connect with local birders and don’t know where to get started.
  • Buy a bird book so you can identify birds.  Even if you don’t go birding deliberately, field guides are colorful, fun to read, and teach you a lot about birds and about nature, and can be useful for learning more about birds you come across in your daily life.  I recommend the Sibley Guide to Birds.
  • If you live in or near northern Delaware, contact me–I would be more than glad to take you along whenever I go birdwatching.  You might also want to check out the DE-Birds Listserv for information on local events and to connect with local birders.
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2 Responses to Birdwatching and eBird

  1. Pingback: Herbicide (Roundup) Use by the City of Newark, Delaware | Alex Zorach's Blog

  2. Cecile Zorach says:

    A few years ago Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece in the New Yorker about how he got so obsessed with bird watching that he had to go cold turkey for a while. I think it plays a role in his latest novel, Freedom. He also has an interesting audio from 2010 on what is happening to song birds in Europe.

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