What does 'birding was your primary purpose' mean?

When selecting an eBird checklist protocol, several core observation types require that birding was your primary purpose. What does this mean?

When birding is your primary purpose, you are making an effort to find and record all the birds around you to the best of your ability.

This is a crucial aspect of data quality in eBird observations. Of particular importance are that you:

  • Make an effort - put concentrated effort into detecting all birds around you
  • Record all birds - do not omit any birds you identified from your list (see complete checklists below)
  • Do your best - you don't have to be an expert birder, or even know all the birds you see or hear! Just give birding your best effort. 

"Primary-purpose birding" usually involves situations where you are outside; on foot; and fully tuned-in to the birds around you.  

Birding wasn't my primary purpose, can I still report my observation to eBird? 

You can still submit observations to eBird from times when birding was not your primary purpose OR when you did not make a complete survey of birds around you. Simply choose the "Incidental" protocol for these types of checklists.

Common examples of "Incidental" observations:

  • reporting a Golden Eagle that flew over during football practice
  • birds you happened to notice while you spent the day gardening
  • a hawk perched on a sign while you were driving down the highway
  • listing a local rarity but not including the other common birds you could identify at the same location

The important point about each of the above is that you did not or could not make a concerted effort to find and record all the birds in these situations.

Make birding your primary purpose! On occasion, you can turn what would be an incidental observation into a more informative checklist. If a Golden Eagle flies over, you could wait around for 5 minutes with the primary purpose of birding, and turn that list into a 5-minute stationary count. 

What is a Complete Checklist?

Before you submit an eBird checklist, you must answer the question 'Are you submitting a complete checklist of the birds you were able to identify?" Your response will determine whether your checklist is complete or incomplete.

A Complete Checklist is any eBird list where birding was your primary purpose, and every species you could identify to the best of your ability, by sight and/or sound, is reported. You need not have counted all the individuals you saw - though accurate counts are always preferred! As long as you aren’t intentionally leaving any species* off your list, you’re submitting a complete checklist.

Examples of incomplete checklists include, but are not limited to:

  • lists of just the "highlights" from your birding trip
  • lists that exclude introduced or invasive species
  • lists that omit heard-only species that you were capable of identifying by sound alone (e.g., lists of seen birds only)

You do not need to see, hear, or know every bird to have a complete checklist. A complete checklist does NOT mean you identified every bird to species level. Nor does it mean you detected every bird that was present - that's pretty much impossible! 

It's OK if birds you couldn't ID, such as an unknown warbler song, a distant raptor, or a briefly observed sparrow, aren't reported on your list. But you can still report unknown birds on your checklists. Even if you cannot assign a bird to a particular species, we encourage you to use "spuhs" for birds identified to a general group (like "hawk sp." or "duck sp."), OR "slash" options for birds identified to one of 2 or 3 species (e.g., "Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk").

Is my checklist complete?

Your checklist is complete if:

  • You made your best effort to see or hear all the birds around you
  • You made your best effort to identify every bird you saw or heard as precisely and accurately as possible (even if you couldn't count or ID them all)
  • Every species you detected and identified, to the best of your ability, is included on your checklist

Your checklist is NOT complete if it intentionally omits any wild bird species* that was present, detected, and identified.

* It is OK to omit captive species, such as birds in a zoo exhibit, or chickens in a coop, from your checklist. Complete checklists refer only to wild birds.

Why submit a complete checklist?

Currently, only complete checklists power eBird Status and Trends and many other research and conservation projects worldwide. For more information on the value of complete checklists, see our eBird Best Practices page.

                                           Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)                                    

Every Rock Pigeon counts! Include them on your list when you see or hear them. If you see feral pigeons (or European Starlings, or House Sparrows, etc.) while eBirding and don't report them on your checklist, that list is incomplete!                                    

Rock Pigeon by Marlene Kraml/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML194342471)