How to Use eBird

A powerful tool for tracking sightings can change the way you bird.
Lesley Val Adams/Great Backyard Bird Count Participant.

Since its launch in 2002, eBird has revolutionized the way birders worldwide report and share their observations. A joint project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, eBird is a free online program that allows birders to track their sightings, while other birders watch and search in real-time. Articles have been written about eBird with mind-bending titles like, “eBird Changed My Life” and “The Agony and Ecstasy of Surrendering to eBird.” In a front-page science headline in 2013, The New York Times called it “Crowdsourcing, for the Birds,” and concluded that eBird is “a revelation for scientists” and gives birders “a new sense of purpose.”

eBird now has more than 100,000 active users, and participation is growing at the dizzying rate of about 40 percent per year. The result is a rich database on bird abundance and distribution that is available to all.

Even with all this interest, many birders trying eBird for the first time don’t quite get it. Be warned: It takes a little effort to get into the eBirding habit. But for those who stick with it, eBird can become a gateway to a whole new world of birding.

To join the citizen science revolution, all you need is a username (it’s free and easy to create an account). There is no “profile”—you can’t upload a selfie or name your favorite pet, and you can’t even contact other users through the site. Once you’re in, eBird is all about one thing: uploading checklists of birds you’ve encountered in the field, with enough scientific precision that those observations can feed into one massive, searchable database.

The concept is simple. Anytime you go birding in a specific place (like your backyard, or a park, or a local hotspot), you keep track of the birds you see there—all of them, not just the unusual ones. You tally how many birds you saw of each species, remember how long you spent birding, and note how far you traveled. Back at home, you visit the eBird website, click on “Submit Observations,” indicate where you were, and type in your numbers. Once you get the hang of it, entering a checklist takes just a minute or two. With a smartphone app called BirdLog ($9.99), you can even submit sightings to eBird straight from the field.

The fun stuff happens when those checklists begin piling up. For starters, the site automatically keeps track of all your personal lists—a life list, a county year list, and almost any other list you can imagine—under “My eBird.” You can summarize your sightings in a nearly infinite number of ways. For instance, you can create a bar chart of the birds in your yard by season, or you can make a line graph showing how many American Robins you saw per hour for every week of the year.

Anyone can search the entire database on eBird’s website (no login necessary). There’s more than enough to explore: Which bird species were seen this week at a hotspot in Alabama? What is the all-time high count of Bald Eagles in Idaho? Who has observed the most bird species in Philadelphia? Merely click on “Explore Data,” and you’re off and running. If you haven’t already marveled at eBird’s “heat maps”—animated occurrence maps showing bird migration across the entire continent—check them out first. The maps are beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

People who regularly use eBird often say that it has changed the way they go birding. When every sighting counts on a checklist, the common species become more interesting. eBird focuses less on rarities (though it offers tools for reporting unusual sightings) than on the big picture, which is quite a satisfying way to look at birds.

There’s also the informal “eBird Challenge” to submit at least one checklist (in other words, go birding somewhere, for at least a few minutes) every day for a year. Take it, and I predict you’ll quickly become a serious addict. A friend once told me, “If it’s not on eBird, it doesn’t count.” He was joking, but he was also right.

The best place to start is the eBird Quick Start Guide. The Getting Started page answers most questions about how to use the site.

What are you waiting for? Go for it—and welcome to birding in the new millennium!