eBird and Conservation

Snowy Owl Sightings in BirdsEyeI am often asked "Why should I enter my data into eBird?"   Today's post outlines my answer to that question and also talks about why eBird is so important to me personally that I've devoted years of my life to promoting it's use.

Why does eBird matter?  Every birder might have a different answer to this question.  For some it might be "to help me track my life list", "to create a permanent record of my sightings" or "to let my friends know about rarities in our area."  I agree that those benefits are important, but I think they are just the perks we get for doing something even more important: supporting long-term conservation of birds and other species worldwide by entering data into eBird.

The connection between entering data into eBird and saving species may seem tenuous at first glance, but it is in fact far more direct and powerful than first meets the eye.  This connection is what orginally motivated us to create BirdsEye and BirdLog. BirdsEye is designed to make eBird data meaningful and accessible to birders on a daily basis; and BirdLog is designed to making entering eBird data easier, especially in remote locations far from desktop computers.

There are many different reasons to capture bird data, and in my post below I focus on preserving biodiversity, especially in the tropics, but these same ideas apply just as well to your local patch anywhere in the world.  Your data helps us learn about population changes over time, understand subtleties of status and distribution and migration timing changes related to climate change.


Over the course of the next few decades, scientists estimate that a large fraction (20-50% by some estimates) of the earth's biodiversity is at risk and the biggest factors are climate change and habitat conversion in the tropics.  Just to be clear, "habitat conversion" means habitat loss as forests are converted to pasture and agriculture.  

Conservation organizations and scientists need to understand what areas are the highest priorities for protection, and eBird data is among the best sources for the information needed to answer this question.

Large-scale habitat conversion has been widespread for hundreds of years in temperate regions. What's different in the tropics, however, is the scale of the potential loss of species.  Species that live in tropics are much more vulnerable because the tropics represent just a small fraction of the surface area of the earth and are where a disproportionate share of the world's species live.  For example, tropical rainforest represents just about 6.5% of the land area of the earth but supports around 50% of the earth's species of plants, animals and birds.  

Unless you have visited a tropical rain forest, it might be difficult to imagine a place where the diversity of birds is 10x or 100x higher than what you are used to seeing in your back yard in North America or Europe.  Consider Panama as an example: the number of native species of trees in one square mile of Panamanian rain forest is similar to the total number of native tree species in all of North America.  Similarly, the number of birds in Panama list is almost 1000, which is roughly the same or a bit higher than the number of birds found in the entire US and Canada!  Species diversities farther south are even higher.  Columbia, for example, has almost 1,900 species of birds on it's official list.  In these areas, experienced birders can find over 250 species in a day of birding in a relatively small area.

Many bird species from temperate regions rely on the tropics for their wintering grounds, so protecting habitat in the tropics not only helps tropical endemics, but also helps protect these migrants including Scarlet Tanagers, Gray-cheecked Thrushes and Black-billed Cuckoos.

The point of all of this is that protecting key areas of tropical forest is the single most valuable thing we can do to protect a large number of species that might otherwise go extinct.  

What do scientists do with eBird data?

This is where eBird data comes in.  In order for conservation organizations to make fast, accurate decisions about how and where to focus their scarce resources, they need data about the distribution of biodiversity.  In order to determine which land to save, they need to know the answers to three key questions: 

  -- Biodiversity: Which areas have the most species diversity?

  -- Endemism: Which areas have the most species found nowhere else?

  -- Range: What areas are critical to the survival of an individual species?

The data required to answer these questions comes from boots on the ground, not from satellites or remote sensing stations.  It comes from people recording what they see and hear, and putting those data into databases accessible to scientists, like eBird.

The fastest way to quickly estimate the biodiverstiy and level of endemism is to record the bird species present in an area because it is much easier to perform a reasonably complete and data-rich survey of birds in just a few hours than it is for plants, insects, reptiles or mammals.  There are also many more people who can identify birds than there are for other groups.  It turns out that if you know how many birds use a patch of native forest, you can do a good job of estimating how many species of plants, insects and other life occur there as well, which makes sense when you consider that the number of bird species present is a reflection of the number of ecological niches available for them to utilize.  Similarly, the ranges of bird species can be used to predict the ranges of other plants and animals.

How can you help?

So ... on your next trip to your local park, your back yard or a tour to the Amazon, consider the value of your bird data for future generations.  We estimate that today less than 2% of all high-quality bird observations worldwide are end up in a database for use by future scientists and conservation organizations.  Many end up in notebooks or personal life-list tracking software, but we need for these data to end up in eBird.  

Recording a checklist from a quick stop along a road in the Amazon could end up being one of the few records of what birds lived in THAT SPOT before it was converted to agriculture in the next 5 or 10 years.  Imperfect and incomplete as might feel your checklist is, it is valuable!

Here are some tips to make your eBird data as valuable as possible:

1) it is better to collect and report your data than not, so feel free to ignore the rest of the rules if they mean that you won't enter your data!

2) Try to record and report all of the species present to the best of your abilility, not just the rarities.  When possible, try to record approximate numbers for each species, even if they are just rough estimates.  I know that a lot of birders are intimidated by attempting to provide counts because they feel that counting is too difficult.  Here's a rule of thumb: if you think you can provide an estimate of numbers that is accurate to within about a factor of 3, then your data is valuable and it is better to enter a number.  You can think of your options in terms of the following options: 0, 1, a few (5), a dozen (12), etc.  Exact counts are great but are not necessary to give scientists the information they need.

3) it is better to create a bunch of short checklist for specific locations, rather than a single long list that covers a large area.  As a general guideline, shoot for data that is within about a 5 mile area as a maximum.  When you drive more than 5 miles, it is time to start a new list.

4) Make sure the date and location for your data is as accurate as possible. Much of your effort above to capture good data goes to waste if you enter it for the wrong location!  When possible, either associate your sightings with an eBird Hotspot, a personal location, or use GPS to record the exact spot.  

5) The most important contribution you can make is from areas with little or no current data.  BirdLog is designed to make the task of entering eBird data easier when you are far from your desktop computer ... such as on a two-week trip to Peru.  We encourage you to find those black spots on the map and help fill them in with good data.

I know it sounds sappy, but it's true: Future generations will appreciate the data we are collecting today long after we are gone.  Thank you!!

Click here to learn more about how you can help us promote eBird.

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