Saturday, May 30, 2009

Are you reporting all the species you saw/heard? What the heck do we mean???


Hyla raises a very important issue in stating that new eBirders might not fully understand this very important question asked at the top of every eBird checklist. The question as currently stated reads "Are you submitting a complete checklist of the birds you saw/heard?". By clicking an additional drop down menu immediately below called "What does this mean?" users see the following text:

"We want to find out whether you are reporting all the birds you were able to identify to the best of your ability. In other words, answer "Yes" to this question when you submit more than just the highlights of your birding event, and try to note every species present. We realize that all birds are not identifiable and user abilities vary. You should always answer "Yes" to this question unless you are purposefully excluding some species (e.g. European Starlings) from your checklist. You do not need to count all the individuals to answer "Yes" to this question. Please try to report all species."

I can tell you that we've struggled with the wording of this question at eBird since day one. We thought by adding the expanded clarification above the matter would be settled. But it sounds like it's still not fully clarified.

So, help us out, respond to this post with suggestions on how to word this better! Read more about this concept and why it is absolutely critical that every eBirder understand why they should be reporting all species here.


Team eBird


  1. This was a difficult statement for me when I began submitting to eBird. I knew that I wasn't able to report all the birds that I saw, because I was unsure of the ID. Then I would wonder if I should submit at all, since my list would be incomplete. Maybe other beginning eBirders hit that roadblock too.

    I'm not sure how you would want to word it differently, unless you could incorporate "birds you were able to identify".

  2. There's only 2 situations where I answer "no" to the the question: 1) If I feel like I'm forgetting one or more common species once I'm home entering lists. 2) If I deliberately leave out species that other people saw when entering a count for a group.

    I should probably answer just answer "yes" for situation number 1 since I'm not deliberately leaving anything out even though I know some other birds were there. But I encounter the same sort of unsure situation when entering true Casual Observations. If I'm entering a Cooper's Hawk as a Casual Observation and not entering all the birds that alarmed when it passed through even though I may have identified some, am I still entering a complete list for a Casual Observation? And why not enter that count as a Stationary Count instead?

    Situation 2 is even more confusing. Should I just enter a count for a group of 1 and answer "yes" even though there were others there who saw different birds? Is answering "yes" anyway OK when entering a group count since I AM entering all the birds that I myself saw even though I'm excluding birds that other people saw?

    I think the question is worded much more clearly than it used to be and I'm not sure it can be made clearer. You might reword it as "Are you deliberately leaving out any species that you identified on your birding trip?" but that would probably confuse the issue for existing e-birders since they'd now have to answer "no" instead of "yes".

  3. I would suggest changing "birds you saw/heard" to "birds you identified." (It could also be "bird species you identified" if exact counts are not necessary.) That might encourage people to answer "yes" even if there were a few birds they couldn't identify but the list was otherwise complete.

  4. Virtually the only time I answer "no" is when I want to keep track of the occurrence of unusual birds in my back yard, such as the first arrival date of a migrant.

  5. Maybe something like, "Are you submitting a complete checklist of all the birds you were able to identify?" It sounds like such a tiny difference, but I know even the most expert birders see or hear birds that are just utterly difficult to ID for whatever reason. I think the current wording might actually turn away some of the more beginner types, I can imagine them getting anxious reading the current question and thinking, "Well, I did hear this bird, but I don't know what it is," possibly feeling like they failed at making a complete checklist, and hitting "no" when they should be checking "yes." I think some people feel intimidated by the word "complete" and don't realize that even a group of expert birders will miss certain birds during a point count, but can still have a 'complete' list.

    I also wonder if certain people reading the expanded detail on the meaning just don't understand why some birders might leave out specific birds like the European Starling. I myself never heard the unfortunate term 'trash birds' until joining in on birding groups.

  6. This is a difficult area to define partially because there are competing interests. On the one hand, we want high quality data that can be used to do good science. On the other hand, you want checklists to be easy to complete, for the questions you ask about them to be crisp, unambiguous, and subject to reasonalby objective interpretation, and you want those questions to accuratley categorize the checklist so that you know how to interpret what it reports.

    It seems to me that there are a number of different aspects of how a checklist was compiled that bear on the probably accuracy of the data. Of course, how to ask about or assess these things is another matter. But there are at least the following issues, and probably more, and I'm not suggesting you should necessarily ask about these all directly.

    1. Were all the birds that could be identified during the time interval recorded?

    This what your 'complete checklist' question is trying to address.

    2. How careful was the counting?

    Were observations carefully tabulated at the time they were made? Were the reported numbers estimates made from memory at the end of the day? etc.
    3. How many birds/species were observed that could not be identified?

    Some checklists may be reporting every individual the birder saw. Some may contain accurate counts of certain groups of birds during the reporting interval, but might be overlooking whole flocks of birds that the birder didn't or couldn't even attempt to count because of being overwhelmed, etc. Sometimes in a 2 hour checklist it could get hard to count every last gull that flys over if you are working on shorebirds, etc, etc. I try to provide estimates for this sort of thing using the entries for things like 'Gull sp.', but it's hard to be uniform, and probably birders vary a lot in how they handle this.

    4. What is the capability of the birder?

    I know that I probably report some rarities as a more common species because I just miss it, and that I probably miss some individuals altogether that a better birder would pick up.

    5. To what extent is bird presence being reported by observing by ear? A good ear birder will pick up lots more things than will someone who knows there is a bird over there but has no idea what it is.

    5. How accurate is the location and time information on the checklist?

    Not sure how much of an issue this is - but the downside of hotspots is that sometimes the hotspot gets picked for any observation in a reasonably large area. Maybe there is a hotspot for a reasonably big park, and I birded over on one side of the park in one habitat one day, and on the other side in a different habitat another day. I could pick the hotspot for both, or I could use a personal location which is more accurate.

    One last general issue. Some people, like me for example, are willing to put a little effort into improving data quality. Other people aren't. Both sets of data are useful, but a) you may want to be able to distinguish them, and b) you don't want to deter people from submitting the data they have by making it daunting to submit checklists. So good usability is critical in anything you add.

    I probably didn't need to go on about usability because you've already done a great job of making the site easy to use and useful to the individual birder. I look forward to seeing how eBird evolves over the coming years.

  7. As a new birder this year, I do admit that question did give me quite a bit of anxiety for awhile. The first month or so, I probably only ID'ed maybe 25%? of the birds on any given trip, and I was a little embarrassed to claim that I was submitting a complete checklist. Finally, one trip to the mountains, I was almost in tears because I couldn't identify ANY of about 5-6 species of wood warblers I encountered, and I just took a break and had a little chat with myself and had to laugh in the end because really as long as I'm doing the best that I can, who's business is it anyways how many birds I can identify and report. Since then, I've been much more confident in my reporting, and figure if some scientist disapproves of the lists I submit, that's their problem, not mine. :-)
    I like Kirk's suggestion above -- changing the question to something along the lines of: "Are you deliberately leaving out any species that you identified on your birding trip?"

  8. I to had issues with this but are now to the point where I feel confident just hitting "yes" nearly each time.

    One thing to could be done to relieve confusion would be to give multiple options to that question (instead of making it "Yes" or "No") on the form, but to have the information saved upon form submittal be just "Yes" or "No". By those who know it's going on, it seems like lying, but if you want "Yes" to be sumbitted most often and in various scenarios but only "No" when people are purposefully leaving out birds, you get the info you need and people know how to answer the question. Then, if in the future you want to store the other options (instead of "Yes" & "No") the framework is there.

    Another option is to just expand the information recorded by that question, including expanding the list to include the middle ground between "Yes" and "No".

    Finally, giving a bulleted list in the description of when people should submit "Yes" would help; people love bulleted & numbered lists. Look at all the websites that put out "Top x" lists; then again, you know this since you have the "Top 100" list. :)

  9. Another vote for changing the wording to "all you identified". I'm a fairly new birder, and not always confident of my identifications; even though I see the text in the drop down, it's still hard for me to click that "yes" button. :)

    Another option I'd like to have available is more sp., such as you already have with Duck sp. Often on my walks I can tell the general type of bird, but can't see enough to tell which species of hawk I'm seeing, or whether that drab bird I saw for a second was a female house finch or purple finch.

  10. Since a lot of people use eBird to keep track of all their bird sightings for listing purposes, I have a couple of questions:

    1) What would you like people to do if they are part of a group of birders and some members of the group see a bird species but they miss it (and it would be a life bird or year bird for them)?

    2) What about someone who only hears a life bird but never sees it? I know most people won't count a bird that they have never seen before.

    I have been birding many times and heard Ruffed Grouse but did not start keeping track of them until I actually saw one because I didn't want it to affect my life list. Also, I've been on field trips where people saw Mourning Warblers but I did not see my first one until yesterday and I never listed them before. I've always clicked the "yes" button but maybe I should not have.

  11. Wording in guidance looks fine except suggest you add "(species) after 'bird' in the first sentence and also add a short sentence to effect that , when possible, to include the number of birds of each species sighted.

  12. All

    A few comments:

    Jan M et al.: We originally had the text as "All the species you identified", but that is likewise confusing because we DO WANT people to report unidentified birds where appropriate. And "identified" implies that you ID the bird species level when in fact that isn't the case. Example: if you see an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher during migration you should answer "Yes" to the question AND you should report the bird as "Empidonax sp." We don't want people to leave off birds they couldn't ID, especially for hard to ID groups.

    Kirk: You should answer "Yes" in both cases, especially in case 2 where you are entering a group list. Group checklists can be modified by the other users. They can add or delete species, after which we make a composite 'master' checklist of the birding event.


  13. Robert Clark: You raise a lot of good points about how we analyse checklist data. We might move in the direction of asking participants these things in the future.


  14. Derek

    As I said above, when entering data for a group, each eBirder in the group can add or delete species from his/her version of the checklist. The issue of counting birds you heard only is an interesting one. I always DO count those birds, even if they are lifers because I'm most interested in providing a complete representation of the birds in the area.


  15. I, too, will count a bird I only heard even if it would have been a life bird had I seen it. Thus my eBird life list contains a couple species not on my actual life list, but on the other hand, my life list is considerably longer than my eBird life list since I do not send in a list in certain situations, such as 1) if I'm on a field trip with a group I will usually be too distracted to try to count and 2) if I go to a place like Brigantine or Magee Marsh where the numbers of birds are just too overwhelming and I know I couldn't do it justice.

  16. Maybe you should reverse the question:
    Are you entering only select speices or highlights?

  17. I just wanted to state that the comment Brian made about how to report birds difficult to ID was quite helpful. I've always been unsure as to how I should report them, and the example about the Empid was perfect.

  18. I agree with Gallus, the question should be related to "are you entering only select species or highlights". or, "Are you selectively excluding species?" ie, ignoring house sparrows, crows, etc.

    This question throws me too. What about when I am in an area with many birds, I can hear at least 10 birds for every one I see or can identify by sound - The question as it is stated now would mean I couldn't report the area.

    On a similar vain, people talked about the problem of reporting a long day of birding. I think people should be encouraged to plan on segments of the day to count and record for eBird. Most of the day might be reported as Casual over a large area, even a county, but having one or two segments of the day which are counted and can be reported without being a big burden would drastically increase the number of reports going into eBird. People need to realize that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Counting for 20 minutes during a long day of birding and just reporting that 20 minutes is valuable.

    LG Price

  19. Count me as one of those, who when new to eBird, shied away from saying "yes". However, the guidance from the eBird staff got me over that.

    Second, like Birder-Naturalist Extraordinaire, the only time I say "no" nowadays is when reporting a new backyard species. We keep lots of feeders full and I only report a full list every month or so. So when a new species shows up, I sometimes enter it so as to keep track of what shows up in the yard and when, but I might not include a full list that day.

    Third, I vote for keeping "birds you saw/heard". It makes sense to me.

  20. I've been birding for over 60 years and there are a lot of birds that I can't identify. I have been with self-proclaimed "elite" birders who throw out scientific names for every bird that are within hearing or long range sight. I think a lot of them are just trying to baffle with BS, but I would never try to contradict them.

    I try to identify every bird I see with several birdbooks, but can't be sure I'm correct with many of them such as the many small shorebirds that even the "elites" ID as "peeps".

    If I can't identify a bird I don't see how I can report it. I report every bird I can identify and I really do try to count them.

  21. This seems to be a simple question to me. Either you enter everything that you personally saw or heard or you didn't. Doesn't matter what you think you may have missed or what you couldn't ID. Just put exactly what you have on your fieldnotes or checklist into the program. If you start thinking about it too much your mind may start to see species that you really didn't.

  22. Regarding your advice to report birds that were not ID'd to species, such as Empidonax sp. -- I seem to recall that for many locations I submit lists for, the checklist presented to me does not include options such as "Empidonax sp.", it only shows the individual species. I have seen those "sp." options when submitting lists for places in other states, though. What's up with that?

  23. I like the wording.I only report the identified birds. I am not asked to report the birds that I did not identify. (If you do not believe in UFOs just bird with me for an hour or so.) Since I count the birds I attempt to identify every bird. This has increased the number of species that I have identified, Identifying every large black bird which is usually a Turkey or Black Vulture has given me, Am Crows, both Ravens, Zone-tailed Hawks, both Eagles, and numerous Hawks. The same goes for little birds

  24. John Kent

    You can add any 'sp' in the eBird taxonomy by going to the 'Rare species' option on the checklist and then searching for it in the 'Add a species window'.


  25. I have always figured that eBird rrealizes that not all birders are of the same loevel of expertise and view the submitted data accordingly. So I do the best job I can, within the parameters, and let eBird figure out what to do with the information.

  26. Not sure of where this comment should go, but... The wording on the "Are you reporting all the birds you saw/heard" is okay as it is. What I would like to see is a better way of approximating large numbers of a species other than "x". Being a chemist, I like significant figures. If I enter 200 birds, to me that means approximately 200 birds. This could be between 100 and 300 birds.(Okay, so I'm up in front of my General Chemistry lecture section right now.) I have seen entries of "194 of bird X". That's a very accurate number; it's most likely not correct. Will a symbol, such as ~ , be recognized when inputting data?