What is a protocol, and which do I choose?

A "protocol" describes how you birded and the type of checklist you're submitting. At eBird, we want you to select the protocol that best describes your birding activity. For most eBird users, your birding activity will be described by one of the four "Core eBird Protocols" below. 

To learn more about different types of checklists and how they relate to your birding, enroll in our FREE eBird Essentials course.

Core eBird Protocols

Quick guide to choosing a protocol




Historical (available for web checklists only)

Specialized Protocols

About Specialized Protocols

Pelagic Protocol

Area Protocol

Banding/Ringing Protocol

Nocturnal Flight Call Count Protocol

Other specialized protocols

Core eBird Protocols

These are the basic types of checklists that apply to most birding activity. Please review them to ensure you always select the protocol that best describes how you birded. 

Quick guide to choosing a protocol

Was birding your primary purpose? (Not sure? Click here to learn more)

  • YES, birding was my primary purpose and... 
    • I know the exact start time, duration, AND distance of my birding trip: Stationary or Traveling
    • I do NOT know the exact start time, duration, or distance of my birding trip: Historical

  • NO, birding was not my primary purpose: Incidental

NOTE: Not all protocols require the same types of effort information. However, all eBird checklists—regardless of protocols— should adhere to eBird Rules and Best Practices

All core eBird protocols require an exact calendar date (day, month, and year). If the date of your birding activity is unknown, or your observations span multiple dates, please consider entering your data as a "List-building" checklist instead.     




  • Your primary focus was birding
  • You know the exact start and amount of time spent birding
  • Your entire birding activity occurred at single, fixed location
  • You did not go more than approximately 100ft (30m) in any direction from the starting point of your checklist

Note: When submitting checklists from eBird Mobile with tracking "On", the app will automatically set your observation protocol to "Stationary" if you stay in the same spot for the duration of your list. 


  • Your primary focus was birding
  • You know the exact start and amount of time spent birding
  • You went more than 100ft (30m) away from the starting point of your checklist
  • You know the specific distance you traveled, or have estimated it to the best of your ability

How do I estimate distance traveled? Using eBird Mobile with tracking "On" is the easiest way to estimate your distance. The app has a built-in distance calculator that functions even without cell service. This automatically estimates your traveling distance and sets your observation protocol to "Traveling" when you move away from your starting point. If you didn't use eBird Mobile, you'll need to estimate the distance traveled to the best of your ability. There are a number of online mapping tools that can help you.

Please do not include any repeat portions of trail in your total distance estimate. 

If you retrace your steps, "backtrack", or go out and back on the same trail, report only the UNIQUE distance traveled. For example, if you walked 1 mile down a trail before turning around and heading back, your checklist distance should be 1 mile, not 2 miles. See a more detailed example below:

Backtracking map

In the example above: you birded a 0.45 km portion of trail, followed by a 0.3 km loop, then retraced your steps back down the initial 0.45 km portion of trail. Your total distance while birding was 1.2 km. However, because your route included some backtracking, the unique distance was only 0.75 km. You would enter a distance of 0.75 km on your eBird checklist.

If you are using eBird mobile: Do not stop your GPS track when you start backtracking. Keep your GPS track running the entire time you are birding, and adjust your checklist to reflect the unique distance (i.e., non-repeated portions of track) only after you have pressed the"Stop" button to end the list. This ensures the GPS track reflects your entire birding trip, while the distance estimate reflects the unique portion(s) of the trip.


  • Your primary focus was NOT birding (e.g., your attention was primarily on driving, gardening, reading a book, doing something inside your home, etc.). 

If entering an Incidental checklist from eBird Mobile you will be prompted for a start time for your list. If you do not know the start time, enter your "Incidental" checklist from the eBird website instead.

Incidental checklists are not complete checklists: When you select the Incidental protocol, the answer to the question "Is this a complete checklist of the birds you were able to identify?" will automatically be set to "No". You will not be able to change this selection. Why? For a checklist to be complete, all the birds present and identifiable must be reported. When birding is not your primary focus, you may not be able to give birds around you the attention necessary for a complete checklist.

Because Incidental checklists lack important effort information like start time, duration, and distance traveled, they are less useful for eBird Science. If you have the time and opportunity (and are not driving!), try to focus on birding for even a few minutes so you can change your Incidental checklist to a complete, Stationary or Traveling list.

Northern Cardinal looking at its reflection in a car rear-view mirror                                    

Please don't eBird and drive! For your safety, when operating a vehicle your primary focus should be driving, not birding. Birds observed while driving should be entered using the "Incidental" protocol only when safe to do so

Northern Cardinal by Matt Plante/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML202000151)


  • Your primary focus was birding
  • You know the date you went birding, but not the exact start time, duration, or distance traveled (or you know some of these, but not all three). 

NOTE: Historical checklists can only be entered from the eBird website.

If you know the start time, duration, and any distance traveled while birding, please enter a Stationary or Traveling checklist instead. Historical checklists should only be used when you lack the valuable effort information that is standard on present-day checklists. In general, the Historical protocol should not be used for present-day checklists. Please try to collect time and effort information so you can submit a Stationary or Traveling count.

When entering historical data from other sources: 

  • Make sure you have their permission
  • For each record, include the observer's name in the checklist comments field.
  • Note in the account name and/or checklist comments that the data are entered by another party.
  •  If the eBird account used to enter historical data covers multiple observers, use "Data" as the account’s last name (e.g., "Historical Singapore Data") and opt out of Top 100 output

Australasian Gannet

Australasian Gannet (c.a. 1931) by R.H.D Stidolph/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML31232111)

Specialized Protocols

What are Specialized Protocols? eBird offers a number of other protocols in addition to the basic Stationary, Traveling, Incidental, and Historical protocols described above. Most of these specialized protocols were developed to meet specific research objectives, and require additional information beyond the date, time, duration, and distance of a typical birding checklist.

When do I use a Specialized Protocol? The basic eBird protocols are designed to cover the majority of typical birding activity. Because specialized protocols like those below often require specialized knowledge or training, please only use them when you have a firm understanding of their application.

If in doubt, submit your checklists using the basic protocols above until you are 100% certain a specialized protocol applies. 

Pelagic Protocol

Ahoy! The pelagic protocol applies to checklists that are made farther than two miles offshore on oceans, seas, or large lakes. Choose the Pelagic Protocol option from the ‘Other’ menu of Observation Types. Please note that we still have much to learn about seabird distribution, so we encourage you to add photos and notes to document your sightings on your checklists! 

If you’re moving: Count for up to 60 minutes on each checklist; stopping at the 1-hour mark. Record distance traveled (ideally with eBird Mobile Tracks), adjust the distance estimate for backtracking as you would a traveling checklist, and choose a location on the map for where you started that checklist period. Repeat this process throughout the trip until you return to within two miles of shore.

If you’re anchored: Keep a checklist for as long as you’re anchored, and then follow the above instructions once you start to move again.

Note: Pelagic Hotspots are for aggregating historical pelagic data; they should NOT be used with the pelagic protocol.  

A pair of Royal Albatross

Royal Albatross (Southern) by James Moore/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML133489051)


The Area protocol is intended for targeted, specialized surveys that exhaustively search a specific area for birds - often when covering the same ground repeatedly. This observation type requires information about the total area covered when birding, rather than distance traveled. Because normal birding activity, such as in a yard or park, does not mimic the exhaustive coverage of a standardized/scientific area search, most eBird checklists will be better suited for the Traveling protocol.

Banding/Ringing Protocol

The Banding Protocol is required when listing birds that you observed because they were captured for banding. This is because detection rates from banding are very different from normal birding.

The best practice when working at a banding station is to keep two separate lists: 

  1. A complete Traveling or Stationary list including all species seen or heard (but not captured/banded)—a complete checklist

  2. A Banding Protocol list of ONLY captured/banded birds that is NOT a complete checklist

When two lists isn’t possible, keep a single list with all mist-netted birds and all birds seen or heard in the field; use the Banding Protocol and answer "Yes" to "Are you reporting all species?” This means that you are reporting all species captured in the nets AND all species seen or heard. If you only report the birds that were captured in the nets or only highlights, answer “No.”

Siberian Accentor

Siberian Accentor by Batmunkh Davaasuren/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML78038371)

Nocturnal Flight Call (NFC) Count Protocol

NFCs are an exciting frontier of ornithology and migration biology, so we are happy to have a protocol in eBird for nocturnal listening sessions. 

The purpose of the NFC protocol is to detect and report the nighttime contact calls of migrating songbirds as they pass through on their way to breeding grounds. This protocol is not to be used for after-dark counts of resident birds, for example, hooting owls or winnowing snipe.

Best practices for NFC protocols:

  • You should be stationary when using this protocol
  • Ideally keep checklists less than an hour long.
  • Counts should be conducted only at night, between astronomical twilights (dusk and dawn)
  • Observations spanning 12:00 a.m should be submitted on separate checklists for each date. 
  • Counts between civil twilight and astronomical twilight should also be entered on a separate checklist. 

Report all species including nocturnal migrants and local birds BUT answer “No” to the “Are you reporting all species?” question. This is because NFC counts can skew eBird frequency outputs. Lists of "nocturnal highlights only" should be reported with the Incidental protocol instead. 

Enter any call counts in the species comments immediately after “NFC”. For example, please enter “NFC 187” to signify 187 calls heard from that species. Indicate local birds on the ground or on territory with the phrase “local” (e.g. a Barred Owl hooting while you’re listening to NFCs). 

Amplified Listening: If you use amplified or directional listening, include the metadata for your array in the Checklist Comments. If you make any change to your system, make sure that is reflected in the metadata. 

Remote Listening: If you are not listening live (i.e., recording NFCs from a remote location or while sleeping), set up a "remote listening account.” Use your full name as the account first name followed by "NFC Station" as the last name (eg., "Andrew Farnsworth" and "NFC Station"), and opt out of Top 100. If you make a substantial change to your recording station, create a separate remote listening account to reflect the change.

Other eBird Specialized Protocols

Many other protocols not listed above can be selected from the drop-down menus on the eBird Mobile app and web data entry pages. Like the specialized protocols listed above, these protocols were developed for specific research purposes that will not apply to the majority of public birding activity. Please do not select these special protocols for your checklist unless you have a firm understanding of their application and/or are working with our partners who developed them.

Have specific questions about eBird's Specialized Protocols? Please contact us!                


                                           Brown Pelican                                    

The biannual Brown Pelican survey was created to track the distribution, abundance, and population structure of Brown Pelicans using a special eBird protocol.

Brown Pelican by Darren Clark/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML52524751)