There’s never been a better time to be eBirding…from home

If you are fortunate enough to be healthy, at home, and a birder during the COVID-19 pandemic, yard birding can be a fun way to pass the time outside and connect with nature. Allow me to offer one piece of birding positivity in these difficult times – this year offers a rare opportunity we might never get again, to collect what eBird considers to be the most valuable type of data:

Repeated complete checklists from a very high number of locations. 

To boot, the data collected this year will be spread out at a much higher number of locations, many in urban areas. We have the potential to gather data on an unprecedented scale which will reveal just how important our backyards and urban landscapes are for migrating birds – especially those boreal species which are often harder to monitor because of their largely inaccessible breeding ranges.

You see, each spring eBirders head out to migration hotspots and collect vast quantities of eBird data (in Ontario, for instance, about half of all eBird data are gathered during the period of March through May). The problem is, most of those eBirders go to the same relatively few (but very productive!) locations. The result is really great information about bird distribution and abundance skewed heavily towards a relatively small part of the country.

Backyard (or balcony, or window!) birding can be extremely rewarding. No matter your skill level, it has something to offer. For beginners, getting intimately familiar with the plumage variations and vocal repertoire of your common backyard species will prepare you for learning new species when they arrive or you can venture further afield. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, check out the Bird Identification Tool from Birds Canada – this tool makes a photo guide for the most common species in your area (using eBird data, of course). For the intermediate birder, the challenge of picking out birds in flight overhead, identifying birds by ear (that might be in your neighbour’s yard, out of sight!), or learning to predict which species will show up where in your backyard are all great learning experiences. Learning how to spot and record breeding evidence is another great skill you can work on from home. For the expert, there’s always an even more distant bird in flight to try to identify, or you can try your hand at identifying nocturnal flight calls of migrants. And no matter your skill level, the thrill of adding a yard “tick” can often be more enjoyable than chasing a vagrant at the local sewage ponds found by someone else. 

Here are some tips for maximizing your yard birding experience:

  • Try birding your yard at different times of day and under different weather conditions. You might find that there is often a mid-afternoon wave of migrants that passes through, or perhaps that on certain winds you can just make out the sound of geese going to roost at dusk. No two yard birding experiences are alike!
  • If you’re up for a challenge, try listening outside after dark for nocturnal migrants. This is generally more productive during fall migration, but on heavy nights of migration you’ll be amazed at the number of calling birds overhead. With reduced road and air traffic, this could be a better than usual season. Don’t forget to use the specialized Nocturnal Flight Call protocol when you report this list to eBird.
  • Consider trying to record photos and sound for as many species as you can. Most modern smart phones have a built in “voice memo” app that can make surprisingly good audio recordings. Just be sure to follow these tips, and record your audio as a WAV file. Challenging yourself to photograph or record as many species as possible for your yard adds an extra element of fun!
  • Try to enhance your yard for birds. Planting native species and maintaining as much dense cover as possible are great ways to create habitat. If you have to do some spring cleanup, consider leaving a brush pile – they are great for skulky birds like sparrows and wrens. Adding a water feature and maintaining feeders are more ways of attracting birds to your yard; and don’t forget, feeders can be the traditional seed type, but also fruit and jelly work well for orioles and of course hummingbird feeders are great too.
  • Try to find a spot on your yard with as large a vantage as possible and watch the sky regularly. “Flyovers” are a key way to build your yard list. Birds often follow predictable routes day after day – become an expert on what birds do around your yard and you will be able to anticipate flights of waterbirds or raptors overhead.
  • On cool mornings and evenings, insectivorous birds are often concentrated in sunny patches where insects are more likely to be abundant. 

How to best record your yard eBird lists:

  • Complete checklists are the gold standard – always aim for reporting everything you see and hear.
  • The most valuable checklists also cover a relatively short time window (less than an hour).
  • Repeating the same time and duration each day has value, but so too does changing things up; for many analyses it is important to have checklists at different times of day and for different durations.
  • Review the Guide to eBird Protocols to ensure you’re choosing the correct protocol.
  • For many urban backyards, it will only be possible to enter stationary checklists; this is the case if your yard is less than about 30 m x 30 m (100 ft x 100 ft).

Registering an official eBird Yard

If you’d like, you can designate your eBird location as an official eBird yard. This lets you have quick access to your yard totals (life, year, and month) for number of complete checklists and number of species you have recorded. It also lets you compare your numbers with registered yards from other eBirders at different geographic scales. Registering your yard (or not) makes no difference to the value of your yard sightings – it’s just a way to have some fun and see how your yard stacks up to others. 

Privacy concerns

Keep in mind that any data you put into eBird is available to others; however, if you register an official yard it makes your data for that location a bit more visible. If you have concerns with that, then perhaps the yard “game” isn’t for you. It’s OK to move the marker for your yard so it’s not right on your house; moving it a few hundred meters is generally OK, perhaps to the nearest intersection. You can also avoid naming the location something obvious like your street address.

Final thoughts

Yard birding in eBird is meant to be a fun way to connect with nature while still contributing valuable data to bird conservation and avoiding unnecessary trips to far flung birding destinations – those will still be there next spring. I hope you find as much joy in yard birding as I have.

Mike Burrell is the Ontario Coordinator for eBird Canada