Birding and the Internet - The Ultimate Field Guide?
Presented by Mitchell Waite, WhatBird.com, to the Palo Alto Audubon
There are many exciting things happening on the Internet today that
birders should be aware of. In this talk Mitchell Waite, the creator
of WhatBird.com, a bird identification site, will talk about how the
Internet can enhance your birding experience. He will present his
new site, WhatBird.com, and explain why over 60,000 bird enthusiasts
visit it each month.
Why is the Internet Important?There are several things that the Internet offers the birder. These
include the ability to supplement field guides and identify birds,
communities to share experiences, forums to ask questions, and sites
that present bird illustrations, photos, sounds and videos. But that
is just the tip of the iceberg.
Supplementing or Replacing Field Guides
While the publishers of traditional book based field guides have
been slow to directly embrace the internet, numerous trends on the
web are changing the way people identify and access information
What does the web offer over a book based field guide?
Web Search Engines
First there is Google.
By typing the name of a bird on the Google search page you can find
literally millions of web sites that have information on that bird,
some far more extensive than what you find in a book. Or if you
don’t know the name of the bird you can enter a set of keywords such
"small black bird with red eye that eats peanuts"
Google will find every web site that contains that string of
characters on its page. And Google does not skimp on answers -- we
entered the above term into Google and got back 3,020,000 web sites!
Google sorts the results of the search in terms of "relevancy",
putting the sites most likely to have the information you want at
the top. Indeed the first link in Google for that term was "Birds
that eat Peanuts"
Sites that Supplement Field GuidesHowever there are better ways to supplement book based field guides
on the Internet. Perhaps the most popular sites on the internet that
compete with field guides provide birding identification through the
use of "keys".
Keys are field marks that distinguish birds, such as color, bill
shape, pattern, etc. Several popular web sites offer the ability to
select a set of identifiable marks on a form. Once you have made
your selections you click a Submit button, the site searches a large
database and presents those birds that match your keys.
The BioDiversity Institute's Internet Field Guide to Birds
Other sites offer lists of bird types, either by name or by
presenting a small icon, which you can click on to browse for
USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds
National Wildlife Federation's eNature
These sites provide extensive information on bird species,
photographs, range maps, articles on attracting and feeding birds,
participation in international bird studies, even home study courses
in bird biology.
Of course if that is all that was offered the internet would not be
much of a leap beyond the paper based book, however three important
features separate these web sites from book based field guides.
1. The sites take advantage of the fact that you are using a
computer with sound capability by offering actual bird calls you can
2. A few sites provide video galleries where you can view birds in
3. Some sites offer "forums" where you can share your experiences
with other birders, and get help IDing that elusive bird you saw. A
few even have "experts" available to provide identification aids.
A Common WeaknessThe one weakness of these identification sites is that they require
you to enter all the bird ID information all at once, so if you
check the wrong combination of field marks you will end up with "no
bird found". Or if you don’t check enough field marks you end up
with hundreds of birds.
New Web Solutions - WhatBird ExampleInnovative web sites are appearing that solve this problem by using
what is called a "parametric" search, meaning you enter the field
marks one at a time until the bird is found. An example is:
WhatBird Field Guide to Birds of North America
Still Not a Perfect SolutionOf course like any new technology the web is not a prefect
replacement for the book. While it is possible to take a laptop on a
bird walk, it's not a good substitute for a book--laptops don’t fit
well in your backpack, they are still too heavy and the screen is
too hard to read in the bright sun.
However there are some innovations that are making the internet more
portable, which may end up impinging on the sales of books, and
offer new products that that book stores can't.
The Portable Electronic Field GuideAn example is the use of PDAs or Portable Digital Assistants.
Typified by the Palm Pilot and Microsoft Pocket PC, these tiny
devices can be coupled with the databases that offer the birder
things no book can. They have intelligence and search capability so
can help you hunt down your bird by tapping icons of identifying
marks on the screen. They can generate the call of the bird, and
thus bring the bird right to you.
One example is:
WhatBird Mobile Guide to Birds of North America
This download enables any Pocket PC to connect to a web site
database of Birds of North America. The best part is the software is
free. The one caveat is that you must be connected to the internet
to use this software. This works fine if you have a cellular or wifi
connection to your Pocket PC, but outside of suburbia this might be
hard to find. A newer version of the software will offer a Secure
Digital (SD) card containing the bird database.
Bird Mailing Lists and NewsgroupsA mailing list is an online discussion group that is accessed by
either email or a web browser. These lists, also called Newsgroups,
are hosted by universities, business, as well as large web authority
sites like Yahoo and Google. There are zillions of such mailing
lists devoted to birding, one or more for every state, and often
lists devoted to a specific city.
For example in California:
And in San Francisco:
You can find most of the links to these lists at:
SummaryHow can a birder take advantage of the internet? You can start by
visiting web sites that cater to birders. There are literally
thousands you can try. Many offer forums where you can share your
experiences with other birders and even upload your own photos. The
discussion lists are often hosted by experts that can answer your
inquiries. One example is:
WhatBird Bird ID Help Forum
The ornithologists in this forum, David Lukas and Simone Whitecloud,
not only answer questions about how to identify birds, they give
exciting and useful tips that will help you with your hobby.
Or can just enter some identification information into Google and
visit the numerous links it returns.
160 C Donahue Street, Suite 226
Sausalito California 94965
415 888 3233