Christian Cooper and Amy Tan came to birding from very different paths. Cooper had found refuge in birding as a child, long before the Central Park incident that brought him to national attention. For Tan, birding was a more recent discovery, prompted by a need for an outlet away from political events.
For both, birding has been a powerful source of solace and community. In a free, live discussion on Thursday, June 22, Cooper, the author of the new book “Better Living Through Birding,” and Tan, author of the forthcoming book “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” spoke about the transcendent power of birding and the challenges and the rewards of navigating a predominantly white pastime as people of color. The conversation was hosted by Dodai Stewart, a birding enthusiast and a Metro writer for The New York Times.
We also discussed how you can start birding as part of The New York Times summer birding project. Thousands of people have already signed up to learn more about birds and to help scientists collect birding data during the summer season, when fewer observations are typically submitted. Alan Burdick, an editor on the science desk at The Times, spoke with Jenna Curtis of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the importance of gathering this data. Plus, we heard tips from other birders.
You’ve decided to take up birding. You’ve even decided to use eBird, an app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that collects sightings by birders around the world.
After going out and looking for birds, making a list of what you’ve seen and checking it twice, you submit it to Cornell …
And then what? What does Cornell do with your checklist?
“It doesn’t go to a black hole,” said Jenna Curtis, one of the leaders of the eBird project. “A lot of things happen all at once when an observation gets submitted.”
Birders sometimes make mistakes, but Dr. Curtis hopes that people using apps like eBird, especially beginners, aren’t deterred by the fear that they are wrong. Sometimes what seemed to be a mistake turns out to be a new discovery.
First, your observations are checked for obvious errors — no penguins in Oregon or Australian kookaburras in Poughkeepsie, for example.
“Every eBird observation is run through an automatic filter,” Dr. Curtis said. “It’s a computer-based filter that checks what you’re reporting against what’s expected.”
The filters are set by local volunteer experts who are familiar with the distribution and timing of birds in the area, Dr. Curtis said, and there’s a filter for every location in the world, including the middle of the ocean.
The filters also take into account the time of year. For instance, a sighting of a Baltimore oriole in Baltimore right now makes sense. Maryland falls within the orioles’ breeding ground, which stretches across eastern and central North America. But a sighting in December, when Baltimore orioles are wintering in Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and the northern tip of South America, would not fit.
If the observations match what is expected, they are immediately added to the eBird database for use by scientists and other birders.
If the computer filter spots something that does not seem quite right, it flags the checklist for review by one of more than 2,000 volunteers. “A red flag appears next to those observations before you even submit the data,” Dr. Curtis said.
The app will ask for a detailed description of the bird and “as much information as possible to help another human being understand and appreciate the experience that you’re having,” Dr. Curtis said. “It’s not something to question people or say, you know, we don’t believe you. It’s an opportunity to share the unusual thing that you’re reporting with other people.”
Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake of misidentification. A report of a blue jay in Oregon, where Dr. Curtis lives, would be questioned, because blue jays generally do not fly that far west. “We have a different species of jay called scrub jay,” Dr. Curtis said. “And that’s a good opportunity to say, ‘Hmm, maybe I should double-check the range of blue jays.’”
And sometimes that flagged observation could reflect something new and different in the behavior of that bird. “Whenever those things appear,” Dr. Curtis said, “I’m like, ‘Oh, this is an exciting moment. This is potentially something unusual and noteworthy.’”
That included an eagle that turned up thousands of miles from where it should have been a couple of years ago. Steller’s sea eagles are rare Arctic birds with bright orange beaks, and their native range is typically China, Japan, Korea and the east coast of Russia.
Some have flown into Alaska, but in 2021 one of the birds, nicknamed Stella, made it all the way across North America to Nova Scotia, a behavior that scientists describe as avian vagrancy. This, Dr. Curtis said, was “a great example of how the geographic coverage of eBirders helps to find and follow individual birds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.”
Below is an excerpt from Christian Cooper’s essay in the Times Opinion section.
Early in the morning of May 25, 2020, I biked from my apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Central Park to go birding in the Ramble. Despite the uncertainties of the time — New Yorkers were living in a hot spot of the raging Covid pandemic, with no vaccine in sight — I strove to start this warm, sunlit Memorial Day on a happy note by wandering my favorite urban woodlands in search of migrating songbirds.
I was focused on the end-of-season hunt for a mourning warbler, a small yellow and gray skulking bird that’s difficult to spot and relatively rare. I hadn’t yet seen one that year.
Visiting the park in the morning to look for birds has long been a springtime routine for me. I wake before sunrise and grab my Swarovski binoculars — a 50th-birthday present from my father — and head out the door.
On that particular day, just as I approached some ideal mourning warbler habitat, a noise shattered the tranquillity, making me wince. The sound was loud, strident and unmistakable: a person calling after a dog.
Our colleague at Wirecutter, Dan Koeppel, offered this step-by-step guide to birding from inside your home.
There are lots of things to look at from the window of my third-floor apartment in Portland, Maine. There’s a nice view of 19th-century rowhouses and brick sidewalks. There’s Casco Bay, in the distance, with a string of rocky islands and the ferries shuttling between them. There are the idled container ships at the port’s terminals, waiting for commerce to begin again. And there are three different kinds of gulls.
The most common gull — the one you’ll recognize — is the gray-and-white herring gull. But there are two others as well, and using an electronic bird identification guide, it’s pretty easy to figure out what species they are. Their names give them away: the great black-backed gull is large and dark; the ring-billed gull’s beak is encircled by a telltale hoop.
The gulls were the first birds I added to my window list when quarantine began in March 2020. In my first two months birding, I counted another 10 distinct species.
You might be able to see even more, all without leaving the comfort of your home. Depending on your location, your window or yard list could reach 200 or more individual bird species. We’ll go into more details below, but the best place to start is by assembling birding basics.
This summer, as part of The New York Times birding project, The Times will be sharing a series of prompts to help readers learn how to get started birding. Begin with something foundational: Learn to identify a few of the birds most commonly seen near where you live.
For beginner tips, The Times spoke with Alli Smith, the project coordinator for Merlin — a bird-identification app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — about learning to bird, and the joy of it.
How do I learn to identify birds?
We’re obviously a little bit biased here, so I’m going to recommend the Merlin Bird ID app. It walks you through a series of five questions that you should be asking yourself when you’re looking at a bird.
Merlin will ask you where you saw the bird specifically and the time of year. A lot of places see different birds depending on the season.
Then, observing the bird for a while can really help. Is it tiny, like a house sparrow? Is it really big, like a goose? And the colors of the bird can help as well. Is it bright and yellow and colorful? Is it solid black?
And then the behavior: What is it doing? Is it visiting a bird feeder? There’s a very small list, relatively, of birds that are likely to visit a bird feeder compared with birds that are elsewhere in the environment. Is it spending a lot of time perched in a tree? Is it walking around on the ground? Is it in the water swimming?
With all of these things put together, Merlin can give you a list of likely birds. But even if you’re not using Merlin, those are the types of things that you should be looking for: the size, color, behavior, location and date.
What equipment do I need to start birding?
Binoculars, field guides or cameras — or travel — might help you find more birds or get closer looks at them. But you definitely don’t need any of those.
What should I keep in mind while birding in the summer?
Birds are generally quietest during the hottest part of the day, so you’ll probably see a lot more if you’re going birding from sunrise, like 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. or so. Once it starts to get hot, birds really start to quiet down. They hide more in the shade. But if you can only get out during the middle of the day, try places that tend to attract birds, like near water. And then evenings can be really nice, too. Two or three hours before sunset, birds start to get more active.
What do you enjoy about birding?
I am just so deeply delighted that I get to share my neighborhood, my world, with these tiny, feathered balls of energy that are bouncing around and singing beautiful songs and doing all these really wacky and wonderful behaviors, like weaving nests out of grass and showing off their shiny feathers. Each bird is its own little treasure. Even the common birds around here, like the grackles and house sparrows — they’re so fun to watch. They’re really goofy.
It’s also special when you get to see a more rare bird. I think they’re so inspiring, these tiny birds that are able to fly from the southern tip of South America all the way up to Canada, Alaska, the Arctic to breed. And they do that twice a year. That’s absolutely incredible. They’re tiny and yet so determined and powerful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When a bird sings, you may think you’re hearing music. But are the melodies it’s making really music? Or is what we’re hearing merely a string of lilting calls that appeals to the human ear?
Birdsong has inspired musicians from Bob Marley to Mozart and perhaps as far back as the first hunter-gatherers who banged out a beat. And a growing body of research is showing that the affinity human musicians feel toward birdsong has a strong scientific basis. Scientists are understanding more about avian species’ ability to learn, interpret and produce songs much like our own.
Just like humans, birds learn songs from each other and practice to perfect them. And just as human speech is distinct from human music, bird calls, which serve as warnings and other forms of direct communication, differ from birdsong.
While researchers are still debating the functions of birdsong, studies show that it is structurally similar to our own tunes. So, are birds making music? That depends on what you mean.
In 1993, “Jurassic Park” helped inspire 9-year-old Stephen Brusatte to become a paleontologist. So Dr. Brusatte was thrilled to advise the producers of last year’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” on what scientists had learned about dinosaurs since he was a child.
He was especially happy to see one of the most important discoveries make it to the screen: dinosaurs that sported feathers. But judging from the emails he has been receiving, some moviegoers did not share his excitement.
“A lot of people thought it was made up,” said Dr. Brusatte, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. “They thought it was filmmakers trying to do something crazy.”
Far from crazy, feathered dinosaurs have become a well-established fact, thanks largely to a trove of remarkable fossils that have been unearthed in northeast China since the mid-1990s. Now Dr. Brusatte and other paleontologists are trying to determine exactly how feathered dinosaurs achieved powered flight and became the birds that fly overhead today — an evolutionary mystery that stretches more than 150 million years.
Daryln Brewer Hoffstot, a freelance writer in Pennsylvania, is worried about the eastern phoebes around her home.
She thought at first that a nesting female living by her back door could be an eastern wood-pewee, another grayish-white flycatcher with a short bill, but the giveaway was the way the eastern phoebe wagged her tail when she flew off the nest.
Eastern phoebes are in the flycatcher family and consume not just flies but also wasps, grasshoppers and even ticks — great news to those of us who can’t walk in the woods without getting bitten. Native to North America, they also eat small berries from plants such as Virginia creeper. The bird’s call is like its name: an onomatopoeic “fee bee.”
One day last spring when Hoffstot went to check on the mother bird, she found three raw and naked eastern phoebe nestlings tossed onto the porch floor. At first, she suspected brown-headed cowbirds, famous for raiding nests. But she had observed house sparrows divebombing the back door, which she had never seen before, and then she learned that while brown-headed cowbirds often remove eggs to make room for their own, they don’t dump out nestlings.
If a bird is not in a forest and there is no one to see that it is not there, is it really not there?
That, in essence, is the conundrum that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is confronting. For more than two decades, the lab has run eBird, a project that collects observations from amateur bird watchers. It is a successful project: Nearly 900,000 participants around the world have submitted some 18 million lists a year of what they have spotted during their bird-watching sessions. And the number of lists has been growing at a pace of some 20 percent a year.
That has proved to be a trove for scientists to study changes in populations and behavior of birds, revealing “complex relationships between people and birds in ways that we couldn’t have before,” said Tom Auer, who leads the geospatial data science team at the Cornell lab.
For example, the voluminous eBird data has established how the bright lights of big cities draw in migratory birds, especially young ones. And cities, with their canyons of concrete and asphalt, are generally poor habitats for birds. Cornell scientists are now studying whether the diversion leads to exhaustion and starvation, and whether fewer birds survive the migratory journey.
But, as the project relies on the efforts of volunteers, the data does not cover all places equally. “You can imagine obvious places where there aren’t data,” Mr. Auer said. “Mostly because people are drawn to places where they can see the most birds.”
Neglected areas include farmland and industrial tracts. The sparsity of data affects the ability to answer questions like whether a change in farming practices helps or hurts birds. “It helps if people can spread out and can cover wider habitats,” Mr. Auer said.
For scientists, knowing where birds are not is as important as knowing where they are. That can reveal declining populations, shifting habitats or changes in migration.
That is a tall ask, though — a social experiment in asking people to go out of the way to places where there are probably fewer birds to spot.
Mr. Auer also said that the lab would like to recruit not just experienced bird-watchers but also those who are just learning to identify various species. “Having that variety of skill levels actually improves the quality of research we do,” he said.
The newcomers will generally be less observant and make more mistakes, but a lot of errors are caught when Cornell reviews the data, and new watchers can provide a useful comparison to the more experienced observers.
“If we didn’t have beginning birders to compare to expert birders, we wouldn’t really know how good the expert birders were at detecting birds,” Mr. Auer said. “We’ve done tests with our models, where we remove beginning birders, and when we do that, the models perform more poorly than if we included the beginners.”
If there’s new hope, it’s blurry. What’s certain: The roller coaster tale of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a majestic bird whose presumed extinction has been punctuated by a series of contested rediscoveries, is going strong.
The latest twist is a peer-reviewed study Thursday in the journal Ecology and Evolution presenting sighting reports, audio recordings, trail camera images and drone video. Collected over the last decade in a Louisiana swamp forest, the precise location omitted for the birds’ protection, the authors write that the evidence suggests the “intermittent but repeated presence” of birds that look and behave like ivory-billed woodpeckers.
But are they?
“It’s this cumulative evidence from our multiyear search that leaves us very confident that this iconic species exists, and it persists in Louisiana and probably other places as well,” said Steven C. Latta, one of the study’s authors and director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary, a nonprofit bird zoo in Pittsburgh that helps lead a program that searches for the species.
But Dr. Latta acknowledges that no single piece of evidence is definitive, and the study is carefully tempered with words like “putative” and “possible.”
Therein lies the problem. As one expert wrote during a previous ivory bill go-round: “The body of evidence is only as strong as the single strongest piece — ten cups of weak coffee do not make a pot of strong coffee.”
This time, two experts who have been skeptical of previous sightings said they remained unconvinced.
“The trouble is, it’s all very poor video,” said Chris Elphick, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Connecticut who studies birds. Pileated and red-headed woodpeckers, among other species, can look a lot like ivory bills from a distance or from certain angles. Light can play games with the eye. Audio is easy to misconstrue.
“I don’t think this changes very much, frankly,” he said. “I would love to be wrong.”
The stakes of the recent findings are heightened because federal wildlife officials have proposed that ivory-billed woodpeckers be declared extinct, which would end legal protection. Last year, citing “substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service extended its deadline to make a final ruling.
A spokeswoman, Christine Schuldheisz, said the agency did not comment on outside studies but was working toward a final decision, which is expected later this year.
According to the authors of the new study, removing federal protection would be bad for any remaining ivory bills. But other scientists say there’s a steep price to keeping them on the endangered species list.
“Whether or not limited federal conservation funds should be spent on chasing this ghost, instead of saving other genuinely endangered species and habitats, is a vital issue,” said Richard O. Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale.
Ivory bills fell into steep decline as Americans logged their habitat, old-growth swampy forests of the Southeast. Few remained by the 1930s, but a scientific expedition discovered a nest in Louisiana, in one of the largest remaining swaths of habitat. The land, called the Singer Tract, was leased for logging. Conservation groups tried to purchase the rights, but the company refused to sell. The last widely accepted ivory bill sighting in the United States was in 1944, a lone female, seen in her roost with the forest cleared around her.
Since then, purported sightings have sparked joy and backlash. One, in 1967, was heralded on the front page of The New York Times. Twenty years later, another one, in Cuba, where a subspecies or similar species may or may not hang on, was also reported on Page One. In 2002, searchers in Louisiana thought they’d captured audio of the ivory bill’s distinctive double rap, but a computer analysis determined the sound to be distant gunshots. A reported sighting in Arkansas in 2004 led to a paper in Science and flurry of bird tourism, but that evidence was heavily criticized.
To Dr. Elphick, a birder as well as a scientist, one of the most telling results is what so much effort has not yielded: a single clear photograph.
“There are these incredibly rare birds that live in the middle of the Amazon that people can get good, identifiable photographs of,” Dr. Elphick said. “And yet people have spent hundreds of thousands of hours trying to find and photograph ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States. If there’s really a population out there, it’s inconceivable to me that no one could get a good picture.”
But Dr. Latta, the study co-author, insisted that he had seen one clearly with his own eyes. He was in the field in 2019 to set up recording units, and he figures he spooked the bird. As it flew up and away, he got a close, unimpeded view of its signature markings.
“I couldn’t sleep for, like, three days,” Dr. Latta said. “It was because I had this opportunity and I felt this responsibility to establish for the rest of the world, or at least the conservation world, that this bird actually does exist.”
Our understanding of birds has been profoundly shaped by the work of everyday people. After all, anyone can step outside and pay attention to an untamed world swooping above.
This summer, we’re inviting readers, both new and experienced birders, to participate in a science project we are working on with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We will be gathering observations about the birds around us, filling in data gaps and giving researchers a clearer picture of biodiversity.
It’s important work. Nearly half of all bird species worldwide are known or suspected to be in decline, and climate change could accelerate this trend. By gathering data like this, you’ll help inform decisions about the conservation and study of birds.
For beginners, we’ll provide a series of challenges in the next few weeks aimed at getting you on the path toward contributing scientific data.
If you’re an experienced birder, we have a bit more to ask. Cornell’s scientific database typically receives fewer birding observations in the summer. So we’d like for you to submit as often as you can, even if it’s just to record the common birds in your area. For an extra challenge, go beyond your usual hot spots to areas where data is sparse.
The project will run from now to September. Sign up now to connect with a global community of readers, scientists and researchers; engage in online discussions; and share what you’ve learned to help others. You’ll also hear about virtual events, like this one. And maybe even discover a new way of seeing nature.
To get started, tell us a little about yourself below. It should take only about two minutes, and sign-up is free.
The next step is to download Merlin or eBird, birding apps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click the sentence below that best describes your birding experience, and stay tuned for an email with a complete set of instructions.
Please note that Merlin and eBird are third-party apps with their own privacy policies, and The New York Times does not control (and is not responsible for) their content or privacy practices.
Frequently asked questions
What if I’m not sure whether I’m a beginner or an experienced birder?
If you’re new to birding, we strongly encourage you to stick with Merlin for the time being. If you have some experience birding but are new to eBird, we recommend taking Cornell’s eBird Essentials course or at least watching this short video before you start submitting checklists.
How do I participate if I’m new to birding?
After you fill out the form above, look out for an email from firstname.lastname@example.org in the following days. It will include the first in a series of challenges designed to build your birding skills. Eventually, you might take on the challenges for more experienced birders listed below.
How do I participate if I have experience birding already?
If you haven’t already, sign up using the form above and download the free eBird app. Be sure to add #NYT in the comments section of your eBird checklist.
Any observations are helpful because Cornell Lab’s eBird database typically receives fewer submissions during the summer. We’re counting on you, as part of this project, to help fill gaps in scientific data so scientists can better understand changes in bird populations. If you can, focus on these places for submitting eBird checklists:
Non-recreational open spaces. Is that sidewalk tree a popular spot for house sparrows? Is that wetland behind a nearby Walmart teeming with life? Try there!
Areas away from roads. Most birding checklists occur close to roads. The farther you can get from them, the better.
Farms and fields. Rural, agricultural areas are some of the least-birded habitats. Submit checklists from public roads adjacent to crop fields, livestock grazing lands and other cultivated areas.
Areas between eBird hot spots. Use the Explore tab in the eBird app to find nearby hot spots, or shared locations where other birders have submitted observations. Go birding in areas between or far from those hot spots.
Areas with few observations of a particular species. What’s a common bird species in your area? Look up past reports of that species on the eBird Species Map and zoom in on your city. Then, visit areas without any previous observations of that species and file a checklist.
And remember to add #NYT in the comments section of your eBird checklist.
Will my observations be submitted to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s database if I use Merlin Bird ID?
The Merlin app is a reference and learning tool. Observations in Merlin are not recorded in Cornell’s scientific database, eBird. To submit a finding from Merlin to the eBird database, follow the prompts in Merlin.
Can I still be included in The New York Times’s project if I already use the Merlin or eBird app?
Of course! But please sign up using the form above first. Then continue to use the apps as usual. Just be sure to submit to eBird if you are an experienced birder and add #NYT in the comments section of your checklist.
Why do I need to register with The Times if I’m submitting my data to the Cornell Lab?
This will allow us to engage with Times readers specifically.
Do I need to download the Merlin or eBird apps on my phone to submit my observations?
If you are a birding beginner, we recommend the Merlin app as a reference and learning tool, and it will also allow you to share your observations with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
If you are an experienced birder, you may submit your observations through the eBird app or via the eBird website on your computer.
I have a question about Merlin or eBird, or I need additional help getting set up! Where do I go?
We’re so glad you’re taking part in our summer birding project! Tell us in the comments what got you interested in birding. And if you are just getting started, let us know what you could use help with. We may share your comment in New York Times newsletters and articles.