Here Comes the Neighborhood: Birding on the Web

By Hugh Powell
September 24, 2008
Flock of Northern Pintails in flight Northern Pintails by robinsegg via Birdshare.
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The Web is a big place, and as we redesign our own website we’re always interested in how other organizations are approaching the same challenges. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the approaches of four sites: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Whatbird, the Internet Bird Collection, and a new face on the scene, Birdpost. Here’s what I like about them – I’d love to know what other folks think.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: The RSPB has the best bird ID tool I’ve seen anyone come up with yet – and overall its site is pleasing to the eye, well organized, informative. To put it squarely, chaps, it’s a jolly fine showing. The only downside for Americans is it’s largely a spectator site: it covers English birds. That must have made the programming a bit more manageable, too – the site covers nearly 50 percent of the UK’s birds and still only has to feature just over 100 species.

Whatbird: Perhaps the leading North American bird ID tool at the moment, Whatbird takes a patient, step-by-step approach to narrowing down your ID possibilities. Choose the categories you want to focus on and start checking off attributes (I find that location and shape are most useful; habitat and size tend to be too hard to pin down – a problem for all ID tools.) If you’re still stymied, snap a picture and post it to the very active forums – someone should be along to help with the ID in a matter of minutes. Visually, the site is a bit busier than I’d like, but that’s a hazard for any site that aims to deliver a lot of information.

Internet Bird Collection: Backed by the folks behind the exhaustive Handbook of the Birds of the World (13 volumes and counting), the IBC is kind of a video version of Birdshare. A seriously ambitious one. I’m not sure how the site plans to keep itself alive, but it offers free hosting and viewing of bird videos from all over the world, with the intent of assembling video for all bird species everywhere. It’s already phenomenally well-stocked, with more than 20,000 videos of some 5,300 species. And there’s a new version of the site, IBC 2.0, coming at the end of September.

Birdpost: Earlier this month, these folks were named one of the 50 “best new startups” by TechCrunch and immediately started popping up in Reuters and MSNBC news stories. Their friendly blog expressly states they are not “out to kill eBird” even though they do have very similar objectives (eBird is the Lab’s Citizen Science project that tracks sightings and centralizes birders’ checklist reports). Birdpost doesn’t have as extensive a membership as eBird yet, and so far Birdpost members don’t seem to be quite as keen to upload their checklists. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of both Birdpost and eBird, though I confess I rarely upload checklists to either site.)

To their credit the group, operated by two Silicon Valley birders, has designed a nice, intuitive interface based around clicking and dragging images of birds in favor of filling in checkboxes or drop-down lists. And they make use of Google Maps’ excellent satellite imagery to allow you to pinpoint where you saw your birds. If this site continues to innovate, it could turn out some really great tools (example: an iPhone app is reportedly in the works).

Does anyone out there use these sites? (And hey, since this is the Internet, does anyone run one of these sites?) What kinds of lessons do you think they can teach us about how to redesign All About Birds? What’s the key innovation that still needs to be made to perfect Internet birding?

Tell us what you think in comments… the whole neighborhood is listening.

Thanks to Birds’n’Such for a tip about Birdpost the day the TechCrunch news broke.


  • “And hey, since this is the Internet, does anyone run one of these sites?”

    Hugh, great blog! I’m one of the two Silicon Valley birders you’re referring to who started Birdpost. Let me know if you want to talk, or if there’s anything I can answer for you. We’re excited about birding on the internet right now, and are fired up by the great feedback we’re getting on Birdpost! Best to you — JP

  • Interesting stuff! I just signed up for BirdPost but I haven’t explored it yet. It reminds me of BirdStack which I spent some time with a few months ago. Both seem to have great ways of sharing your sightings on a more personal level than eBird can. (And BirdStack can even export sightings to eBird.) I’d love to see more list-sharing features in eBird, like a way to publish a current list from just certain personal locations.


  • robinsegg

    Good stuff, keep it coming!

    I just sighned up for BirdPost, but I doubt I’ll use it. One of the reasons I started uploading images to Flickr was to share my experience with others, especially those people who are new to birding. BirdPost, BirdStack–I’m sure there are others–offers a good product for keeping lists and the like, but do little for sharing. I do use eBird and have since I started “birding” in 2004. Not only does it provide an easy way to record data, it also feel like I’m contributing, in my own small way, to the vital body of scientific knowledge. As far as identification, I prefer interacting with others(in person or in cyberspace) and comparing notes, observation and experiences. Whatbird is a pretty good resource in cyberworld. Lastly, we need something like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, here in America. It does a great job of promoting advocacy, (if birders don’t advocate, who will?), providing a forum for like-minded individuals, and having fun.

  • Thank you for listing these wonderful sites. I have not visited all of them yet but wanted to share with you my reaction to the RSPB site. Had they offered payment in US dollars I would have joined.

    The site is not only beautiful and easy to navigate, it is inspirational and full of interactive ways for people to get involved, share their experiences, fall in love with a species and feel intimately connected with the work that is being done to save our earth. I give it an A++.

  • I meant to paste in my blog link. Thanks.

  • Hugh

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. It does seem odd to have so many different organizations working on similar kinds of services, but at least that means there are a lot of people thinking about how to make birding easier, more informative, or more fulfilling. In the olden days, before everything from London to Ithaca to San Francisco and beyond was just a click away, we might never have known just how many people were pursuing the same goals. Nowadays it’s exciting, if a little overwhelming, to get a sense of how many others are out there to connect with.

  • msc

    Excited to see a red-breasted nuthatch for the first time, I went on Whatbird and tried find that bird using their bird ID tool. It was an exercise in frustration. After multiple attempts I realized that Whatbird categorizes red-breasted nuthatches as “clinging” birds, not “perching” birds.

    Otherwise, the bird ID tool seems pretty good. Can the Lab of O develop a bird ID tool that you can put on your iPhone?

  • Didn’t the Lab develop a bird guide with National Geographic for their handheld birds thingey?

  • Hugh

    @sitta – the Lab contributed sounds to National Geographics Handheld Birds device for the Palm. It doesn’t have a bird ID tool, but it does give you most of the pictures, descriptions, and maps of the National Geographic field guide. Details:

  • Thanks Hugh!

  • Hi!

    I’ve used Lists for years. They’ve changed hands and their site is not as reliable as it used to be, but they have extensive listing abilities. You can do birds, insects, plants, anything. Since all my birding info for the last 6+ years is there, I’ll probably stay there until the site is abandoned. I have an account here, too, but it’s not as easy to use as eNature. I just logged into the eBird account and see that it’s still too complicated to log sightings quickly. Yah, see, I don’t WANT to have to put in all that extraneous info just to jot down that I saw a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk in my yard today. I just want to choose the bird, add the date and a few comments and be on my way. EBird is far too time consuming. I do that sort of input when I report officially for FeederWatch – I don’t need to do all that for my own personal list. I’ve documented almost 50 species in my yard over the years and I like that I can just log in, add a bird and log out in about 3 minutes at eNature. If you’d make eBird less complicated, I’d use it more.



  • Hugh

    Hi misangela, and thanks for the feedback on eBird usability. The eBird crowd is always working on improving the program’s interface, and I’ve passed your comments on to them. When I get a response from them, I’ll pass it on. Thanks for reading, Hugh

  • Awesome! Thanks for pinging my site, too. :-)

    I think they should break eBird completely away from the other sites. People who do Feederwatch or the GBBC are doing different tasks than the person who is just keeping a list. It’s ok to ask users to create a new account! As long as they know it’s a totally new system, it’s fine.

    I’ve been a Cornell birder for years and I’ll keep a keen eye on this blog as well as the eBird site. If you ever need any Mac testing, feel free to ask (yes, I’m a web geek by trade). I’m happy to do anything I can to support the Cornell U Ornithology department. You guys do GREAT work! :-)


  • Jean & Mike

    Thanks for this blog, Hugh. I had some free time today and have started investigating the sites you listed. A couple of comments…

    I started birding in 2004 when I found out about the Great Backyard Bird Count, and since then have used eBird to share my observations with the scientists. List-keeping is fun, but for my husband and myself, actively helping conservation and research efforts is the true reward we get out of our birding. The Lab’s work is so incredibly important to all of us birders, and of course the birds, too!

    Over the years, I’ve supplied feedback to the eBird team, and every time, I’ve gotten a prompt presonal reply. And over the years, I’ve seen new features added that make the site easier to use.

    It’d be great if eBird could incorporate some of the ease-of-use features that make BirdPost and other list-keeping sites so nice to use.

    What I’d like to see is a way to zoom in on a map, put a rubber band around an area (not an exact pinpointed GPS location, but an area around a location), and produce a checklist of birds I should see there in any given month. Then I’d like to bookmark that checklist so I could come back to it easily any time I want.

    It’d also be cool to upload photos and sound recordings we take on our bird outings and link them to that day’s list.