2017-04-27 / Nature

Welcome to the eBird Revolution

By Charles Avenengo


Bob Vergnani of Portsmouth scans Gooseneck Cove for wildlife during a recent Salve Regina University Cirlcle of Scholars nature outing. 
(Photo by Charles Avenengo) Bob Vergnani of Portsmouth scans Gooseneck Cove for wildlife during a recent Salve Regina University Cirlcle of Scholars nature outing. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) In the world of bird watching, eBird might be the biggest thing to come along since the invention of binoculars, and perhaps also field guides, bird feeders, and spotting scopes. To date, 330,000 eBird observers worldwide have compiled a reported 40 million reports. That is some database.

In April 2009, Marshall Iliff, the keynote speaker for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s then annual Birdfest, lectured about eBird, the internet’s foremost database for bird watching. Speaking to a packed hall at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus, Iliff, a project manager at eBird, gently rebuked the audience by maintaining that Rhode Island was behind other New England states when it
came to reporting bird sightings.

Last week, in a telephone interview, I asked Iliff if Rhode Island had caught up. He chuckled and said, “Yes, Rhode Island has definitely caught up.”

Indeed, eBird currently displays nearly 53,000 reports, representing 391 species of birds recorded in Rhode Island.

Here’s how the site operates: when an observer sees birds, whether knee-deep in a remote swamp or peering into their backyard, they enter the sightings into the database, which are posted in real time. Photos and sound recordings of the birds are also entered.

Once submitted, the report is added to the others seen that day at the same location, and with that, the database grows. With enough reports, patterns emerge, and the birder is able to deduce not only what types of birds are in the area but also if any rarities are lurking about.

Really, it’s a stroke of genius. Compared with some other aspects of natural history, bird watchers have always been at the forefront of sharing their accumulated knowledge and sightings. Information is freely swapped, sometimes leading observers to a singular tree, hundreds of miles away.

Enter eBird. Capitalizing on the birders’ penchant for keeping lists, it has turned into an ego-motivated engine, whereby thousands of users spend countless hours entering their data, and all for free. It’s a nice trade-off for true professional scientists, who receive the data, and for bird watchers, who have access to a massive database showing where to seek out target birds to add to their lists.

Despite the rosy results, there were a couple of things concerning eBird that were nagging me when I spoke to Iliff. The first was false reporting. Over the years, I had noticed some incorrect reports, usually from new bird watchers or from trigger-happy, over-zealous competitors who race about tallying up their sightings in an attempt to accumulate the largest bird list.

I cited to Iliff an occasion from two autumns ago at Brenton Point State Park when my bird watching companions and I noticed a newer, self-hyped leader in the state bird watching ranks standing by his car. He was surrounded by about 30 brown-headed cowbirds. Later, when I was scanning the eBird reports from the day, I noticed he incorrectly reported them as European starlings. He continued his incorrect reporting for the next few days, even though there were no starlings in the park at the time. They were cowbirds. Although the two species look somewhat similar, they shouldn’t have been confused. Now the data was skewed with incorrect information, and visitors to Brenton Point might expect to see starlings instead of cowbirds.

Over the next few months, I noticed the same observer reporting other inaccuracies. I questioned Iliff about these false reports.

“Every region has filters,” he said. He explained that eBird has a network of more than 500 regional data reviewers whose role is to “identify and purge these reports. We are always working on becoming more spatially and temporarily refined.”

“This is touchy in some areas,” he added. “We don’t want to scare people off. But there is no question, every bit of information is looked at.”

My second question was why, at least in Rhode Island, not everyone was onboard with reporting to eBird. Many of the older, more established birders in the state, including most of the true professional ornithologists, generally haven’t shared their sightings to the site.

“Is this a generation thing?” I asked, envisioning older Luddites vs. the Millennials.

After musing about this for a moment, Iliff said, “Although there is a cultural shift, old habits are hard to break.”

He then surprised me and asked, “Why aren’t you reporting to eBird?”

Flabbergasted, I didn’t have a ready answer. Afterwards, I questioned friends and asked why they also weren’t reporting to eBird. While the answers varied, the consensus was generally that birds mean different things to different people, and not all need eBird. Many bird watchers have backyard feeders, while others like to paint birds or photograph them. Some casually like to go out into the field, while others are more hardcore listers. And while it really is a matter of personal preference, the times are a-changin.’

But if you think eBird has shaken things up, be prepared. “If eBird is a tool for the present, Merlin is a tool that represents the wave of the future,” Iliff said.

Merlin is an app for smartphones that is now in its fourth year. Basically, the user points their smartphone at the bird, and with two clicks, the Merlin-app is able to identify the bird. “Last year, Merlin had more hits than the Bible,” Iliff said.

Until the future arrives, however, perhaps it is time to embrace the eBird revolution. Forty million reports and counting can’t be all that wrong.

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