A Beginner’s Guide to Using eBird

Birders and scientists alike have come to depend on this powerful platform. New to birding or intimidated by eBird? Don’t worry, we’ve got you.
Binoculars and a cell phone on a wood table outside, the eBird app open on the phone shows nearby birding hotspots.
Photo: Lia Bocchiaro/Audubon

For birders, researchers, and conservationists alike, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird platform has been a game changer. Not only can its crowdsourced data help you locate rare birds and hotspots, but its collection of more than 1.5 billion records contributed over the past 20 years has also proven a vital resource for science and conservation.

For example, the Cornell Lab’s Migration Dashboard, part of the BirdCast tool, uses historic eBird observations for a given date and location to let users see what birds might be flying overhead in spring and fall. eBird data submitted by community scientists have also revealed migration pathways and underscored how vulnerable migratory birds are to light pollution.

For birders, eBird offers two main functions. You can explore a vast trove of data shared by other birders, helping you learn about species within a particular area and find new places to bird. And you can submit your observations to track your life list and keep memorable birding moments at your fingertips, wherever you go.

As powerful as eBird is, though, the tool can intimidate rookies. Here are some tips and tricks to answer your questions, ease your worries, and help you take advantage of all eBird has to offer.

Explore Data

To get started, download the eBird app and click “Create Account.” (Or, create an account on the eBird website.) A message will pop up encouraging you to download “packs” of birds local to your area while setting up the app. Installing packs for the regions you bird provides a list of likely species, allowing you to keep track of sightings even when there’s no signal. Before birding a new place, consider installing the local bird pack.

Planning a trip? Have a nemesis bird that you’ve always wanted to see? Use eBird’s explore section to help you plan when and where to bird, searching by region or species. 

While the app offers a slimmed-down version of the web’s explore tool, one of its big advantages is that you can search for a target bird while you’re at your birding location. You can see if a particular species has been recorded nearby, and check out what people have recently observed at that hotspot.

Keep an eye on your own life list—by county, state, country, and year—through “My eBird.” You can also sign up to receive alerts for sightings of birds you haven’t found in a given area.

Submit a Checklist

Logging a record of your sightings, called a checklist in eBird, requires some key details that help you—and scientists—keep track of where and when you spot birds. The eBird app will automatically record some of this information when you click “Start Checklist” on the home screen. Don’t have service? If you’ve installed that area’s bird pack, you can still keep track of your observed birds, and the checklist will automatically upload the next time you have a signal. (Or, record this information in a notebook or the notes section of your smartphone as you are birding and enter it later.)

Where did you bird? The app offers the option to record a GPS track of your route—useful for pinpointing the location and calculating the total distance traveled. Once you start your checklist, you can adjust your location immediately for a more precise species list, or do it later when you finish birding. An accurate location gives scientists the most helpful information. Many locations, like refuge trails, are already named in eBird and you can select one that best matches your location. If you are birding in a large area that spans multiple habitats—walking a trail that meanders through a forest and a beach, for example—try to submit a separate checklist for each. 

When and how did you bird? The app will automatically record the date and time of your outing, along with how long you birded. At the bottom of the app, click on the horizontal dashed lines—the checklist settings—to change how you birded (observation type). Walking a trail or driving a refuge loop? Select “traveling” (even if pausing frequently to look and listen for birds). Sitting at a hawk watch platform? Select “stationary.” On a morning run and happen to identify several species? Select “incidental,” since birding wasn’t your primary activity. If you allow the app to record your GPS track, it can select the observation type automatically. Don’t forget to stop your track when you’re done birding—leaving it on will skew the resulting data on how much effort it took to find the birds you logged.

What species did you find? Record all the birds you were able to confidently identify, visually or by ear. Click on the “+” to the left of a species name to add one bird at a time, or select the species name to manually enter your observed number. Add comments to document noteworthy birds or counts. Pro tip: Even if your eBird profile is private, your checklists will always be public, so other users will see your comments.

Give Your Best Effort

Before you submit your checklist, eBird will ask if your list is “complete.” For eBird’s purposes, complete means you did your best to identify and count all the birds you encountered, not just the highlights. Complete checklists are the most useful to scientists, but cut yourself some slack if you missed a bird or two or weren’t able to ID everything you found.

  • Not sure if you saw a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk? Not a problem: Use the “Hawk sp.” or “Buteo sp.” options, which indicate that it’s a hawk species or, more precisely, a member of the Buteo genus. The same goes for sparrows (“Sparrow sp.”) and other groups. Sharing photos or sounds—especially encouraged for a rare bird—helps eBird’s expert volunteers verify an ID.
  • One of the most valuable things you can do on a checklist, particularly for scientists, is count birds. Don’t let large flocks overwhelm you: If you think you saw 20,000 Tundra Swans but the actual number may be 30,000, don’t sweat it. What matters is getting the right order of magnitude. (Logging 1,000 birds when there were only 100, for example, will compromise the data.) If you truly can’t estimate the number of birds, use an “X” instead of a numeral to mark a species as present—but only as a last resort.
  • If you are watching a bird feeder, entering the number of a common species can be tricky, since the birds might frequently leave and return. To simplify things, enter the highest count you see together at one time. For example, if you see five Black-capped Chickadees around the feeder all at once, enter “5.” If seven chickadees later gather there—or if you see a distinctive individual that you’re sure wasn’t in the group before—bump up your tally. When walking along a trail, focus on birds in front of you and assume you’ve already counted what’s behind you—unless you hear a new species.

Check Out the Website

Even if you mostly use the app, the website can still play an important role in your eBird experience. It allows you to record old lists from birding excursions pre-eBird—even if your list spans multiple dates or locations. Adding these historic lists make your online life list more accurate, and can provide useful scientific information, like when a species was first observed in a region. 

The website’s explore tool is especially useful for planning birding outings in advance: Explore by region to learn how many and what species were recently seen by county, state, or hotspot. You can peruse illustrated checklists that show photos and audio recordings submitted by fellow eBirders for each species at that location, paired with a chart indicating what you’re likely to spot there throughout the year. You can also set an alert for any rarities that show up in areas you bird or throughout the ABA area

If you want further guidance, check out the Cornell Lab’s free eBird Essentials course to learn more. The easiest way to get comfortable with eBird is to dive in and start practicing. It could take you several checklists before you feel like a pro, so be patient with yourself and remember to have fun.