American Birding Podcast



eBird Changed My Life

eBird project leader Brian L. Sullivan likes to say that eBird has changed the way he birds. He said so in his essay “eBird and the Evolution of a Birder,” appearing in the January/February 2008 issue of Birding, and he said it again in “A Birding Interview—with Brian L. Sullivan,” which appears in the September/October 2011 Birding.

Me too.

eBird has changed the way I bird.

But I’m going to do Brian one better. I’m here to say that eBird has changed my life.

EBird_reasonably_smallFirst things first. In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past five years, eBird is a web-based birding checklist run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Electronic checklist software has been around for decades, but eBird differs from its predecessors in a fundamental regard: eBird serves the entire community of birders, all at the same time. When you enter an eBird checklist, it doesn’t just go into your proverbial e-shoebox. Instead, your checklist instantly becomes part of a global network of literally millions of checklists.

eBird is revolutionizing the way we bird.


After a couple of false starts, I became an eBirder for good on New Year’s Day of 2007. Starting that day and continuing now through New Year’s Eve on 2011, I have entered 3,066 eBird checklists. That comes out to 1.68 checklists per day during that five-year period. That’s cool, but the following is a lot cooler: I have entered at least one eBird checklist every single day since I became an eBirder. That is to say, I have gone birding every day for the past 1,826 days.

The last time I did something like that was during a five-year period running from the beginning of eighth grade through the end of the summer after my senior year in high school. Thanks to eBird, I bird again with the same tireless zeal with which I applied myself in my earliest years as a birder.

But there are some big differences.


CassiarDEJU3I make it a point to enter into eBird my observations of subspecies, hybrids, slash/combos, “spuhs,” and uncountable exotics. My eBird checklists from Boulder County, Colorado, routinely include such entries as Cassiar Junco, Lazigo Bunting, Cackling/Canada Goose, Empidonax sp., and Mandarin Duck. Back in grade school, I would have declined to record some of that stuff. (Right: Cassiar Junco by © Bill Schmoker.)

I almost always enter exact or estimated counts of species I record on my eBird checklists. In grade school, I was often content merely to note just general abundance (“lots,” “some,” “present,” etc.). These days, though, I take the time to count every Killdeer, every Song Sparrow, and every Ring-billed Gull—as a result of which I have stumbled upon such goodies in my home state of Colorado as Ruff, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Black-legged Kittiwake, respectively. If I hadn’t been eBirding, I probably wouldn’t have found those goodies.

I have never, ever, entered an incomplete eBird checklist. All 3,066 of my eBird checklists have included all the birds I was able to identify during the period of observation. Doing these things has made me a better birder, for what that’s worth. And doing so has made be a better and more disciplined observer of the world around me—and that’s worth a great deal.

As an eBirder, I have adopted new modes of thinking. Thanks to eBird, I have embraced new conceptions of the world around me. Being an eBirder has led me to question received wisdom about such matters as wilderness, nativeness, determinacy, truth, and beauty. eBird has opened my mind to a material universe that is bigger, more brilliant, and more glorious than I had known.


On the other side of the coin, eBird has also contributed to my newfound appreciation for the immense value of the little things in life.

A few weeks ago, I was wrapping up a long and complicated day—a day of appointments, deadlines, phone calls, and no birding. Night had fallen, and my son and I were racing—literally, running—from one bus stop to another. Then a thought occurred to me: Oh. OH! I haven’t eBirded today!

 “Slow down!” I pleaded. “Stop!”

My son and I detoured from the sidewalk, scooted down a very short footpath that led under a bridge, and wound up on the bank of a creek that flows through downtown Boulder. We couldn’t have been more than fifty feet from the sidewalk, but we might as well have been a million miles away. We looked for Rock Pigeons roosting on the concrete supports of the bridge. We saw no Rock Pigeons. We wondered if we might spook an American Dipper. We didn’t see a dipper. Maybe we would come upon the local flock of wintering Mallards and American Wigeons? Nope. No dice.

My eBird checklist for that date was zero birds, zero species, zero individuals. We had “nothing” to show for our effort, but the experience was priceless. An otherwise entirely forgettable day has been immortalized in my memory. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the water flowing under the ice. I remember the smell and feel of the cold winter air that night. And I’ll never forget the experience of just being there, as time seemed to stop for a glorious moment.


I often get asked the question, “What got you interested in birds?” And I sometimes get the more general version of that question, namely, “What sorts of people get interested in birds?”

Ebird-1Here now is a variant on that question: “What sorts of people really get into eBird?” Or, to make it more personal: “Why should you get into eBird?” Are you into listing? Are you a proponent of “citizen science”? Do you want to be a better birder? Those are all fine reasons for getting into eBird. Indeed, those things attracted me to eBird in the first place.

What sustains me, though, as an eBirder is something entirely different. I keep at it, quite simply and quite profoundly, because eBird keeps me going, because eBird sustains me.

I’ve got a lot to do today—deadlines for the March 2012 issue of Birding, thank-you cards that need to be written, mail that needs to be opened… And I suppose I should feed the cat. But that can all wait. I need to get outside, I have to get outside, right now, so that I can enter an eBird checklist for this last afternoon of 2011.

Go on! Try it. Click here.

eBird will change your life.