How to Know the Birds: No. 44, How eBird Killed Birding
How to Know the Birds: No. 44, How eBird Killed Birding
What: American Three-toed Woodpecker, Picoides tridactylus
When: Saturday, September 19, 2020
Where: Winter Park, Grand County, Colorado
First things first. Birding is alive and well. Birding is indeed enjoying a renaissance at the present time. So the headline for this post, artless and attention-grabbing, is an outright lie. Right? Not so fast.
I said that birding is in the process of renaissance, literally “rebirth,” necessitating that something, some predecessor or antecedent, have “died.” And I believe that eBird has had everything to do with this. It’s a thought that crosses my mind practically every time I upload an eBird checklist—which is to say, every single day for the past 5,028 days and counting.
It’s the tapping of a woodpecker, a sound known to every human of every generation. When I hear the “tapping of a woodpecker,” those very words, I think of the opening scene in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a story I read in my childhood. Anyhow, I had a weak hunch about the identity of this woodpecker, and I searched for a visual cue:
Hm. Tall “pines.” Firs, actually, not pines; and we’re going to return to that matter. But for now: trees, dauntingly tall, and dense. This was going to require some searching. And waiting.
This is an American three-toed woodpecker, Picoides tridactylus, an adult male. Hunch confirmed. As is so often the case, I find myself apologizing for the shaky video; and, as usual, I have an excuse. See for yourself:
Those are my sneakers, and if they look like they’re 60 feet below me, it felt that way in the field too. In the boulder field, that is. I had clambered down onto a steep slope below an old logging road. Several times in the process of jockeying for a better view, I nearly pitched forward.
Cultural ornithologist Rick Wright frequently invokes “The Experience of Birding,” a critique of the subject–object duality in nature study. Fiddling with camera settings, steadying oneself on a promontory, pondering woodpecker tarsi, the woodpecker itself—all those things are conjoined in the experience of birding. Speaking of woodpecker tarsi:
Hm. I needed a different viewing angle. I slo-mo–lurched to another outcropping, the woodpecker hitched up the tree a couple of body lengths, and, peering through the fretwork of conifer foliage, I got this photo:
Mm-hmm. Call it the American one-toed woodpecker. But we’re getting somewhere.
One…two…three…toes. (Or “toes.”) This woodpecker checks out. There’s a huge literature concerning the stress and strain on a woodpecker’s brain getting bashed into the side of a tree, but look at that foot! (Or “foot.”) I’d love to see a paper on the physiology of the flexor and extensor muscles that comprise the woodpecker’s toe actuators. Can I get a #TensileStrength –?
After a while, quite some time, really, the woodpecker flew to a nearby tree. I could still hear it tapping (and still couldn’t get Washington Irving out of my mind), but the bird was essentially invisible now behind a dense veil of needles and necromass. Curious about the tree the woodpecker had been working, I snapped—excuse me, clicked—a couple of pix for future study:
I can tell you, based on my camera and cellphone and recorder timestamps, that my field study of the woodpecker (and its tree, and my sneakers) required close to half an hour. But that’s not the end of the story. No, we’re back now to where we started, back to the conjecture that eBird has “killed” birding, and, in particular, the experience of birding.
That particular three-toed woodpecker is on eBird. The bird is also on Twitter and Facebook. Its substrate, that conifer, is on iNaturalist, where there’s arisen a technical and edifying conversation about the identification of the subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa. In an ornithology class I’ve been teaching this semester, the woodpecker media proved useful in a virtual lecture on the evolution of birds. And if I may go “meta” on you, I note that I’m reliving right now the experience of birding on a Saturday afternoon in September.
Those things were on my mind as I teetered on the loose rock below the logging road. A properly curated eBird checklist, I advised the students in ornithology class, often requires more time than being in the field. Not only that, a properly eBirded field excursion absolutely requires a substantially revised approach to being in the field in the first place.
eBird used to have a tagline, “It will change the way you bird,” that I wish they hadn’t discarded. Because eBird has drastically changed the way I bird. So much so, that I might venture: “It will kill the way you bird.” In the old days, I think I would have ticked the American three-toed woodpecker and been done with it. Adult males aren’t hard to ID: yellow crown, barred flanks, three toes, move on to the next bird.
I saw more species per unit time in my pre-eBird days. That’s because I wasn’t counting everything, the first rule of eBird “best practices.” When eBird launched “rich media” unloads—first photos and audio, now video—that resulted in even fewer species per checklist. I have a dirty secret about eBird: More is less.
This reminds me of something people say about David Sibley: Everybody wants him on their Big Day team, and nobody wants him on their Big Day team. Here’s the deal. David predictably finds the best bird of the day—that’s good for Big Day birding. Then he just as predictably insists on spending a lot of time studying the bird—that’s not so good for Big Day birding.
A great many of us are birding that way these days, and eBird is the chief culprit. Add iNat and social media to the mix, making matters only worse. And delectably better. It’s funny, there’s this old, false dichotomy between birding and listing. But listing was a red herring, wasn’t it? Instead we’ve discovered a new dichotomy, one that was always there but largely overlooked until recently: birding vs. documenting. Which, in the age of the internet, is inextricably linked with sharing.
I was all by myself amid those unstable boulders and skyscraper firs, and yet I wasn’t. I heard the tapping of a woodpecker, and I knew, right then and there, that I had a story to share.
The experience of birding has been reconceived in the age of eBird. Once upon a time, the sighting of woodpecker was a solitary and essentially private affair. Today it is become unavoidably communitarian.
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.