A Beginner’s Guide to eBird


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

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

For birders, eBird offers two main functions. You can explore a wealth of data shared by other birders, helping you learn about species within a given 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.

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

Explore the Data

To get started, download the eBird app and click “Create Account.” (Or, create an account at eBird website.) A message will appear prompting 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 track sightings even when there is no signal. Before birding in a new area, consider installing a local bird pack.

Planning a trip? Have an enemy bird 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.

A screenshot of a map of recent Winter Wren sightings on eBird.

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

Keep track of your own life list—by county, state, country, and year—through “My eBird.” You can too sign up to receive alerts for bird sightings that you have not seen in a particular area.

Submit a Checklist

Logging a record of your sightings, called an eBird checklist, requires some important details that help you—and scientists—track where and when you see birds. The eBird app will automatically record some of this information when you click “Start Checklist” on the home screen. No service? If you have the bird pack installed in that area, you can still track your bird sightings, and the checklist will automatically upload the next time you have a signal. (Or, record this information in a notebook or in the notes section of your smartphone while you’re birding and put it away for later.)

where do you bird? The app offers the option to record a GPS track of your route—useful for determining location and calculating total distance traveled. Once you start your checklist, you can adjust your location immediately for a more accurate list of species, or do it later when you’re done birding. A precise location gives scientists the most useful information. Many locations, such as refuge trails, are already named in eBird and you can choose the one that best matches your location. If you’ve birded a large area that covers multiple habitats—walking a trail that meanders through a forest and a beach, for example—try submitting 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 bird (type of observation). Walking a trail or driving a refuge loop? Choose “travel” (even stopping often to look and listen to the birds). Sitting on a hawk watch platform? Select “stationary.” On a morning run and happen to recognize some species? Select “incidental,” since birding is not your primary activity. If you allow the app to record your GPS track, it can automatically select the type of observation. Don’t forget to stop your track when you’re done birding—leaving it will skew the resulting data on how much effort it took to find the birds you logged.

What species did you see? Record all the birds you have identified with confidence, either by sight 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 notable birds or numbers. Pro tip: Even if your eBird profile is private, your checklists will always be public, so other users can see your comments.

Give Your Best Effort

Before you submit your checklist, eBird will ask if your list is “complete”. For the purposes of eBird, 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 beat yourself up if you miss a bird or two or don’t identify everything you see.

  • Not sure if you saw a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk? No problem: Use “Hawk sp.” or “Buteo sp.” options, indicating that it is a species of hawk or, more precisely, a member of the Buteo genus. The same goes for sparrows (“Sparrow sp.”) and other groups. Sharing pictures or sounds—especially encouraged for a rare bird—eBird’s expert volunteers help verify an ID.
  • One of the most important things you can do with a checklist, especially for scientists, is count birds. Don’t let large flocks overwhelm you: If you think you’ve seen 20,000 Tundra Swans but the actual number might be 30,000, don’t sweat it. The important thing is to get the order of magnitude right. (Logging 1,000 birds when there are only 100, for example, would compromise the data.) If you absolutely cannot 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, putting a count of a common species can be tricky, because birds can often leave and come back. To simplify things, enter the highest number you see together at one time. For example, if you see five Black-capped Chickadees around the feeder at once, enter “5.” If seven chickadees congregate there—or if you spot a distinctive individual that you’re sure wasn’t in the group before—your tally is high. When walking a trail, focus on the birds in front of you and assume you’ve counted what’s behind you—unless you hear a new species.

Check out the Website

Even if you use the app often, 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 historical lists will make your online life list more accurate, and can provide useful scientific information, such as when a species was first observed in a region.

The website’s exploration tool is particularly useful for planning birding outs in advance: Explore by region to find out how many and what species a county, state, or hotspot has seen recently. You can read illustrated checklists showing photos and audio recordings submitted by fellow eBirders for each species at that location, paired with a chart indicating what you’re likely to see there throughout the year. You can too set an alert for any rarities found in the areas you bird or throughout ABA-place.

If you want more guidance, check out 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 may take you a few checklists before you feel like a pro, so be patient with yourself and remember to have fun.


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