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BRCs vs. eBird—Apples and Oranges?

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Monday, January 10, 2011 

You just found a Western Gull in your neighborhood, Utah. There have only been three previous records accepted for the state. Should you submit a record to eBird? To the Bird Records Committee? Both? (Photographed 11 Jun 2010, Monterey, CA.)

Tim Avery has written two interesting, informative, and somewhat controversial posts (here and here) contrasting the benefits of eBird with those of state bird records committees. I've argued my side in the comments of those posts, but I thought my position could use an explanation of its own. In my opinion, the contrast is like the proverbial apples and oranges: bird records committees and eBird fill two very different roles that are both important.

Bird records committees are established in most (all?) states and many countries. They are generally not "official" in terms of having any link to the government, but they create "official" lists of the birds seen in the state and attempt to be the final word in the birding world for their areas. They are usually a group of volunteer birders that are well respected in their communities. (In Utah, they are selected by the nomination and voting of other members of the committee only, but the details of their composition and bylaws vary by state and are a separate issue from their role in birding.) Their primary purpose is to evaluate records of rare birds in their area and to judge whether those records should be included in their "official" records. As a result, they compile documentation supporting when and where the rarest species occur in the state, and attempt to provide an indication of whether each of those data points has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

EBird is an online citizen-science tool that is run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It began by accepting records from North America but has since expanded to global coverage. Its goal is to use the power of millions of birders around the world to study the abundance and distribution of every species of bird through time. Although it includes rare birds, its strength is in its numbers: it focuses on all species, regardless of how rare or common they are. By doing so, it can provide estimates of relative abundance that are lacking in many other citizen science projects. The data submitted by eBird users are already being used to generate the most detailed distribution maps ever made, and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how such data can be used by scientists.

Bird records committees are concerned with (locally) rare birds only; eBird is concerned with all species. BRCs are concerned with one state only; eBird is concerned with birds of the entire planet. BRCs attempt to create a list of rare sightings; eBird attempts to create a database of all sightings, and to incorporate relative abundances, search effort, and other scientifically valuable data. BRCs create lists for the state; eBird provides data for scientific analyses.

Neither eBird nor BRCs are intended to complete every task, and this is why I do not feel that they are redundant. Do BRCs provide detailed abundance data? No, they do not attempt to. Does eBird require conclusive documentation and a vote of experts to accept an unusual record? No, they tend to err on the side of inclusion of all records and have only a minimal amount of vetting. Neither BRCs nor eBird does the other's job well. Neither tries to.

Certainly there is overlap between the coverage of these bodies. When a rare bird is observed, both eBird and the BRC want to hear about it. But the kind of data they seek, and the way they plan to use the data, differ greatly. If you want to contribute to citizen science, and to have your bird observations help biologists understand the distribution of birds in time and space, submit your records to eBird. If you want to help your state maintain an accurate and vetted list of the species seen in your state, submit your rare bird sightings to your BRC. And when you are lucky enough (luck tends to favor those who work hard) to find a rare bird, consider sharing that observation with both.

A White Wagtail photographed in Jordan in December 2010. If you ever found one in Utah, I'm sure both eBird and the state Bird Records Committee would like to hear about it.

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Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

Wow! A very well written and logical rebuttal. Nice.

January 10, 2011 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


Great post and detailed information talking about the specific goals of each area. However, I do disagree that the records committee is the best to create an "accurate and vetted list of the species seen in your state". This is only because this is how it has been. eBird is quickly catching up in the checklist game, and will soon surpass what the checklist that the committee votes on.

Again, it's all in how people want to perceive the records the committee accepts or rejects. From looking at the current Utah checklist there are certainly some questionable records that have managed to be accepted and placed on the list. At the same time there are some holes from records that have been rejected, that seem to be questionable as being rejected.

It really is an opinion issue, and there are at least 4 schools of thought as I mentioned earlier: either, or, neither, both.

As for what I would submit, there really isn't anything I would, whether 1st, 2nd, or 3rd state records--in the committees books. The committee doesn't validate or invalidate my sightings one way or another, they just are what they are--sightings for my enjoyment.


January 10, 2011 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

One more thing. What those sightings add to eBird is far more important to ME, then the information provided to the committee is to me. I have no interest or investment in the committee. With eBird I see my sightings actually being put towards something worth while and meaningful that I and other can use for any number of things.

Lastly, everything that you mentioned the BRCs as being interested in eBird is also interested in. The data that eBird collects is down to the single location up to the entire world. Within that data is all that information, and depending on how the USER decides to use it they can study information at the state level, at the rarity level, etc.

I understand the differences and see how both work, I personally just don't see the need for records committees going forward.

January 10, 2011 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

I think a records committee has great potential on a state by state basis. In my opinion there is GREAT value to having an organization that represents a state for birding. In my mind this would be an organization that makes it their goal to manage the state list, work with ebird data and other sources of data to make a comprehensive and complete database (as much as can be achieved), has standards and definitions of what it takes to offer the "burden of proof" on a rare bird sighting (working with ebird here makes sense as well for consistency), has a committee that is elected by the "birding public", and proactively works to meet all of the aforementioned goals through efficient communication and interfaces with the public. I think it makes great sense to have this sort of organization on a state level. It would be an awful lot to ask one person to do all of this and if that person is working for ebird it may be over a multiple state level. This is how I feel about this and while I haven't been a big user of the records committee in the past, I do see both a need and a potential for great things from one now and in the future.

January 11, 2011 at 8:51 AM  

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