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Proof that eBird Makes You a Better Birder

There’s no getting around it, eBird’s mark on modern birding is huge. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s well-regarded super citizen science project has been the most influential innovation in the birding world since the advent of the spotting scope, all in less than a decade.

Those of us who tend towards eBird evangelism often tout the program’s ability to make you a more informed birder. You know where birds are, you know how to find great birding sites anywhere in the world, and you can contribute to increasing what we know about bird status, distribution, and population shifts in a way we never could before. The idea that having this information a web-browser away makes you feel as though eBird can streamline the early learning process of novice birders, making them more aware of the whats and whens and wheres that inform bird field identification. Now there’s increasing quantitative evidence that this is true. As it turns out, eBird does, indeed, make you a “better” birder.

A study by Cornell’s Steve Kelling and others, recently published (and freely available) in the journal PLoS ONE, sought to determine if birders improved their birding skill by regularly using eBird.  Kelling et al cleverly determined what species are correctly identified by both novice and experienced eBirders and what species are most often noted only by more experienced birders. As you probably would expect, those in the first group tend to be common and conspicuous, while those in the latter group are more cryptic, more often heard than seen, or encountered more often as flybys.

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Warbling Vireo, both cryptic and often found by recognizing vocals, is a bid often missed by novice birders according to data mined from eBird. photo by JanetandPhil via Flickr

Warbling Vireo, both cryptic and often found by recognizing vocals, is a bird regularly missed by novice birders according to data mined from eBird. photo by JanetandPhil via Flickr

The researchers found that as birders used eBird more often, they often entered more checklist with increasing numbers of species, more often including those species in the second group. In short, they got better at birding.

Left unsaid, but probably safely inferred, is that those who improve their birding skills likely enjoy the hobby more, and are more likely to join groups like the ABA, or get involved in their communities in various ways to protect birds, or become spokespeople for birding. And we all know we could use more of those. When eBird began, it was mostly an attempt to gather the wealth of bird knowledge previously hidden away on spreadsheets and in the minds of birders around the world into one place so it could more effectively be used for bird research. It’s clearly become so much more than that. A tool, sure, but also a culture and a resource. A way to make birding better and now, a way to make birders better too.

For more information on this study, see the eBird homepage.