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Is bird count data becoming irrelevant?

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 

I am pretty sure the title of this probably just sent a number of people into a furor, with a, "How dare he!" or "what does he know?" But before anyone stops reading and writes an angry comment, read on.

The key word in the title of this post is "data".

We have Big Sits, Thanksgiving Bird Counts, Christmas Bird Counts, The Great Backyard Bird Count, and so on and so forth. All of these counts happen on the same day, or week, every year, and some have been going on more than 100 years. There is no doubt that these counts have provided a checklist or series of checklists that over time have created a larger checklist, and shown trends year in and year out. But in retrospect, they are just one day, or one week, and every year there are going to be factors that can skew results year in and out.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a prime example of this. Each year these counts are held all over the nation and information is gathered, put onto a checklist and then added to the history of that count and that years data. A CBC can be a lot of fun, and it's a tradition well worth keeping and taking part in if you haven't already. But let me for a minute talk about data.

During a CBC we count birds at a number of locations within a count circle for that one day. 1 day. It's one day, and that's where the data becomes irrelevant. On any given day you are going to see a certain number of species at a certain location, and year in and out you will see those same birds. Some days you will see a few different, other days you will miss a few. Every once in a while you will see something rare. But it's just one day and historically if a count has been around for 100 years that is 100 days of data, over 100 years. It gives a peak into a historical time line of that specific count, but as a tool for measuring bird trends it is lacking in enough information.

I would argue eBird is a far more valuable counting system, and will be long into the future than any of these counts. eBird allows any number of people to enter information from anywhere they would like, as many times a day from as many locations as they would like—as often as they would like. This means that any number of people over the month of December could enter all their checklists and have a pretty good data set for the month for locations, for counties, and even the entire state. And every year this information grows, and shows a much more complete picture of what is going on with birds in the state each year.

Currently there are far too few people using eBird out of the vast number of birders that are out there. I would opine that a lot of this has to do with the generational gap. Most young birders are quite religious with using eBird to keep track of sightings. Let's face it, we grew up with the computer age, we like things to be easy, and nothing is easier than eBird for keeping track of sightings. That's not to say that older generations don't use the program, but in terms of birders, there are far fewer younger birders than older, and vice versa those older birders are using programs like eBird far less than the younger birders.

If you've made it this far, I will end by saying I do think that these counts are valuable in a number of ways. They DO add valid data sets to the overall picture. On any CBC I have taken part in I have added my lists into eBird—and many birders do the same. It also give opportunities to introduce new, and younger birders to people who know the areas they are going to be counting in, and give them a taste of what the counts are about. Those birders are often experienced, and have quite a bit of knowledge to share, and are invaluable in spreading the interest in birds.

Great Salt Lake Audubon. Copyright Tim Avery

Let's face it; lots of us that participate in counts often are trying to see as many species as possible. The big number at the end of the day is exciting, and beating the year before, or the record excites people. It's fun, it gets people into counting, and it's memorable. Not everyone is, but I have been part of more counts than I can count on my ten fingers, where the grand total for species has been the cheering point.

The data collected is relevant in the big picture. As part of a data set as a whole it is just as important as every other data point. If it were the only measure, it would be missing far more important information than the historical information tied to the count. However, for the value it brings to advertising and marketing birding—it is invaluable.

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6 Comments:
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

Love your analysis here and the encouragement to use ebird.

December 22, 2010 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Thank you! I hope people see past the title and get that this isn't saying counts are irrelevant, only that everyday checklists provide far more useful information for trending than any single day. That and ebird rocks!

I'm surprised you had nothing to say about the picture of you I used...

December 22, 2010 at 2:52 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

I think your title was very relevant as was the content of the post. These are things we all should think about. We have an incredible opportunity as birders to contribute to the data collection and make it matter - for the sake of conservation. I alluded to the importance of conservation and data collection in my comments on Jerry Liguori's post on this blog from 16 December 2010 titled "Photography and bird identification". I'd like to explore ebird and its use by birders a little further and hope that our own Colby Neuman can help contribute some ideas on how we can make it more prevalent.

Per the photo of me, I have no doubt my burgeoning fan base is always happy to see another likeness.

December 22, 2010 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

You have some nerve buster!!! How dare you cast a questioning shadow on the sacred traditions of birding.

Just kidding. I have thought the same thing in the last few years as an eBird evangelist myself. CBC's and Big Days are all part of the fun of birding. The data from those days becomes part of the eBird whole. Comparing those individual days from year to year can be "interesting" and fun, though perhaps not as useful to science.

Idaho has for years been keeping track of birds according to a geographical unit called latilongs, with special interest in over-winter birds. Now its time to import that info into eBird and perhaps abandon some old practices.

December 22, 2010 at 3:43 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Utah used to do the same thing with latilongs--anyone new to birding in the past 10 years probably isn't all that familiar with them, and I would venture that 99% of birders here probably don't have lists for any of Utah's 23 latilongs.

eBird really has revolutionized the way we keep lists and track sightings of birds. It has given millions the ability to play scientist and not only contribute to the information pool, but study and use it from their home computer.

December 22, 2010 at 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Tim, I applaud you for tackling a touchy subject...takes cajones. The truth is, even some long term data or season-long counts are sometimes of little value scientifically (although most are valuable), but I agree with you, if they get people interested or attract new birders than they are all well worth it. Same thing with certain banding projects (another touchy subject), people argue if some are worthwhile, but if a Peregrine or warbler in the hand sparks a long lasting interest in birds for someone, than the project is validated by that alone.

Jerry

December 23, 2010 at 9:56 AM  

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