By Allan Britnell

While the tools used for bird watching – binoculars, an identification guide and a notepad – have remained relatively unchanged since John James Audubon trekked through the woods, the uses for the data that birders obsessively compile have grown exponentially.

Take eBird Canada, for example. This Bird Studies Canada-sponsored website (www.ebird.ca) provides birders and, more significantly, researchers with a real-time, online database of sightings across North and South America, the Caribbean, New Zealand and Antarctica. And everyone from volunteer participants in Project FeederWatch to scientists working in the field is encouraged to contribute.

“It is citizen science at a grand scale,” says Mike Burrell, eBird’s Ontario editor. For ornithologists and other researchers, this data is a treasure trove, shared among a global network of conservationists.

“One of the biggest uses of eBird data will be to monitor long-term changes in a species’ range or relative abundance. This will be an invaluable tool when organizations like COSEWIC [Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada] need to evaluate species of concern,” says Burrell.

In addition to providing a more accurate picture of bird counts, the site helps researchers track migration patterns, population cycles and distribution shifts.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society launched eBird in the United States in 2002. The Canadian-specific site, eBird Canada, went live in 2006. Since then, the Canadian site has received more than 230,000 checklist submissions from 2,700 registered users.

To date, a total of 555 different bird species have been identified in Canada, 389 in Ontario alone, including rare sightings such as a western tanager in Kapuskasing, a summer tanager near Rainy River and a blue grosbeak in Sault Ste. Marie.

On the site, users can keep an updated life list, check out the “notable sightings” page for tips on the recent whereabouts of unexpected species and primp their birders’ vanity by trying to make it onto the top 100 eBirders contributors lists for the province or the country. And, in keeping with the times, iPhone users can, for $19.99, get an app (BirdsEye) that interacts with eBird at Apple’s App Store.