Breeding Bird Surveys – FAQ

1.  Who-What-When-Where-How Is It Done?

Who?  That’s easy—you!  Volunteers operate the BBS.  It takes just one day a year. 

What is the BBS?  The Breeding Bird Survey started in the 1960’s.  On a single day, volunteers conduct a 24.5-mile road survey, essentially driving and stopping every half mile to detect all birds seen and heard for three minutes.  The survey starts just before dawn, and lasts for just over a 4.5-hour period.

When?  In Washington, BBS routes are surveyed from late May to late June.  The first couple of weeks of June are best, as some migrants are still moving through during the last weeks of May.

Where?  There are 4,000 routes in North America.  Approximately 2,500-3,000 routes are surveyed every year.  In Washington, as you might imagine, the choice routes in the mountains and on the west side are usually taken.  Lots of routes in the wheat fields are available.  If that doesn’t immediately peak your interest, think of it as a birding trip to eastern Washington:  Drive over the night before, stay in a local motel (or camp out), supporting the local tourist community, drive your route, then go look for Bob-o-links, Black-throated Sparrows, or Grasshopper Sparrows.  Each year you can do a different spot!

How?  Have you ever been birding with someone who calls out a bird wrong?  Ever had to attempt to correct them?  Are you ready for a really humbling experience?  Well, imagine the problems of trying to write down (or record) all of the birds you see and hear in 3 minutes… with no mistakes!  In the rush to complete the BBS route in under 4.5 hours, this means you have two minutes to:

  • get in the car,
  • drive a half mile,
  • pull over in the designated spot; hopefully it has not changed since last year, and…
  • get out of the car.  (Note that this time period includes drinking coffee, checking your data, etc…and then starting the next 3-minute count.)

Hint!  Many persons have a helper (who can drive you, time you, record for you (and prevent your cheating!), and feed you.  Obviously, you will make mistakes, especially when you are new; but practice makes, well… for fewer errors.

The analysis of the BBS data is complex.  Take for example, Red Crossbills flying overhead, out of sight, calling.  How many are there?  What is “many”?  Since crossbills are irruptive and not territorial in the strict sense, the data for them is not analyzed the same way as that for other species, so guesses of numbers are not treated the same as, say, territorial singing of Swainson’s Thrushes.  But once your survey data is submitted, your task is over… that is, until next year!


2. What is the Future of the Breeding Bird Survey?

Who?  There is not a lot of opportunity out there to train to perform a BBS.  Many of the older BBSers are dropping out.  A whole new recruitment is needed.  Contact PSBO if you are interested! 


What:  Making the BBS data more useful is just entering a new phase, as vital rates (productivity and survivorship) obtained from the MAPS banding program are being linked to the BBS.  There is also a lot of work being done to determine the sources of error (say what bird was that ?!), with new methods of data loggers and sound recorders.  Pretty soon we will just be needed to drive the equipment on the route.  Ho hum. 


When:  In the Pacific NW, some resident species like Hutton’s Vireo may have already bred by June.  As more is known about the timing of first and second broods, perhaps a better weekend can be determine.  But, ah, that NW June weather…


Where:  When the routes for the BBS were set up, some habitats were missed.  Some birds are too rare, non-territorial, or do not sing as regularly as passerines (like woodpeckers) to be detected frequently enough to have a statistically significant trend analyses performed.  More routes are needed in those habitats. 


How:  As more decisions are being made about more species of concern, more data is needed to keep common birds common.  Since you are interested in birds–why else would you be reading this–you can actually see available routes on the BBS website If you want some training or to see what it is like to operate a BBS route, please contact PSBO.  We hope to have a route training class in the spring before the June operation date to help prepare you.  We are also attempting to contact established BBS veterans to see if they mind a tag-a-long.