The Agony and Ecstasy of Surrendering to eBird
I blame Nate Swick. For many years now, I’ve resisted every form of listing software available, choosing instead to maintain my world and ABA life lists on a simple Excel spreadsheet. But Nate is an eBird fanatic. At the recent Swarovski Social Media Summit in Arizona, Nate proselytized passionately for the program that both manages your sightings and contributes them to science. His exhortations fell on deaf ears, but once he shared all of our Arizona lists with me, I was hooked!
However, the gargantuan task of exporting my unwieldy list grew no less daunting just because I was finally excited about eBird. In fact, experience proved that the process is actually way more cumbersome and time-consuming than it should be. The agony of eBird is the tremendous barrier to entry to switch over from another format.
In my case, I had to format my excel sheet just so, a considerable task because when I dabbled in Birdstack (gone, alas, but not forgotten) I adopted its formatting as well as the more fluid International Ornithological Congress (IOC) taxonomy, both of which were inimical to that of eBird. After many hours of meticulous preparation, I was ready to import my data, a process that is poorly documented to say the least. Then the fun really started…
The eBird interface came back saying that a whopping 251 species needed clarification. Many interfaces make a process like this easy, but the programmers of eBird seem to have taken special pains to make it tough. A surprising amount of work was required on my part to figure out that what I know as a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan – Ramphastos swainsonii is actually termed a Black-mandibled Toucan (Chestnut-mandibled) –Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii in the AOU taxonomy. However, recognizing and amending this discrepancy should be automatic for eBird.
The deeper I delved into the list, the more egregious these issues became. For example, we all know that many species had their scientific names changed with lots of familiar genera swapped out. So why did I have to clarify which species I was submitting over and over again for every single Larus, Sterna, Carduelis, Parula, andDendroica on my list? What else would Aimophila cassinii be but Peucaea cassinii? Somehow I missed the announcment that Thryothorus thoracicus became Cantorchilus thoracicus, and to be frank I’m not sorry I did.
Worst of all were all the hyphen issues. The IOC has been on a mission to remove all grammatically incorrect hyphens from common names, but eBird required me to manually return every one to its rightful place. Seriously, why should someone be forced to clarify that a Southern Beardless Tyrannulet is the same species asSouthern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Imagine having to clarify every pygmy-owl, every whistling-duck, every brush-finch… the autocomplete on my cell phone is smarter than this.
eBird doesn’t know what a Black-crowned Night Heron is
Importing locations is even more ridiculous. A contemptuous lack of suggested locations to match the ones submitted forced me to research literally hundreds of locations in the U.S and throughout the Americas just so I could find them on the eBird map — even when the location I listed was a Birding Hotspot on that map! In a sense, the process brought back lots of great memories as I scoured Google Maps to locate places I visited over the last decade. Then again, at 1 in the morning, who cares where Xunantunich in Belize is located. The system might be designed this way in an attempt to extract the most specific data possible, but after going through this process hundreds of times for even common locations like national parks or internationally-renowned birding lodges, I felt abused.
And yet, the ecstasy of eBird is that, once your list is locked in, maintenance should theoretically become much easier. I might prefer the IOC’s generous and frequently updated taxonomy to the American Ornithologists’ Union’s relatively calcified one, but I had to add a new line to my spreadsheet every time I saw a new species. My ABA list suffered from poor documentation, while keeping track of country, state, and county lists wasn’t even a viable option. The eBird interface allows a user to slice and dice lists and sightings in almost every way imaginable. One imagines that eBird has the potential to make a lister out of anyone.
Manually cobbling a list together also necessitates a commitment to keep the taxonomy up to date. The reason my Canada Warbler was listed as Wilsonia canadensis rather than the current Cardellina canadensis is because list maintenance seems about as exciting to me as watching House Sparrows crowd my feeders. The last few years have delivered dramatic, dynamic changes to bird taxonomy and it seems that many more changes are on the horizon. How can a person keep up with this endless wave of revisions? My strategy is to let the software take care of it from now on.
Obviously, I have mixed feelings about eBird. The longer you’ve been tracking birds, the tougher moving to eBird becomes. But entering your sightings into eBird elevates them from mere ticks on a personal list to useful scientific data. Don’t doubt that this data isn’t valued: based on the number of e-mails I’ve already received from eBird reviewers, the data set is monitored closely. Undoubtedly, applications for that data and ways to parse it on the user side are still emerging. One concern when considering adopting a new technology or platform is the fear of having to switch again in just a year or two. But with over 100 million sightings entered, eBird looks like it is here to stay. I’m finally in. How about you? Agony loves company…