Here Comes the Neighborhood: Birding on the Web

By Hugh Powell
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.

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