What a fine time to be a web-enabled bird watcher! It seems like every week, some new and exciting resource is developed to enhance your birding experience. Some of these initiatives are, of course, bigger than others and David Ringer recently served up a whopper. Birdstack, the innovative web-based listing application, has been greeted with great enthusiasm, particularly by those of us who had a chance to beta test it. Since Birdstack has the potential to become the web standard for listing, it seems best to get the straight scoop from the man with the plan himself. FULL DISCLOSURE: I consider David a friend, our bond forged chasing a demonically elusive Golden-cheeked Warbler through the Texas high juniper.
So, David, what exactly is Birdstack?
Birdstack is a free, web-based application for listing birds you’ve seen anywhere in the world. You just go to the Birdstack website, create an account, and start recording your observations. That’s it! As soon as you’ve entered some sightings, you can share or publish your data in a variety of formats (including widgets and feeds). Because Birdstack is online, you can access it from (almost) anywhere, just as you can access your web-based email and other services. Birdstack also includes community-building features to help you meet and interact with other birders around the world. Birdstack launched last week and already has members from five continents!
What kind of lists can I make with Birdstack?
If you have been keeping lists on pieces of paper or in spreadsheets, you’ll need to get used to what “list” means in Birdstack. In Birdstack, you record your observations one time, and you include information about each one (date, location, etc.). Then, you can use Birdstack’s powerful query builder to create a “list” (actually, a query) defined by certain pieces of information. For example, you can create a list that contains every species you record during 2008. Then every time you add a new bird in 2008, it will automatically show up on your year list (and your life list, if appropriate, and a county list, etc.). Year lists are simple enough, but what if your requirements are more demanding? How about this: You can create a list of all birds from a certain family recorded in a certain nation within a certain ecoregion above a certain elevation within a certain date range. The number of lists that Birdstack can generate is, for all practical purposes, infinite. And all you have to do is record each observation one time, with all the proper information.
What if I don’t want to record all that detailed information?
That’s OK — it’s optional. If you don’t have it, or if it doesn’t interest you, then you don’t have to put it in. The only information required for each observation is a valid bird name.
Say I’m not a world traveler or blogger but just like watching the birds in my backyard. Can I still use Birdstack?
Yes! Birdstack is for everyone who’s interested in birds. It’s simple enough to keep a list of backyard birds if that’s all you need, and it’s powerful enough to store, track, and process thousands of records from around the world if you do get bit by the travel bug.
You said I can share my data. How does that work?
Once you’ve created a list, you have a variety of options. The page that displays your list is public (if you want it to be), so it can be seen even by people who don’t have Birdstack accounts. Instead of trying to keep a year list in an HTML table on your own website, you could simply link to your Birdstack year list page, which is always up-to-date. Your list is also automatically published as an Atom feed, so your friends can subscribe to receive updates of your latest activity. And, you can use widgets called “stacks” to display recent additions to the list on your own website or blog. Just pop your latest observations into Birdstack, and they show up instantly in your blog sidebar, or wherever you’ve posted your stack. Size and highlight color are even customizable. You can also access your data in CSV and XML formats, and do whatever you like with it from there.
Do you have examples of some of these displays in action?
Sure. Check out my 2008 year list. See the orange feed icon near the top right corner? If you want to, you can subscribe to my year list with your favorite feed reader. You can also experiment with different sort orders and report styles (just below the feed link). Several people are already displaying stacks on their blogs, from a TV weatherman in Missouri to a student in Lima, Peru.
Can I import data from other sources? I have hundreds or thousands of records in a spreadsheet or a desktop listing application, and I don’t have time to enter them all over again!
Yes! Birdstack can import records from CSV files (which you can generate from most spreadsheet and database programs). Because of varying data formats and standards, import is an inherently complex operation, but we’ve prepared detailed instructions to help you through the process. Some Birdstack members have already imported many hundreds — even thousands — of records.
What if I want to keep my data private?
No problem. Birdstack offers fine-grained privacy controls. You can keep all of your data private, or you can pick and choose what you share. It’s up to you.
I don’t have time to record my sightings in twenty different places. Why should I record my data in Birdstack rather than a scientific database like eBird?
Birdstack is global, not regional, and it gives you great flexibility in the types of information you can record. But sharing data with scientific databases is very important. Birdstack is working in cooperation with eBird and is about to release the first phase of a tool that will let Birdstack members contribute relevant, qualifying data to eBird. I say “relevant” because eBird doesn’t collect information from places like Africa or Europe, though you can store that sort of information in Birdstack. And I say “qualifying” because eBird, as a scientific database, has more stringent requirements for its data that Birdstack does. Birdstack lets you record a bird name with no date or location information, but that sort of record is not useful to the scientists who use eBird’s data, so it wouldn’t be included. There are other regional databases like eBird around the world, and we (the Birdstack team) will be happy to talk with their developers and administrators about data-sharing functionality.
Which taxonomy does Birdstack use? What if I want to use a different one, or maintain my own personalized list of bird names?
Birdstack uses the IOC (Gill and Wright) list, which is published by the International Ornithological Congress’s Standing Committee on English Names. It is the only list that is currently available freely (and legally!) in its entirety online. One of Birdstack’s strengths is that everyone’s observations are linked to one authoritative world bird list. This allows extensive integration, aggregation, and cooperation that would not be possible if everyone maintained different taxonomic lists.
Great, now I’ll have to give up ‘gray’ for ‘grey!’ What if the name I know or want to import is different from the one on the IOC list?
Birdstack includes community-driven alternate name suggestions and ambiguous name notifications to help you find the bird you’re thinking of, even if you call it by a different name. And for simple spelling variations (gray/grey) or hyphen usage, the Birdstack spell checker will come to your rescue.
What happens when there are name changes and taxonomy updates?
Some changes will be made automatically, and you will be told what happened (e.g., changing a spelling or assigning a family to a different order). In other cases, Birdstack will notify you that some of your observations are out of date and guide you through the update process. If a species you have seen is split into two or more species, Birdstack will identify all your observations of that species and help you assign each one to the correct new species.
What if I’m keeping an ABA list? The IOC and ABA lists don’t align at all points.
No they don’t. You can, of course, use Birdstack to keep an ABA-area list (as defined by countries, or states and provinces, or even tags, which we don’t have in place yet but plan to offer soon). However, the list won’t correspond exactly to a formal ABA list because of some differences in taxonomy and nomenclature between ABA and IOC.
Say I abandon my current listing solution (software, web-based, list stuffed in my mattress) and move to Birdstack. Will my data ever be lost?
You know, I’m a birder too, and I fully understand the importance of your data to you. I don’t want mine to be lost either! The Birdstack database is backed up in multiple locations every day. And don’t forget, you have the ability to download all of your information (currently more than 60 columns of data) in CSV and XML format. For maximum protection, it’s good practice to download your data regularly and store it with the rest of your backup files.
Is Birdstack “finished”?
Nothing on the web is ever finished. We have big dreams for Birdstack, and we’ll continue adding features and functionality as we grow. We hope you’ll come along for the ride!