What is Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) by Mike Ward

What is the Breeding Bird Survey and what does it do for the birds?

All of us reading this article enjoy birds and want to protect the birds and the places where birds live. One of the most important ways that we both protect birds and our environment is by monitoring bird populations. Unlike nearly all other taxa, birds can be effectively monitored across large geographic areas and over long periods, this is primarily because of the number of competent bird watchers that are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to monitoring birds.

Relative Abundance Map for Upland Sandpiper

Relative Abundance Map for Upland Sandpiper

The primary program used to monitor birds in North America is the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The BBS started in 1966, at a point in time when the general public was greatly concerned about the health of the environment and birds were the way to monitor the environment. The BBS was one of the contributions provided by Chandler Robbins. Chandler Robbins recently passed away at 98 and was the key figure in the development and use of the BBS. (You can read more about him in this article by the Washington Post.)

The BBS has a rather simple protocol, the US Geological Service at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center randomly choose routes along rural roads. Each route is approximately 25 miles long and there are stops every ½ mile, at each stop a 3 minute survey is conducted and all birds within ¼ mile that are seen or heard are recorded. These routes are conducted from sunrise to about 9:00AM once per year. In Illinois we have 101 routes and in general they are conducted between late May and early July. While we, as a state, have improved the percentage of routes that are completed each year we still often have 8 to 12 routes that are not assigned to a person. This map provide the location of routes and which ones are available.

Why it is important

With the data collected from across North America over the last several decades, statisticians at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center use complex statistician approaches to model how the population of birds are changing. These population trend data are one of the key pieces of data used to determine conservation priorities at various organizations. For example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service use these data to determine priority species. Here in Illinois the Illinois Department of Natural Resources uses these data to help determine which species should be considered in greatest needed of conservation. Partners in Flight has recently produced a very interesting report, Species of Continental Concern, which primarily uses the BBS data.

The BBS data not only can be used to inform us about which species is increasing or decreasing, but the data provides the distribution of species. You can view Relative Abundance Maps for each species on the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Web site.

With the distribution data we can further refine conservation priorities. For example, Illinois is an important area for Dickcissel and Henslow’s Sparrow because we are in the core area of their distribution and a relatively large percentage of their population is in our state. Therefore when determining how to use limited conservation resources we can have additional data to determine where the funds should be used.

Finally, the BBS can provide the “large scale” view of how bird populations are faring. We all have our favorite areas to go bird watching, and these areas may or may not be representative of the greater population of a given species. In addition, there is a natural tendency for birdwatchers to be more interested in the rarer species. To this end many of us have noticed an increase in Henslow’s Sparrows over the last couple decades and the BBS survey also shows this increase. However, common species that are declining, often are not noticed by the casual observer. For example, if you look out your window right now you might see both American Robins and Common Grackles, both common species in the state, however their population trends are completely different. Where American Robins are exhibiting a steady increase in population, Common Grackles have been declining. Many people have remarked to me about the decline in Red-headed Woodpeckers and sadly the BBS also shows the same decline, however again species that are still relatively common such as Brown Thrashers are showing an alarming decline. The “take home” is that the BBS provides the data to accurately model the population of bird species and with these data we (the conservation community) can hopefully determine why the species is declining and then striving to either reduce or hopefully reverse the decline.

Trends in Bird Population

Trends in Bird Population


I (Mike Ward) am the BBS coordinator for the state of Illinois and therefore one of my responsibilities is to find competent volunteers that can identify the breeding birds of Illinois by sight and sound. Luckily we have many great volunteers in Illinois, but we could use more. It is likely too late to get people signed up for the 2017 breeding season but we will need more people in 2018. Given my career, I work with BBS data often and I often get firsthand experience regarding how important these data are to the conservation planning process. For a different perspective of the BBS I asked a volunteer to provide their impression regarding the data collection process and Ray Boehmer, an IOS member from Urbana, was gracious enough to provide the following:

“I have been doing Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes for eight years, starting with one, adding another a couple years later, and then adding a third route this year. Birding is normally a relaxing, low-intensity activity for me, but doing a BBS “kicks it up a notch.” At each of the 50 stops, I have to be alert and on my toes to record every bird seen or heard. It reminds me that I am taking part in the scientific aspects of birding. I have to be as objective and accurate as possible. I really like that about participating in the BBS program.

The starting points for my routes range from 30 minutes to a little more than an hour from my house. So having to get up early is an understatement. But I have always been an early riser, so a 3 AM alarm is not too bad.

My routes mostly go through agricultural areas, with a surprising number of wooded creeks crisscrossing, providing some fairly “birdy” stops. In one 3-minute count, I managed to record 35 individuals representing 15 species. That was intense! Then quickly on to the next stop.

The people organizing, supporting, and promoting the BBS program, at both state and federal levels, are well qualified and easily accessible, making the effort on my part about as easy and smooth as I could possibly want. Recording and submitting the results are easy and user-friendly. I plan to continue participating in the BBS program as long as I can while my vision and hearing remain sharp.”

If you are interested in conducting a BBS route please contact Mike Ward.

IORC Update - 8 June 2017

The Illinois Ornithological Records Committee (IORC) recently concluded evaluation of 19 records of occurrence of rare birds in Illinois, accepting 14 and not accepting five. For each record, we indicate below the species or form, with number of individuals in parentheses if greater than one, followed by date or date range, location, and county. At the end, the record number is indicated in parentheses, followed by, for accepted records, names of the documenters. IORC thanks all the documenters, for accepted and unaccepted records alike, for their submissions. All documentation is maintained in the IORC archives so that there is a permanent record of all these observations. Documentation, regardless of the Committee’s decision, is a valuable part of the record of bird life in Illinois.

Records Accepted

  • Mottled Duck, 25 November 2016, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Mason County (2016-087; Mike Ingram)
  • Neotropic Cormorant, 26 February 2017, Emiquon Preserve, Mason County (2017-003; Corey Lange; Davida Kalina)
  • Ruff, 16 July 2016, El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, Woodford County (2016-097; Ted Hartzler; Ben Murphy)
  • California Gull, 30 November 2016 through 15 February 2017, on the Illinois River at Peoria, Peoria County and Tazewell County (2016-093; Mike Ingram; Colin Dobson)
  • California Gull, 4-14 February 2017, along the Calumet River in Chicago, Cook County (2017-001; Andrew Aldrich; Jake Cvetas, Matthew Cvetas)
  • California Gull, 23-25 February 2017, Channel Lake, Lake County (2017-004; Adam Sell)
  • Barn Owl, 25 December 2016, Burnham Park, Chicago, Cook County (2016-099; Ethan Gyllenhaal).
  • Say’s Phoebe, 9 November 2016, outside of Savanna, Carroll County (2016-096; Cindy Brown, Ethan Brown)
  • Vermilion Flycatcher, 6 November 2016, Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Grundy County (2016-094; Tim Balassie)
  • Mountain Bluebird, 9 November 2016 through 17 February 2017, south of Savanna, Carroll County (2016-088; Cindy Brown, Ethan Brown; Ed Anderson, Anne Straight, Dan Williams)
  • Townsend’s Solitaire, 5 November 2016, Sag Quarries, Lemont, Cook County (2016-095; Mike Daley)
  • Townsend’s Solitaire, 15 November 2016, Stockton, Jo Daviess County (2016-086; John P. Jankowski)
  • Townsend’s Solitaire, 25 November 2016 through 2 January 2017, Rock Cut State Park, Winnebago County (2016-089; Barbara Williams, Dan Williams)
  • Bohemian Waxwing, 1 January 2017, Shaw Woods, Lake Forest Openlands, Lake County (2017-002; Eric Lundquist; Emil Baumbach, Oliver Burrus)

Records Not Accepted

  • Mottled Duck, 25 November 2016, Big Lake, Brown County (2016-090)
  • Anhinga (7), 13 October 2010, Evergreen Lake, McLean County (2010-030)
  • Anhinga, 13 October 2016, Greene Valley Forest Preserve, DuPage County (2016-077)
  • Gyrfalcon, 6 November 2016, Greene Valley Forest Preserve, DuPage County (2016-081)
  • Cave Swallow, 28 October 2016, Lake Springfield, Sangamon County (2016-092)

Rare Bird Alert - 4-Jun-2017

Western Tanager by Chuck Fields

Western Tanager by Chuck Fields

White-winged Dove: Cook (North) – A White-winged Dove visited the feeders of Susan Szeszol’s River Grove home on 5-Jun-2017. Surprisingly, this is the second occurrence of this species at her home in the last ten months.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck: Peoria (Central) – Bill Kulschbach captured images of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks on the Illinois River at Bartonville, Peoria County, and sharedthem on the Illinois River Waterfowl Facebook group.

Neotropic Cormorant: Lake (North) – Also on 4-Jun-2017, Adam Sell discovered a Neotropic Cormorant at Almond Marsh in Lake County. The next morning there were two!

Western Tanager: Lake (North) – This spring’s third Western Tanager was photographed by Chuck and Carolyn Fields on 4-Jun-2017 at the North Unit of Illinois Beach State Park in Lake County.

Western Tanager: LaSalle (North) – A Western Tanager was photographed on 21-May-2017 in LaSalle County by Joe Young. The tanager was visible from the road, but on private land north of the confluence of Indian Creek and the Fox River.

Rare Bird Alert - 20-May-2017

Western Tanager by ‎Jennifer McHenry Green‎

Ruff: Putnam (North) – A female Ruff or Reeve was in scope view of Bob and Karen Fisher at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in Putnam County on May 14th.

Western Tanager: Cook (North) – A Western Tanager was photographed by Jennifer McHenry Green

Continue reading Rare Bird Alert – 20-May-2017

Spring Bird Count – Then and Now

IL SBC Pioneer, Vernon Kleen, by Carolyn Schlueter

The Illinois Spring Bird Count is here at last. For those, like myself, that look forward to this day every year, getting ready for the count can be a bit hectic. I like to think of it as preparing for that comprehensive final you might have

Continue reading Spring Bird Count – Then and Now

We Need Your Help to Fund the 2017 Grant Requests!!

The Grant applications are in! This year we received 9 applications in all.

Grant awards will be announced the first week of May. Some funds have already been received but more contributions are needed so more of the grants can be funded. Any organization or individual may fund all or part of a

Continue reading We Need Your Help to Fund 2017 Grant Requests!!

Spring Tune Up Field Trip Report

Keith McMullen by Barbara Williams

With much appreciation for our enthusiastic field trip leader and “Southern Specialty Steward,” Keith McMullen, seventeen participants enjoyed this year’s journey through southern Illinois. During the two days, we were fortunate to view 109 species of birds.

Saturday’s weather did not seem promising for singing birds, as it was

Continue reading Spring Tune Up Field Trip Report

5 Simple Steps for Predicting Bird Migration

With spring rapidly accelerating, now is the ideal time for a little spring migration review. But rather than focusing solely on identification, let’s look over some of what we know about migration itself, specifically its timing, its interaction with weather, and how to predict it. Being able to predict migration—of course within a margin of

Continue reading 5 Simple Steps for Predicting Bird Migration

Chicago Audubon Honors IOS and ILYB Members

Henry Griffin (left); Matthew Cvetas and Josh Engel (right)

On March 25, 2017, Chicago Audubon held its Biennial Environmental Awards Banquet to honor those who have made contributions to conservation, the protection of migratory birds and other wildlife, and have helped to conserve, preserve, and enhance the varied habitats and open spaces of the

Continue reading Chicago Audubon Honors IOS and ILYB Members

Rare Bird Alert - 15-Apr-2017

Pine Grosbeak by Geoff Williamson

Anhinga: Massac (South) – On April 15th, Keith Mcmullen reported seeing an ANHINGA over Ft. Massac State Park in Massac County.

Pine Grosbeak: Winnebago (North) – A PINE GROSBEAK was seen at the feeder of Vonnie and Martin Kehoe on April 13th in Rockton, Winnebago County.

Mountain Bluebird: DuPage

Continue reading Rare Bird Alert – 15-Apr-2017