From Binoculars to Binomials: Birding and Data Viz, Together at Last

Jer Thorp
3 min readJan 19, 2024
A piece I made for Audubon Magazine last year showing all the birds (each and every one!) counted in the 2022 Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count

I’m teaching an online class, starting at the end of next month. It’s called Binoculars to Binomials. The course is for coders who are interested in cultivating an observational practice, and for birders who want to dive into the rich pool of data that comes out of their hobby. More broadly, it’s for anyone who’s interested in the overlap between nature, data and creativity.

Why teach these two things together?

Over my 15 years of teaching data viz, I’ve found that the single thing that gets people motivated and making good work is to be using data they care about. It’s really hard to find data samples that are really meaningful to students: sets of numbers that they can really connect to. I’ve also found that students are better critical data thinkers when they use data that they’ve collected themselves. This is because they get to experience all the little decisions involved in making data: what to record and what not to record, what schema to use to store the data, how much precision to exchange for volume.

Birding is (or at least can be) very much about collecting your own data. Keeping a checklist is making a dataset; so is building a life list or participating in the Christmas Bird Count. Once you’ve started to build your own bird-y datasets, you can understand all birding data bettr. And there is a lot of it. Billions of data points on eBird, thirteen decades of historical data from the CBC… the list goes on.

A visualization of monthly birding activity on eBird in New York State

Birding also makes you a better noticer, something that is very important in doing data work. Studies have suggested that birding actually changes your brain, strengthening the neuron networks that are responsible for object recognition. Binoculars to Binomials runs over 5 weeks, giving learners a chance to pick up a whole new way of thinking.

For people who are already birders, learning data skills opens up all kinds of opportunities to better understand birds, their behaviour, and the places they live. Most birders are diligent data collectors, but very few of them have the skills and tools to explore and understand that data. As a birder and a coder I’ve made tools for planning road trips, games for learning bird calls, and visualizations of community bird counts. All of these things have made me a better birder… and they’ve been really fun.

BirdTripping is a little tool I built to find rare birds along a route from place to place.

If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I believe that data can be a rich medium for fostering care and community. In a time when so much of our data efforts are going towards mimicry machines and wealth consolidation, it’s important and even essential to be working together towards better data futures.

In Binoculars to Binomials, I’m convening a group of 18 curious learners. It’s a little community, one that will explore the opportunities that lie between birdwatching and creative coding: many of which we haven’t seen yet!

Maybe you’ll join me?

Find out more about Binoculars to Binomials and register at the link below. This first cohort is limited to 18 learners. The first 8 people who sign up can use the code ‘SONGSPARROW’ to get 15% off!



Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.