A number of recent developments are prompting me to finally express some questions and concerns about the state of our birding world, mostly pertaining to eBird as it's currently formatted. The most disturbing news comes from recent letters on CalBirds about the relevance of listservs and the pending demise of Yahoo groups. I first began to notice the problems listed below as far back as 2015, but since I don't report my sightings on eBird, I've done nothing more than complain occasionally to those around me. But now it appears that eBird could be the only serious reporting platform left if Yahoo Groups fails. I've tried to write as succinctly as possible, though each item below could easily be expanded on.
- eBird does not appear to have any internal messaging format, as I've seen that listservs all over the state are hosting messages from eBird reviewers to eBird users. Can something be set up so that eBird content can expand beyond the checklists and tweet length messages currently visible in eBird reports?
- eBird reviewers' messages contain an increasingly labyrinthine description of protocols for usage. Filters and hot spots and other new terminologies seem to be creating barriers to simple usage. I know several people who stopped using eBird because of this type of complexity, and it seems to be growing less user friendly rather than improving.
- until recently, it seemed to be common knowledge that a single observer couldn't visually obtain an accurate reading of population numbers in any given area. They were considered anecdotal, incidental, lacking in adequate protocols for censusing. (I exclude migratory watches from this critique.) A quick survey of eBird lists from the same location in the same time frame shows notably varying results, strongly suggesting that such counts are indeed anecdotal, not reflecting an accurate/scientific result. If these results are not accurate, then what use are they, and why are so many people spending their time making such counts? And how many truly newsworthy events are going unnoticed while these counts are being conducted?
- in another recent survey, I found multiple, very obvious errors in ID, timing, and location. A thorough investigation would likely turn up more problems. It was suggested to me that eBird's famous metadata functions would smooth things out, but I don't see how false info can do anything but magnify itself at the macro level. This problem also suggests that the reviewers can't keep up with the inflow of reports.
- I've never met many of the people on eBird's SF daily lists, and I spend a lot of time in the field. I wonder where they're coming from, what draws them to using eBird, especially people who post a single House Sparrow or Rock Pigeon from somewhere downtown, and I really wonder how eBird can educate them toward posting more usable information.
- conversely, many of the highly experienced and competent birders here and in surrounding counties make limited to no use of eBird. The six top birders (numerically) in SF are not to be found in eBird's top ten list, and while this is a minor issue in itself, it does point to the lack of historical linkage which constitutes another huge problem with eBird's database. eBird is new, and seems to ignore the vast amount of information accumulated prior to its inception. I also think a top ten list is unnecessary, and makes birding look like just another sport to dabble in.
- eBird has split the birding community, and there are already too few of us. Important items are falling through the cracks between systems.
- eBird encourages the pedantic repetition of information. Daily reporting of the same birds in the same locale (again excepting watch sites) is a questionable use of precious birder time. Stable populations can be monitored once a week, or even once a month in order to show seasonal fluctuations, if any.
- the lack of headlines on individual reports leaves us to sort through the endless lists to find actual news. A headline reading "Mystery Duck" would have caught the attention of most of us on January 4th, 2018, and then perhaps the King Eider photographed that day at the Sutro Baths could have been refound. It would also help newer birders learn what birds are considered unusual.
- eBird causes people to follow the herd to the same few hotspots, leaving formerly productive sites under birded. The East Wash is one example, as there are no longer enough birders visiting to keep the path from getting overgrown. Here again, I think the top ten list is counterproductive.
- the complexity of filing reports seems to push many people to visit only a single site, so as not to have to file multiple lists. We used to have more people visiting multiple sites in a day, and thus keeping better tabs on what's happening.
- the filters/flagging/review system results in some individuals changing their reports. Several people have told me that they will not report anything unusual on eBird because they don't want to have to face the interrogation process, and a recent report twice stated something to the effect of, "the flock number was higher, but I don't want to trigger the review process by entering the actual, unusually high number." The filters thus become a self-fulfilling and artificially limiting factor.
- it leads people to gaze into their screens while in the field, and to lose themselves in checking mail and other hypnotic internet sites. Again, how many newsworthy events occur while people's eyes are caught up in the screen, especially at migratory watch sites?
- it emphasizes quantitative aspects of birding, and suppresses qualitative aspects like reporting behaviors or giving adequate descriptions of the birds and their actual locations.
- it creates a new layer of problems with vetting/reviewing. On the listservs, we can mostly post what we want to, and each of us has the freedom to judge the message. With eBird, I've heard voluminous complaints, suggesting that censorship is being practiced. (Outright censorship was practiced with the recent Gyrfalcon discovery down south!) Not being a user, it's unclear to me where the exact problem lies, whether reports are actually being blocked, or perhaps certain claims are not being included in the master database. I have no interest in a system which removes my freedom to make my own judgments about reports, nor in being flagged/interrogated for every unusual situation I come across. I only post news, and thus would be constantly flagged by people who have much less experience than I do. (These comments are directed at reporting news, and are not meant as a critique of groups like the CBRC.) We should each make every effort to vet our own reports before we publish them, and we should especially vet our attitudes and biases toward other birders and their experiences. The objectivity needed for proper vetting is a balance between reasonable skepticism and an open-minded acknowledgment that "impossible" events do occur.
I am deeply opposed to eBird's reduction of our birding experiences to a set of checked off boxes with minimalist descriptive verbiage. But you're all free to do what you wish, including splitting the community even further through Facebook groups, What'sApp, and ever more increasing fragmentation. I had hoped when I first heard about eBird that it would be a uniting factor for birders around the country and the world. I still hope for that to eventually occur, and I regret that I don't have the technical expertise to help fix the problems described above. I acknowledge that there are a number of positive attributes in eBird that do represent an advance over past systems. And I am *not* seeking for private feedback to this letter, as this seems to be a crisis approaching all of us. If you also see these issues as problems, then communicate openly while you still can, especially with those who can make a difference. eBird is too young to have become a sacred cow, and should not be creating more problems than it solves.