At some point today, I will enter an eBird checklist. No biggie. Many of you reading this you will do the same thing. It will be my 6,225th eBird checklist. Okay, that’s a bit more impressive. Still, it’s nowhere near the record. According to eBird, Peter Svingen has submitted 78,178 checklists, more than ten times my number of submissions. My 6,225 checklists don’t even crack the top 100. But check this out: When I enter an eBird checklist later today, I will have submitted at least one complete checklist every single day for ten straight years: 3,653 consecutive days of eBirding.
I’ve asked around, and, as far as I am aware, that is a record.
And it invites a singular question: Why? Why on earth have I entered at least one complete eBird checklist daily for ten straight years? To explore that question, I invite you to relive with me the birding events of 1981–1982, long before anybody had ever conceived of eBird.
On Monday, September 21, 1981, I began a daily log of the birds around my neighborhood. I recorded 2 Mourning Doves, 75 Rock Doves (that’s what we called Rock Pigeons back in the day), 1 Blue Jay, and 1 sparrow (that’s as far as I could get with the ID) that first day. I also noted the location (my neighborhood), its area (“around 10 acres”), and the time of observation (“right after school”). I couldn’t have anticipated it at the time, but I had compiled an exemplary eBird checklist.
I kept at it for an entire year. Day after day, all the way till September 20, 1982, I ticked off the birds I saw. All good things must to come an end, though, and I desisted in my daily logging of birds on September 21, 1982. I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I looked back on that year of recordkeeping. For starters, I’d learned my sparrows: That bird on Sept. 21, 1981, I came to realize, was a House Sparrow. I learned cool facts about Blue Jays. As to Mourning Doves, I learned so much about them that I did a school project on them. And I took it even further with Rock Pigeons: I enlisted as a volunteer with a University of Pittsburgh project to study the neurological basis of navigation in pigeons.
I suppose it’s possible I’d have done all those things anyhow: learned to ID sparrows, discovered Blue Jay and Mourning Dove natural history, gotten involved in research on pigeon navigation, and so much more. But I wonder about that. I suspect my daily bird logging, more than anything else, kept me going. It kept me focused; it kept me disciplined; it prevented me from getting distracted. Anyhow, I was hooked. There was to be no turning back. In the decades ahead, I would keep on birding, keep on learning about bird biology and identification.
On Sunday, January 1, 2007, I was at it at again. I decided to embark on another crazy bird logging scheme. For a whole year, I pledged, I would submit at least one complete eBird checklist per day. Guess what happened… That’s right. I did it. Not only that, I kept on going. Instead of hanging it up on January 1, 2008, I continued daily eBirding. Ten years after that first eBird checklist, I’m still at it. You already know the math: 3,653 consecutive days of eBirding.
When I look back on this past decade of eBirding, I’m struck, more than anything else, by how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve discovered, how much I’ve grown. For starters, eBird has taught me a great deal about spatial and temporal patterns in avian distribution. eBird has made me more aware of hybrids and subspecies, and eBird has inspired me to pay more attention to molts and plumages. eBird is directly responsible for my budding interest—okay, it’s a full-on obsession—in bird photography. Because of eBird I’m more interested than ever in making audio recordings of nocturnal flight calls. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point: eBird has made me a better birder.
But there’s something even grander, something about eBird for which I’m even more grateful.
When I started eBirding, back on Jan. 1, 2007, my daughter wasn’t yet three years old, and my son wasn’t yet three weeks old. It’s been quite a ride, this whole parenting business, this past decade. For sure, I appreciate all the people and resources along the way. (Shout-out to Kei.) And I have to say, eBird has been a particularly valuable parenting resource. eBird gets me outdoors. eBird gets me outdoors with my kids—a lot. A whole lot. That’s good—for me, for them, for the whole family. Not only that, eBird gets me outdoors with all sorts of persons.
Let me explain by way of a single anecdote, from yesterday, Friday, December 30, 2016.
With my son Andrew and two birding friends, Frank and Jack, I visited a Frank Lloyd Wright home, Kentuck Knob, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Heavy snow was falling at Kentuck Knob, and it was expected that we would ride the courtesy shuttle from the visitors center to the home. No way! We elected to walk. Uphill. In the deep and drifted show. Because we needed—it was a very real need—to compile an eBird checklist.
In the hemlock woods, we got the expected birds: Blue Jay, American Crow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Black-capped Chickadee, and Dark-eyed Junco. And a glorious Pileated Woodpecker. I’ve lived in Colorado all my eBirding years, and I don’t get to see Pileated Woodpeckers all that often.
We heard it first, cackling slowly as if mildly insane. It was the only sound over the faint hissing of the falling snow. Then we saw the woodpecker, a blaze of black and white flying through the woods. I really mean it when I say I’ll probably remember that Pileated Woodpecker forever. Check that: I’ll never forget the whole experience of sharing that Pileated Woodpecker with Jack and Frank and Andrew. I’ll forever remember Jack’s graciousness, Frank’s charm and erudition, and Andrew’s exuberance.
It probably wouldn’t have happened without eBird.
Tomorrow, Sunday, January 1, 2017, I’ll be at it again. I imagine I’ll continue for the rest of my days on this earth. Yes, I’ll keep on eBirding to learn more about birds. But even more so, I’ll keep on eBirding because it improves my quality of life, one day at a time, one checklist at a time.
Thank you, eBird.