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Instructions for Conducting the North American Breeding Bird Survey

USGS Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center
12100 Beech Forest Road
Laurel, Maryland, U.S.A.  20708-4038

Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS)
National Wildlife Research Centre
100 Gamelin Blvd.
Hull, Quebec, Canada  K1A 0H3




Quick Reference Guide



Cars and noise

8, 9
Internet data entry 18
Route problems 13
Using scan sheets 14, 15, 16



Counting birds 6, 7
Manual data entry 14, 15, 16
Reporting weather 10, 11, 12
Using non-scan sheets 14

1) Requirements 

8) Counting Vehicles 15) Scannable Field Sheets
2) Scouting  9) Excessive Noise 16) Cover Sheet
3) When to Run Routes 10) Acceptable Weather 17) Reporting Results
4) Starting 11) Wind Speed Codes 18) Electronic Data Submission
5) Stop Locations 12) Sky condition Codes 19) All Forms Completed by July 15
6) Counting 13) Route Problems 20) Processing of Results
7) Which Birds to Count 14) Record Keeping 21) Income Tax Deduction

1) REQUIREMENTS:  It is very important that the observer know the songs, calls, and visual identification of all species likely to be encountered.  It is advisable, even for experienced observers to learn the less common species on the available records and tapes.  In Canada, cassettes of bird songs for each region are given to all participants. If you did not receive one please contact the CWS office.  Since identification by songs and calls is required, acute hearing is extremely important.  An observer with a hearing loss should not be running Breeding Bird Surveys.

2) SCOUTING:   Much time can be lost due to closed roads, washed out bridges, and wrong turns.  The importance of familiarization with the 50 stops and the proper turns before the day of the run cannot be overstressed.  A scouting trip can save time and frustration, especially for first-time observers or on new routes.  First-time observers should also conduct a test run to get familiar with the technique and the forms.  If the route is far away, try 10 or 20 practice stops somewhere closer to home.

3) WHEN TO RUN ROUTES:  In most states, routes should be run in early or mid-June.  In Canada and most bordering states, any day throughout June and including the very first few days of July are acceptable.  In the desert regions of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and south Florida, routes may be run as early as May, at the discretion of the State Coordinators.  In general, a date as near as possible to last year's is most desirable.

4) STARTING:   Start at the marked starting point -- do not reverse the route even if the end is closer to home.  The starting point is stop number 1.  At the proper starting time, which should be printed on the map as well as the first page of the scannable field sheet, begin counting birds at the marked starting point.  The times shown are ½ hour before official sunrise.  Beware, local papers and TV stations often give incorrect sunrise data.  Be at the starting point early to record weather data and odometer readings.

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5) STOP LOCATIONS:  Stops are supposedly located at ½ mile (0.8 km) intervals;  unfortunately, car odometers vary.  The most important issue concerning stops is that all 50 stops should be made in exactly the same location from year to year.  If your route map has stops marked on it or a list of stop descriptions attached, use those stops regardless of what your odometer says unless the marked stops are entirely unreasonable -- in which case contact this office.  Please make a list of stop descriptions and mark the stops on the map if neither are provided -- this can be done while scouting.  Update these stop descriptions each year as necessary. If you have a metric odometer and are running a new or unmarked route, the best approach is to go 0.8 km for every stop.  Most importantly -- make a list of stop descriptions and mark their locations on the map, so the stops can be duplicated in the future.  Stop descriptions should be updated as necessary whenever major landmarks change along the route.   If a route problem arises, see the section 13.

6) COUNTING:  One and only one observer should count birds.  Counting should be done from outside the car but from a stationary point.  Every bird seen within 1/4 mile (400 m) and every bird heard by the one observer should be counted during the 3 minutes at each stop.  Do not exceed 3 minutes because you are sure a certain "good bird" is there and not calling -- it will probably be recorded some other year, and valid negative data are as important as positive in this survey.  Do not stay less or more than 3 min.  ABSOLUTELY NO METHOD OF COAXING BIRDS SHOULD BE USED under any circumstances during the 3-minute counting periods.  This means no "spishing" or tape playbacks or any other method.  It is crucial that all surveys be done consistently, because the goal of the survey is to establish a comparison index not an actual count or census.  Birds seen between stops or before and after the three minutes or on scouting runs should not be counted, but may be noted in the margin.  Such birds are of some interest, but do not spend extra time pursuing them, as it is important to finish within the time limit, which should be 4 to 5 hours;  bird activity changes drastically after this time.

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7) WHICH BIRDS TO COUNT:  Count individuals (except dependent young including downy chicks of water and shorebirds) of all species seen or heard during each 3-minute period.  Estimates should be used only for flocks too large to count in the brief time they are seen.  Do not use check marks (i.e. marking presence of bird rather than actual number of individuals) even for abundant species.  No one will detect all birds within hearing or seeing distance.  Hundreds of birds present will not be active during each 3-minute count, and you must not try to guess how many you are missing.  Report only those birds actually seen or heard during the prescribed 3-minute stops.  Be careful not to count any individuals known or strongly suspected to have been counted at a previous stop.  Any bird known to be a non-breeder (late migrant, injured bird, or summer vagrant) should be included but marked on the data sheet as such.  Easily identifiable subspecies of birds, such as Northern Flicker, Dark-Eyed Junco, and Yellow-rumped Warbler should be identified.  Species recorded that are not found on the form should be added at the bottom.  Do not fill in AOU numbers;  we will do that for you.  Any species unusual in the area, whether it appears on the form or not, should be supported by including some details of the observation.

8) COUNTING VEHICLES:  At the bottom of the field sheets, record the number of vehicles that pass by during each 3-min stop.  Treat all motorized conveyances equally;  motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, semi-tractor trailers, etc., would each count as one vehicle if they were to pass by the point while the count was in progress.  Count only those vehicles that are on the road where the count is taking place.  Do not count vehicles passing by on nearby thoroughfares even if their noise is interfering with your ability to detect birds.  If a stop is located at an intersection, count the vehicles traversing both roads during the count.  It is acceptable for assistants to count and record the number of vehiclesWe suggest using a mechanical hand-counter or tallying device to count vehicles.  If a stop is on a heavily traveled road, it is acceptable to estimate the number of vehicles that passed by during the 3-min stop since counting birds is the primary objective of the survey.  In addition, if you feel counting vehicles distracts too much of your attention from the bird survey, forego this step and indicate on the Cover Sheet that you did not count vehicles.

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9) EXCESSIVE NOISE:  At the bottom of each field sheet are five bubbles, one for each stop.  Fill in a circle completely if you feel constant excessive noise, other than that produced by counted vehicles, is significantly interfering with your ability to hear birds at that stop.  Possible sources of excessive noise include, but are not limited to: lawn mowers, oil well pumps, trains, crop dusters, tractors, vehicles on nearby roads, numerous barking dogs, and rushing river water.  Do not fill in the circle if the disturbance is temporary (lasts < 45 sec) or if you temporarily suspend the count until the offending noise has ceased or moved on.

10) ACCEPTABLE WEATHER:  To be comparable, routes must be run under satisfactory weather conditions: good visibility, little or no precipitation, light winds.  Occasional light drizzle or a very brief shower may not affect bird activity but fog, steady drizzle, or prolonged rain should be avoided.  Except in those prairie States and Provinces where winds normally exceed Beaufort 3, counts preferably should be made on mornings when the wind is less than 8 m.p.h.  (13 kph) and not taken if the wind exceeds 12 mph. (19 kph).  If you can walk faster than the wind is blowing, wind conditions are very satisfactory (See sections 11 and 12 for wind and sky codes).

11) WIND SPEED CODES:  (Enter Beaufort Numbers on Cover Sheet, not m.p.h. or km.p.h.)

Beaufort Number

Wind Speed Indicators

Wind Speed in mph / kmph


Smoke rises vertically

< 1 / < 2


Wind direction shown by smoke drift

1-3 / 2-5


Wind felt on face; leaves rustle

4-7 / 6-12


Leaves, small twigs in constant motion; light flag extended

8-12 / 13-19


Raises dust and loose paper; small branches are moved

13-18 / 20-29


Small trees in leaf sway; crested wave lets on inland waters

19-24 / 30-38


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12) SKY CONDITION CODES:  (Enter these U.S. Weather Bureau code numbers on Cover Sheet.)

 0 - Clear or a few clouds                                      4 - Fog or smoke          7 - Snow
 1 - Partly cloudy (scattered) or variable sky          5 - Drizzle                     8 - Showers
 2 - Cloudy (broken) or overcast

13) ROUTE PROBLEMS:  Scouting of routes should eliminate most last-minute adjustments.  If any problems arise, notify this office as soon as possible.  For maximum consistency, it is best that an alternative be worked out here that pleases both you and us.  If it is not possible to scout a route and a problem arises while running it, remember that it is most important to use the same stops in the same order as in previous years.  If a detour is necessary, go around and resume on the other side of the obstruction, attempting to preserve as many stops as possible.  Do not make new stops along the detour unless necessitated by inaccessible sections of road or if detouring around will take in excess of an hour.  There are numerous local traffic regulations dealing with the proper and safe parking of vehicles along roadsides.  Please observe these regulations while conducting the Breeding Bird Survey and remember to use caution in selecting an appropriate stopping place and when getting into and out of your vehicle.  If a stop is in a dangerous location, it is acceptable to move it as much as 0.1 mile (forward or backward) or put it on a side road.  If this does not resolve the safety problem, skip the stop and contact us.  Never stop at a location you consider to be dangerous in any way.  Counting may be extended by 1 minute at stops with excessive traffic noise.  This should be restricted to only a few stops; if many stops have excessive traffic, notify this office.  In some cases a replacement route will have to be developed.

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14) RECORD KEEPING: You can submit your data by Internet (see section 18) or you can mail us the data.  Sections 15, 16, an 17 describe procedures for those wishing to send us their data by mail.  Two types of data forms are available for collecting BBS data -- Scan forms and Standard forms.  The Scan forms are double-sided and have the words "SCAN FORM" printed on them;  the Standard forms are single-sided and have a form number printed in the lower right corner.  The Standard forms were used regularly before 1997.  Unless you indicate otherwise, only the Scan form will be sent to you.  Use either set of data sheets to collect the field data.  You can also use a field data sheet of your own design.  However the type of field sheet chosen will affect the process used to record and report data since all BBS data must now be scanned or electronically entered via the Internet.  If you are going to enter your data via the Internet you may use either type of BBS data sheet, or your own data sheets, and record data using any method you desire since the form will not be scanned (see section 18).  If you choose to mail your completed data forms to the BBS office for entry, remember that all data must either be transcribed to the Scan form from the original data sheets or recorded directly to the original Scan form in the field.  If using hash marks, dots or other methods to count individuals, use the Standard field sheets, your own field sheets, or make a photocopy of the Scan form for use in the field, then transfer the species data to the original Scan form;  if you use Arabic numerals (i.e., 1, 2, 3, . . .) to record the number of individuals per stop directly to the original Scan forms, there is no need to transcribe species data.  Do not wait to record birds after the 3 minutes have been completed.  This leads to errors of omission and significantly delays the completion of the survey.  If you transcribed data, always send both sets of data sheets to our office.  Also keep a photocopy of the original data sheets for your records;  you will need the photocopy to check against the results we will send you at the end of the year and as insurance against lost mail.  A word of caution concerning dictating observations to a tape recorder: it is risky because the data can easily be lost by one manner of malfunction or another.  Transferring the taped data is tedious and also subject to error.  Another problem is that the tape is technically the original field sheet and it would be unreasonable for people to send us tapes.  If you must use a tape recorder, indicate so on the assistant line and please be careful.  With practice, an observer can count and record birds alone.  Remember to record weather data at start and finishRecord the start and finish time for the route.  Use a dark pencil or pen on field sheets, Scan Forms and Cover Sheet.  We must photocopy or microfilm these records, which is impossible with light images.  Do not use a felt-tip pen;  the ink is not waterproof;  hence, it smudges, washes out easily and makes corrections difficult.

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15) SCANNABLE FIELD SHEETS:  If using the original scan sheets in the field or when transcribing your data to them, remember:  count data must be written in Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, . . ., 15, 16, etc.) in order to be scanned, print firmly with dark pencil or ink pen, write legibly avoiding contact with edges of entry boxes, do not obscure or mar black cornerstones or identification box at top left corner of pages, do not fill in missing AOU numbers, missing species may be written in lower case letters and abbreviated, and do not staple these data sheets together.

16) COVER SHEET:  Always complete and return the Cover Sheet regardless of the method used to record and report survey data.  Before submitting the Cover Sheet and data, always verify the address on the Cover Sheet, complete the route summary information, and answer the brief questions listed by filling in the data entry bubble corresponding to the correct response (Y = yes and N = no).  When updating the address always use CAPITAL letters and place one character per entry box.  If surveying multiple routes, it is only necessary to update the address on one cover sheet.

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17) REPORTING RESULTS:  Upon completion of the route, address data should be verified and date and weather data should be transferred from the Field Sheets to the Cover Sheet;  again, use a dark pencil or pen, but not a felt-tip marker.  If you did not use the original Scan forms in the field, transfer the data from your own field sheets to the Scan forms.  Please double check the transfer of data;  we have found that many observers inadvertently omit information when transferring.  For this and other reasons we need your original field sheets.  Copied field sheets tend to be less accurate than originals.  Be sure to furnish all the summary information requested on the front of the Cover Sheet;  please enter only 1 number or letter per block (start the date and starting time entries with a "0").   Please print plainly because all information must be scanned or keypunched.  Don't forget to include your middle initial.  We need your initials and last name to keep our address and route assignment files accurate.  The observer should be the name entered here, not the driver or the recorder.  Married women should use their own initials, not those of their husband.  Two people should not observe together and take turns putting each others name in the observer block from year to year.  The Field Sheets (representing 50 stops), the 5 scannable Data Sheets, 1 Cover Sheet, the route map, and these instructions should be sent in the envelope provided to the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center or, in Canada, these items should be sent to the Canadian Wildlife Service as soon as possible after completion of the count.   You will want to keep a copy of your data so that you can check the computer printout that will be sent at a later date.

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18) INTERNET DATA SUBMISSION:  Instructions for Internet data submission are posted on the Internet at: http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.  Once at the site, select the BBS Data link then choose the Data Entry link.  Prior to running your route, test the compatibility of your computer with the data entry program.  If they are incompatible, you will need to mail your data on the original Scan forms.  If you use electronic data submission, please remember that you still need to return the original data sheets (i.e. those used in the field) including the completed Cover Sheet to the BBS office.

19) ALL FORMS MUST BE COMPLETED AND RETURNED BY JULY 15:  If you choose to submit your data via the Internet, the data sheets need not be returned until August 31.   If you cannot run your route, RETURN THE PACKET AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  If for any reason it should be impossible for you to cover your route during the prescribed period, inform the State/Provincial Coordinator or this office immediately.  Current contact information for the State and Provincial/Territorial Coordinators is available on the BBS web site: http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/

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20) PROCESSING OF RESULTS:  Upon receipt of the forms, the Cover and Field Sheets are checked for completion, addresses are checked, and AOU numbers of write-ins are inserted. Data from the Cover and Field Sheets are then scanned into the computer and run through a computer edit program.  A machine listing will be mailed, or e-mailed, to each observer and a state/provincial/territorial tabulation will be mailed to each regional Coordinator.  Individuals who submitted their data via the Internet will also receive a final machine listing of the data via email once it has completed the editing process within approximately one week of submission.  Data on distribution trends and comparative abundance of individual species are available upon request.

21) INCOME TAX DEDUCTION/RECEIPTS:  U.S. citizens who itemize deductions on their Income Tax Returns may make a deduction for mileage necessary for the counting and running of official Breeding Bird Survey routes. Cost of motels, campgrounds, etc. involved with the scouting and running of routes are also deductible.  Please check your 1040 instructions each year;  it could change.  In Canada, it is not possible for the CWS to reimburse expenses or to issue tax receipts for participation in the BBS.  However, out-of-pocket expenses incurred while running a BBS route can be treated as a charitable donation through the non-governmental organization Bird Studies Canada (BSC) and participants can thereby receive income tax receipts.  Please note: this system provides a tax receipt only and is not a reimbursement of expenses.  Participants submit a record of their expenses directly to BSC, along with a check payable to BSC, of an amount equaling the expenses.  BSC then treats the check as a donation and issues the participant a tax receipt.  Along with the tax receipt, BSC sends the participant a check equaling the amount of the donation.  Cost of motels, campgrounds, meals, mileage, etc. involved with scouting and running the official Breeding Bird Survey routes can be included in these costs.  For details, see the BSC Tax Relief Form enclosed in your package.  The address for BSC is: P.O. Box 160, Port Rowan, Ontario, N0E 1M0.

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Clipboard Binoculars Watch with second hand (or timer) Thermometer Pencils (dark, soft lead) / pen (dark ink)
Gasoline Flashlight Route map & stop descriptions Forms (Field sheets) Hand counter or Mechanical tally device