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.
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.