Occurrence map of Scarlet Tanagers

Mapping with Birds

eBird provides the perfect opportunity to introduce students to maps and build their knowledge of mapping skills and biology. Maps are an essential STEM tool and can help teach quantitative skills and science concepts using real-world issues. The possibilities for exploring birds with maps are diverse and engaging, leading to hours of exploration and learning.

eBird has dozens of free maps available for every bird species. Created from thousands of eBird submissions all around the globe, these images show where citizen scientists have reported seeing each species. Take a look at these maps of two very different species.

eBird sightings of Scarlet Tanagers

This map shows data on eBird sightings of Scarlet Tanagers. Courtesy of eBird.

eBird sightings of Mountain Chickadees.

This map shows data on eBird sightings of Mountain Chickadees. Courtesy of eBird.

What do these two maps tell us about these two species?

Well, for one, we can see that their habitats do not overlap much. Scarlet Tanagers keep to the east coast while Mountain Chickadees follow the Rocky Mountains. For another, we see that tanagers have a much larger range than chickadees, stretching from southern Canada to northern South America. This means that tanagers have been seen in more areas and have a larger range of habitat than chickadees.

What other observations and questions could come from these maps?

Animated occurrence maps, produced through modeling that combines eBird data with environmental data is another way to explore bird distribution. These animated maps provide a dynamic way to show the year-round range of common bird species. Scientists use maps like these to study bird populations and predict movement. Using eBird sightings, as well as dozens of other variables like weather, vegetation type, and geography, complex mathematical models create a best estimate as to where the target species is most likely to be seen and when. The occurrence maps show the probability of occurrence of a certain species across the continental US.

Take a look at this animated map of Scarlet Tanagers. Notice how, as the months go by, the distribution of the species across the United States changes. With these maps, it is possible to watch the movements of a bird species, predict when it is likely to be in your area, and explore the range of places this bird species has been seen. These data, displayed in this way, allow students to examine the migration routes made by bird species and ask their own questions about a species’ habitat needs.Scarlet Tanager sightings

Scarlet Tanager sightings. This animated occurrence map was produced through computer modeling.


Maps are also a great way to introduce students to data visualization. After exploring some maps, consider showing your students different visualizations of the data, such as this frequency graph of species reported in New York. What kind of information can you get from this that is different from each map? How does this chart present that same data in the maps?

eBird sightings of common species in New York State

Notice how migratory species can be easily identified because they are absent for periods of several months (for example, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings are migratory) while year-round residents (like Northern Cardinals and Red-winged Blackbirds) are seen throughout the year.

eBird opens a whole new realm of exploration for students. The data from citizen-science projects are free, easy to access, and — most importantly — relevant to the real world. Students can interact with information from their own state or county, as well as reports from around the world. They may even add their own observations to this database and see how their work contributes to a bigger picture!

Encourage your students to investigate the maps they look at and ask questions. It’s a great way to get them on the road to scientific inquiry and build their data skills!


Going further

Check out eBird for more examples of occurrence maps. 

Explore more occurrence map lessons from the Birds Without Borders book.

Order your copy of Citizen Science: 15 Lessons That Bring Biology To Life.


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