eBird explained by Pennsylvania eBird Coordinator Holly Merker

Want an excuse to start birding? Citizen science via one of the largest observation platforms ever is right at your fingertips! Read on to learn more about what eBird is, how anyone can participate, what you're supporting and things to look out for in the future from one of the pioneers of eBird.

January 2023

What is eBird?

eBird is a database housing a community /citizen science project that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs as a unit of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Despite its nucleus centered in Ithaca, globally, the website boasts: “eBird is the among largest biodiversity-related science projects”. eBird collects information from people like you and me, not just scientists or ornithologists. At this time, over 822,700 people have contributed their sightings, from their own backyards to trips afar seeking and censusing birds and putting 10,708 species of birds on the maps! Because of its broad reach of users and skill levels, eBird brings communities of bird lovers together in a way that no other project or community has done before.

How can I, a young birder, participate?

eBird has no age guidelines, and because younger birders are more attuned to using digital resources for learning, they may have a “leg up” on using it over their older generation peers. Using eBird is easy for any birder to participate in and can help guide all of us toward a more attentive style of observation that builds on our knowledge and understanding of bird identification. It does require a few tools, including access to a computer or a smart device (binoculars and a camera are not even necessary to participate!). Essentially, you create an account and then submit data. eBird mobile is an app you can download for free and is the easiest way to submit your sightings, which I recommend all users get familiar with. If you are going to try using eBird for the first time, I strongly recommend watching this video (or any others like it) to understand best practices for eBirding.

In order to make your data as strong as it can be for science, it’s important to get to know how to eBird properly and why this is important. Learning best practices in eBird by taking the time to read about “eBird protocols” or how to count birds or submitting media (image/audio recording) will benefit not only eBird, but also you as a birder (and your local eBird reviewer!). See this page for steps to get started.

Where does my data go?

This is one of the most exciting things about eBird. In an era when our news is filled with worries over human-contributed damage to habitats and ecosystems, here’s something we all can do to make a difference toward conservation! With bird populations in flux and migration trends potentially changing because of changes in climate, it’s important to have real-time data on where birds are, and a snapshot of what their numbers look like. All of those eBird checklists can help researchers put together the bigger picture of bird life on the planet and guide best practices in land management and conservation. To see some pretty incredible maps and up-to-date pictures of species of birds in your neighborhood, take a look at this page.

And here’s a focus on Pennsylvania’s state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, which is in sharp decline not only here in PA, but in other regions in the US, all using eBird data contributed by people like you and me.

We hear that birds are in decline, but maps like these demonstrate these concerns and power changes in conservation.

As eBird PA state coordinator, what are you most excited about?

There are so many reasons to be excited about eBird that it’s hard to single out any one thing. I began working as a solo volunteer data reviewer and state coordinator for eBird in PA back in 2005. At that time, the project was in its infancy and most people still had dial-up internet and smart or hand-held devices were not a tool used in birding. To watch it grow through the years, and grow with it myself as a birder, has been pretty spectacular. eBird has revolutionized not only how we bird, but also where we bird. Now, PA has a few dozen reviewers around the state, and a robust dataset of birdlife because of all of the contributions made by people like you. As state coordinator, it’s been great to see how much pride Pennsylvanians take in giving back to their birding community by contributing to eBird. Since it began, PA has consistently been in the top five states of the US in the checklists submitted to eBird (as of now: 2,206,925), which to me is significant, since we rank 21st in the country for species contributed. So, while we don’t have as many birds as say California, Texas, or Florida, we have lots of people who take time to seek birds and share their findings. Something we should all be proud of!

Ruffed Grouse population trend in Pennsylvania and surrounding states [source: https://science.ebird.org/en/status-and-trends/species/rufgro/trends-map]