In 2022, staff from the National Audubon Society set out to do something extraordinary: We collectively attempted to see and hear as many species of birds as we could across the globe over the course of the calendar year. There was no prize for who saw the most birds or the rarest species, and nobody was given a medal for their worst photo of good birds (it’s a thing!). Instead, as a community, we were curious. Just how many of the world’s ten thousand-plus species of birds could we see together?
This effort is called a Big Year, a phrase many are now familiar with thanks to countless Big Year books, including Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and Noah Stryker’s Birding Without Borders and the aptly titled movie, The Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin. Big Years are generally informal birding competitions where individuals set out to observe as many species of birds as possible across a defined geographic area, such as a county, state, country, or even the globe.
As you can imagine, dedicating a year to chasing birds, particularly nationwide or globally, is not without controversy. Many detractors of Big Years point out that Big Years are an antithesis of what birding should be about, and lambast the efforts as big money, ego-filled binges that reduce birds to checkmarks, all at the expense of our climate and the environment.
But not all Big Years are built the same. In 2021, I conducted my own Big Year across my home county of Windham, Vermont. The initial reasoning was I have always wanted to do a Big Year, and doing so on a county-level seemed manageable. But for this effort, particularly during the height of the Covid pandemic, I was excited at the idea of expanding and exploring my world, which was collapsing inward, and most significantly, having a personal adventure where I could fall into a daily rhythm and push my boundaries. Most birders conduct county or statewide Big Years because they are easier logistically, financially, and arguably they can be more rewarding and climate friendly. As my own Big Year began to take shape, I realized it was much more than earning that birding merit badge. Only a few days in, I discovered that the practice was about gaining an understanding and a sense of place for the birds and myself.
Over the course of those 365 days, I gained a deeper appreciation of how and when birds use the landscape around me and the people who also call Windham County home. I credit my Big Year and the countless hours of cruising back roads for helping me learn about my community enough to know where I would eventually want to buy a home (we closed on it in the fall of the same year) and introduce me to local birders, many of which have become good friends. All that birding also further elevated my observational skills. This is the beauty of the Big Year: You can do your own thing, on whatever scale of your choosing, and have similarly fulfilling experiences that will last a lifetime. If you’re wondering how well I did, I ended the year with 213 species (95 percent of the current county total), tying for first that year and second all-time.
While Big Years—even the most competitive ones—continue to produce extraordinary stories of travel and people overcoming adversity, conservation awareness, and even a dream list of birds, a new type of Big Year has emerged. These efforts are built on collaboration, like the Audubon staff Big Year of 2022. The premise was simple: Anyone on staff at Audubon could go birding from January 1 to December 31, 2022, log their sightings into eBird, and then share that checklist with the Audubon Big Year organizers. (Shoutout to my eBird-managing colleagues Stephanie Beilke and Gregoriah Hartman, and to my editor Martha Harbison!)
We cheered each other on, shared tips on where people could see birds if they traveled, and yes some of us tried to clean up at year’s-end to get any obvious and common species that were still missing from the list. We birded at home and abroad, in our backyards and at state parks and national wildlife refuges. Some of us birded from a pizzeria parking lot. And in the end, after all the birds were tallied and we were already talking about what birds we’d seen the first day of 2023, many of the staff asked us, “so, can we do that again?”
Audubon’s Big Year Audubon staff logged 1,979,499 individual birds representing 1,857 species (17% of the global total) across 5,332 checklists in 17 countries for our Big Year. This effort equates to logging 4,633.4 hours of birding time (or approximately half a year), with every calendar day seeing action. As these numbers were revealed, it was clear this was indeed a global effort, which was remarkable for our first try. A few other global stats, Audubon Staff, observed birds from 132 families of birds, with the northernmost checklist coming from Denali National Park, Alaska, and the southernmost coming from Chile.
Within the United States, we observed 705 species across all 50 states, which represents around 62 percent of the United States total (per eBird). Included in this effort were 14 species observed by Kristal Stoner, vice president and executive director of Audubon Great Plains, in Fargo, North Dakota, which, when entered into eBird in the waning days of the year, closed out the US map. In addition, New Mexico gets a special acknowledgment with checklists from every county in the state.
On the bird front, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, and American Robin were the birds with the highest number of occurrences (# of checklists). Eared Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope, and American Avocet represented the highest total of individuals, with each having more than one hundred thousand individuals tallied. Finally, the first and last birds of the Big Year were a Song Sparrow in Tennessee and a Burrowing Parakeet in California, respectively.
While the data the Big Year produced provides a lot of fun insight into birds and birding, the response from staff was most rewarding. Here are a few reflections from Audubon staff that participated in our Big Year:
"Loved the collaborative nature of this. It got me out birding more."
Melanie Smith, program director, Bird Migration Explorer, Migratory Bird Initiative
"It pushed me to use eBird more, geek out with colleagues, and coordinate to build our state list. Had a ton of fun!"
Erik Johnson, director of conservation science, Audubon Delta
"It was really fun doing a Big Year together with Audubon staff because I felt like part of a team effort with many of my colleagues across the network. Most of my shared checklists were done with Hog Island campers, including our Costa Rica Teen Camp! Sharing birds with people is something I have the extreme privilege to do at work and sharing those checklists felt especially meaningful."
Eva Lark, program manager, Hog Island Audubon Camp
"I had never used eBird before; Chad was kind enough to walk me through how to use it so I could contribute some South Florida birds that were missing (like all the Egyptian Geese that lounge at the park down the street from me, and the peacocks that promenade through our neighborhood). When I first came to Audubon, I was intimidated by others' expertise on and a little stunned by their passion for birds. It felt like a whole world that I didn't belong to. Participating in the Big Year, and the guidance I received, is one of many instances when my Audubon colleagues have helped me make birds a part of my life."
Laura Aguirre, program manager, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging
"While the pandemic was keeping so many of us apart, it was a real joy to be able to connect and collaborate, virtually, with colleagues on a Global Big Year. I loved hearing about their sightings of birds in places I wasn't able to visit!"
Amy Simmons, director, Individual Giving
"2022 held the most communal birding experiences I've had of any of my birding years. If not for my colleagues, former staff, and friends who all enjoy birding enough to invite me along (or welcome me birding during other activities), I would've likely submitted just 9 checklists, like I had the previous year. Instead, I submitted 84. The number of birder-lifers I had (new people I got to bird with) likely exceeding the number of lifers I had in 2022. Even though I'm typically a solitary birder, I appreciate how birding with others opens up opportunities to go where I wouldn't otherwise go, and see what I wouldn't otherwise see."
Morgan Moore, senior associate, Digital Engagement
"It was a mission centric, easy to involve anyone and everyone, and fun! I appreciated the updates and learning. We should have more fun, great work!"
Kristal Stoner, vice president and executive director, Audubon Great Plains
To see the map of where Audubon Staff participated, please see the eBird profile page for our efforts.