Proper eBird Protocol

In order to eBird correctly, you need only do two primary things: 1) bird and 2) accurately tell eBird HOW you birded as you enter the data. Still, selecting the proper protocol is not easy, is often subjective, and requires some understanding to get it right. When users do it correctly, the value of the eBird dataset grows exponentially. This blogpost is designed to clarify how to select the proper protocol for your checklists.

Complete or incomplete?

This may be the most important element of the eBird protocol. In a nutshell, if:

a) you made a concerted effort to identify all species present by sight and sound (preferably for more than five minutes),


b) you are including all of these species in your checklist,

then you have a complete checklist. But if you answer no to either of these questions, then you should enter it as incomplete. Complete checklists should be at least a minimum of 5 minutes duration (with the exception of BBS routes, which last 3 minutes per stop), in order to reasonably capture most of the species present.

Many of us, early in our birding careers, would take field notes, but exclude birds we found uninteresting or common, such as House Sparrows, European Starlings, or Brown-headed Cowbirds. Or, we would go shorebirding and ignore the songbirds along the way, for example. In both of these scenarios, some of the species present were ignored, so these checklists would be incomplete. If eBird teaches you one thing, it should be to collect complete checklists whenever you bird.

One reason eBird is interested in this information is to determine species frequencies. Frequency refers to the percentage of complete checklists that a species is recorded on at a certain time of year in a certain geographic area. If a person detected, but failed to record, the species in question, the checklist will bias the frequency calculation, since the bird was actually detected but went unreported. Frequency graphs, such as this one showing Orange-crowned Warbler frequency in the Upper Peninsula, are designed to sample the actual seasonal and geographic occurrence of each species. Frequency data represent one of eBird’s signature datasets, because of the broad geographic scope and high number of submissions.  So, if you knowingly omitted any species from your checklist, make sure to mark it as incomplete.

Stationary, Traveling, or Incidental?

As long as birding was your primary purpose, most checklists will fall into either stationary or traveling protocol. If birding was NOT your primary purpose during all or part of the outing, you should use the incidental designation.

Deciding between stationary and traveling is usually straightforward. Basically, if you move more than a slight distance during your birding outing, it becomes a traveling count of whatever one-way distance you moved (ie. if you walk the same path out as in, enter only the one-way distance!). Otherwise you’ll use the stationary protocol.

For stationary counts, the only additional information needed is the duration of the observation. However, it’s important to make sure the entire duration was dedicated to birding.  If, for example, you periodically watch your backyard feeders over the course of three hours, this should not be entered as a three-hour stationary count.  The time entered is assumed to be continuous birding effort, so if it is not, please enter such checklists as several shorter intervals that represent the actual effort OR as one three hour incidental checklist.

For traveling counts, things are more complicated. eBird recommends traveling counts of no more than 5 miles, or for whatever distance you were in a uniform habitat. These counts are designed to allow researchers to tie birds to specific habitats. As traveling counts get longer, it becomes more difficult to make these habitat associations, as the pin may be miles from where a specific bird was observed. Here’s some background and how to proceed:

In urbanized and fragmented landscapes, such as much of the southern Lower Peninsula, traveling counts of more than about 1/4 mile will often include multiple habitat types. However, in the northern Lower Peninsula, and especially in places like the Upper Peninsula, the habitat is vast and more uniform. At the Peshekee Grade for example, there is only one major habitat type: spruce bog. In these cases, reviewers will be more flexible about allowing longer traveling counts, but would still encourage checklists that are based on shorter intervals. In other cases, however, we will ask users to break up their visit into smaller units. In the end, several checklists encompassing shorter distances are always better than a single long, travelling checklist.

County, City, & Township level checklists

Many users regularly utilize county level eBird checklists. While this is valuable for keeping track of one’s county lists, there are serious drawbacks to the quality of these data, and Team eBird is now instructing reviewers to invalidate all such checklists (and will soon be doing so automatically). Because the pin is placed in the center of the county (at times 20+ miles from the actual location a bird was), the species maps resulting from these pins become cluttered and badly imprecise, especially for coastal species and those with very limited distributions (such as nesting Kirtland’s Warblers). Additionally, users wanting to locate rare species in such checklists will have no way of doing so.

We ask all eBirders to utilize site-level pins from the immediate area birded *whenever possible*.  This often requires a few minutes of additional investment in note-keeping or data entry on BirdLog, but it really is necessary to retain the high value of the eBird dataset. Remember, eBird primarily exists not for listing purposes, but to gather a robust citizen science dataset. If you choose to use the county level designation purposely to build your lists, it will be invalidated for the research outputs of eBird, but will still populate your listing totals. City and township level checklists are, for the most part, acceptable, but this judgment is at the discretion of the reviewer.

Incidental vs. Historical Protocol

Team eBird prefers users to use stationary and traveling counts for most of their birding effort, as these checklists provide the most valuable data. But if your data do not fit neatly into these categories, until recently you really only had one option: incidental. For example, if you were manually transcribing old checklists from written field notes where birding WAS the primary purpose, but you had failed to note the start time, duration, or distance, you had no recourse except to use the incidental designation. But this is problematic, since incidental checklists are by definition those where birding was NOT the primary purpose of the outing. To rectify this mismatch, eBird recently added a category called historical, for exactly this type of data. Please refer to this article for more detail of the historical protocol.

Again, to summarize: if birding was the primary purpose of your outing, but you lack start time, duration, or distance, then use historical protocol. If birding was not the primary purpose of the outing, use incidental.

“Other” protocols

Finally, you will note that there are several specialty protocols available that we have not covered in this blogpost. We want to draw your attention to each of these options, in the event you have a specialty dataset that doesn’t qualify for the standard options we have laid out. The additonal options are:

-eBird pelagic protocol
-Nocturnal flight call count
-Oiled birds
-TNC California waterbird count
-CWC Point Count
-CWC Area Search
-Rusty Blackbird spring migration blitz

Each of these options requires a rigid adherence to the unique requirements of each protocol. But rather than go into the details here, we simply suggest you click on each option and read the explanation which pops up, and the links therein thoroughly before using them. If at any time you have questions, please feel free to email your local reviewer.