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Flying the High-Tech Skies

What could be more geeky than the image of a birder checking species off a list? Maybe that same birder later, assiduously typing the list into a computer. There has always been a kind of domesticated, crossword-puzzle aspect to the activity of listing birds. The British term for it, twitching, seems to get at something of the nervous quality of scribbling down the names of species, and no less an authority than Roger Tory Peterson, for all his love of things that fly, called the sport of listing birds "ornithological golf." But now the game may be changing. One of the knocks on listers is that they sometimes turn an activity that is delightful and spontaneous into something competitive and selfish. Enter eBird, a real-time, online checklist, founded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in 2002. Last year more than 30,000 checklists per month were submitted to eBird, a total of 4.3 million observations from all over North America. At first glance all this collecting of minutiae might seem like a massive intensification of the above-mentioned geekiness, but the overall result turns out to be quite the opposite. In fact, by consolidating all these checklists, eBird may be changing the very nature of listing.

How can an online Web site do this? The short answer is that all the accumulated data allow ornithologists and other scientists to see the big picture: where birds are, how many are there, how they behave, where they are moving, and what might be causing them to move. Simultaneously, individual listers, once solitary, become part of a larger community with a larger purpose.

Take, for instance, something as basic as recording when the birds in a particular area come back each spring. If one birder does this, it's a nice hobby. But if a thousand do it, and record it for others to see, it becomes something more. "It's almost a game to see who can spot the first spring arrivals," says eBird co-leader Brian Sullivan. "But those games can now yield real scientific data." What if, for example, we learn that ospreys came back a week later this year than last? What if Eastern phoebes are found wintering a hundred miles farther north this year? Suddenly we have new insights into phenomena as vital and sweeping as biodiversity and climate change.

Sullivan is convinced that eBird is also changing the type of recordings participants make. Listing puts the emphasis on seeing rarities -- a roseate spoonbill in Cleveland! -- but eBird emphasizes the movements of common birds as well. Also, when plugging your data into eBird, the first question you're asked is where you saw the birds. Sullivan explains: "I live in California, and in the old days I might have birded from the hills to the coast and come home with one checklist that had both quails and cormorants on it. But now I record the exact location of where I saw each bird: the quail in the hills, the cormorant offshore." In other words, where is now as important as what.

It's an image that stirs the environmental imagination: each person intimately knowing his or her neighborhood, and by describing it contributing to our knowledge of the greater world. I imagine a birder in, say, Delaware, keeping careful record of tree swallows swooping through his backyard, then downloading this information and adding to the larger picture of swallow migration throughout the hemisphere. "Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world," writes Scott Weidensaul in Living on the Wind , "stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do." And maybe, in some small way, the observation of bird migration can also stitch the world together or, at the very least, allow us to see if the stitches are ripped in one place, and to understand that the whole is easily torn.

But I'm getting carried away. Migration, after all, not the Internet, is the actual World Wide Web. For now eBird will have to content itself with small miracles. Like taking individual geeky birders -- birders almost exactly like me, in fact, binoculars hanging from our necks, pencils ready -- and connecting us to the larger world.

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >