Decide what to count

Hint: species that are easy to find and ID, not crazily abundant, indicators of something, and counted before.

written Jan 28, 2018 (last updated Sep 5, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: What to count

Natural born counters

Inside each one of us is an exceptional hunter gather. Our ancestors needed extraordinary powers of observation to thrive. They walked, or sailed, into the unknown and made it their own. That required working out how to use the wild species around them, and to anticipate where and when those species could be found. This hard won knowledge still forms the foundations of the foods, fibres, and pharmaceuticals driving our civilisation today.

These skills of discovery are still needed today. We need them to understand and anticipate the changes in wild nature being caused by our actions. While we have reached all of the farthest reaches of our planet, the near future is an increasingly unfamiliar unknown. To successfully navigate the world through this period of rapid and unpredictable environmental change, we need your powers of observation. Machines can help but the personal dedication and expertise of people, like you, are essential.

Natural ecosystems are complex; forecasting how the nature in your neighbourhood is reacting to environmental changes requires counts. Counting the wild can also be a satisfying, and entertaining, as it connects you into the rhythms, and drama, of your local wild nature.

But what, exactly, should you count?

Start simple

If you’re starting out on your personal journey into your local wild, the most important thing is to pick an easy species that you’re keen to count. Start with a species that you can easily identify and that you see only occasionally, rather than all the time. That way you’ll quickly start to uncover patterns in where it most likes to live in your area.

If you count that species consistently over time, you’ll learn how its numbers vary with the seasons and whether its numbers are trending up or down over the years. Share your observations with others on a site like iNaturalist and you’ll both meet other people interested in your species, and perhaps learn whether the patterns and trends you’re uncovering are happening in other places too.

You’ll learn even more if you note your species’ behaviours and interactions, like when your species reproduces, what it eats, and what eats it. You’ll then start to learn why it likes some places more than others, and why its numbers might be increasing or decreasing.

Consistently counting one easily identified species, and one that you only see occasionally, is a simple, easy, useful, and surprisingly satisfying thing to do. If you get hooked, you’ll want to add more species to your counts. It’s then that you should consider which species would be most useful to count.

Choosing useful species to count

While there are no hard rules here, there are things to consider that make counts of some species more useful than others. As you get hooked on counting the wild, it’s good to think things through as you expand your list of species to count.

For some people, that’s as simple as “I count all birds and only birds because I like birds”. That’s fine, although there’s nothing ecologically special about all birds and only birds. You’ve got a lot more choices if your interests in nature are broader than birds, or narrower than all birds.

With the right skills, equipment, and time, you can count any species. However, some species are best left to the professionals, or avid amateur taxonomists, or machines. Also, the counts of some species tell us a lot more about their environments than others.

In the following sections, let’s explore what makes a species ideal for counting by somebody with enthusiasm but little to no training and no access to specialist equipment. Perhaps that’s you.

More fun in a crowd

It makes sense to count species that others are counting too. By counting together you’ll learn much more about the species. You’ll also make friends and have fun along the way.

There are all sorts of citizen science projects happening about the world, from global to local, that you can join. Most will have well established counting methods and infrastructure in place to share your counts. Some even have their own apps.

However, don’t feel constrained to just follow the crowd. Most species aren’t the focus of an established citizen science project and they aren’t being counted in your neighbourhood. If that includes species that you’re interested in, it’s simple and easy to count those too. In time, you can become the expert in that species in your area. As your confidence grows, you may want to start your own crowd and launch a citizen science project for your species.

Easy to notice

It’s difficult to count species that you hardly ever see because they’re hidden away in hard-to-find places, or they actively avoid you. They might be common but you’ve got to go out of your way to find them. You’re in for a lot of work if you want to count cryptic, well camouflaged insects, or a cunning and skittish mammal like a feral cat, or deep soil earthworms. Hard-to-find means that your “detection probability” will be very low and that means that you’ll need a lot of counts before any reliable patterns and trends emerge.

If a hard-to-find species is your passion, and it’s not being monitored by professionals in your area, then don’t let me stop you. Just be aware that getting useful data will require a lot of effort. If counting is not your day job, and you don’t have access to specialist scientific equipment, then counting easy-to-find species will produce useful patterns and trends much, much quicker.

There will be a lot of easy-to-find species in your area that won’t be monitored at the moment: wild plants, big mushrooms, bigger colourful insects and spiders, some birds, and lots more. If you live near the beach or a river, there will also be rock pool creatures, seaweed washed on the beach, or fish in the river. There is no shortage of easy-to-find species that would benefit from counting.

Quick and easy to identify

Some species are quick and easy to reliably identify by sight, or sound. Others are not. The ideal species for personal wild counts are easy to notice and quick and easy to identify. Quick to identify means that you can do so with a short look or brief listen. Easy to identify means that you can be confident that your quick identification is correct. There are lots of species like this, and most are not being formally monitored by professionals.

There is a trick here though. A quick and easy to identify species in one place can be difficult to identify elsewhere. It depends on how closely it resembles the other species around it. For example, identifying a monarch butterfly in New Zealand is quick and easy. Any large and mostly orange butterfly in New Zealand can only be a monarch, and an accurate identification can be made with a glimpse. If you were in Mexico, however, it would take much more attention to separate true monarchs from similar looking relatives and monarch mimics.

Not crazily abundant

The best species to commit to counting fall in-between abundant and rare. You’ll see them occasionally, but not everywhere or all the time. Counting where and when you see them will quickly reveal patterns and there’s plenty of room for them to get both more or less abundant over time. They will quickly reveal their seasonal and long-term trends.

Species that are very abundant take a lot of effort to count regularly and are better left to the professionals or the machines. If there about a thousand ducks on a lake you pass on your way to work every day, deciding to stop and count them each day would be a big commitment.

If that’s your thing, it would be worth looking at image recognition software that can count and identify the ducks in photos you take. You could always take a photo of the duck pond each day you pass, safe in the knowledge that, now or in the near future, you’ll be able to automatically count and identify them all with a computer.

The opposite of crazily abundant is stupidly rare. If you were only counting a rare species, you’d have to write down zeros at most places you go. Still, rare species benefit from every count that can be made. The best way to keep yourself entertained is to also consistently count a more common species. As you do that, check a box that indicates that you would have recorded your chosen rare species, had they been present.

That’s useful to do both for endangered rare native species and recently arrived and spreading invasive species. In both cases, monitoring rare species needs a lot of people out counting. If you’re hooked on a rare species, be sure to encourage your friends to join in and spread the word. There’s likely a local natural history society that can help you to coordinate your activities.


Some species have been much better studied than others. For some well studied species, we know about how their abundance relates to the conditions of their environment. Ecologists can use these as “indicator species”. Changes in abundance of these species indicate changes in both their physical environment, like the climate and soil, and their biological environment, like their predators and competitors.

You might think that it’s the poorly studied species that most deserve your counting, and that can be true, but there’s a lot to be said for counting some well known species. That’s because these species can act as indicators of much more than just themselves. You get more knowledge for your effort if you count well known species.

Indicator species like certain freshwater invertebrates are famous for indicating water quality. For example, if you count a high abundance and diversity of stoneflies, you know that a stream must have had good water quality, at least for a few stonefly generations. Similarly, counting rare native birds that are vulnerable to invasive predators gives you an indication of the likely local abundance of those predators as well as the birds. Similarly, counting the seedlings of palatable and unpalatable tree species can indicate the local abundance of deer.

It’s a good idea to add one or a few of these well known indicator species to your counting list.


Nature is all about connections. The interactions among species make ecosystems tick. If you’re going to count a group of species, you’ll learn a lot from counting species that are interconnected. These can be predators and prey, parasites and hosts, competitors for the same food, or mutualists working together.

If you count a small set of interconnected species, then when you detect a rise or decline in one species, you’ll learn what the consequences are for other species. Sometimes the connections will also suggest why a species is in decline. For example, a prey species may decline when a predator increases, or a native species may decline as an invasive competitor increases.

With this in mind, consider counting a suite of easy to notice and quick to identify species that interact with the species (one or several) that you’re most interested in.

Counted before

Revealing long term trends takes time. It might take a decade of counting before you have a solid idea of whether the species you’re counting are declining, increasing, or holding steady. That’s true with one big and important exception.

If your species has been counted before in an area near you, then you could repeat that counting in the same area. That will very quickly reveal if the species are still present and whether they’ve increased or declined in abundance.

These old datasets are the gold seams of wild counting. It’s well worth seeking out old counts and repeating them if you can. Be warned though that ecological science has a bad track record of archiving original data from past studies. Tracking down old datasets can take detective-level tenacity.

Automatic and the people

It’s becoming possible to automatically count some species with machines. For example, there’s grids of camera traps or microphones, paired with computer image and song recognition. The species best suited for such machine counting are the loud or big and visually or audibly distinctive species. For a lot of these species, automated systems aren’t fully developed yet and won’t be installed in your area. Still, it’s worth thinking about which species in your area could soon be counted by machines, and which will remain hard for machines to count.

It’s still worth you counting the machine countable species now, in anticipation of the machines taking over later. That makes for valuable longer term knowledge of trends. You can make the golden past dataset for the machines of the future. Otherwise the next generations will never know how abundant these species were in your neighbourhood now and how different things are in the future.

When you’re older you’ll be able to let the automated camera microphone box in your garden continue to count your species. Your observations of behaviours and interactions for these species will continue to be useful for understanding their trends and habitat patterns.

Many species can’t be easily monitored with a sparse grid of cameras or microphones. This includes smaller species that are hard to photograph with a camera trap, and those that don’t make a noise, and those that don’t move. All sparsely distributed species that don’t move are hard to monitor with sparse detector grids. That’s even when the detectors are powerful at detecting species, as is the case with environmental DNA samples. Such species will continue to benefit greatly from being counted by people. It’s well worth adding some of these species to your counting list now.

Such species include butterflies, ladybirds, dragonflies and other larger and more prominent insects. The sensors on affordable, commercially available camera traps are not built for detecting such small animals. Aerial and satellite photography can watch the trees but not the other plants in forests and woodlands, so it’s important to count smaller, herbaceous forest plants. Mushrooms are ephemeral in time and space but easy to notice when they’re about. Most aquatic creatures in streams, rock pools, and marine area, are also hard to automatically monitor with machines.

It’s up to us to monitor these species for at least the next few decades.

Your wild counts portfolio

When you think all these things through, you’ll come up with a watch list of species that are well worth counting in your neighbourhood. It’s like investing in the stock market, where you want a mix of low risk and higher risk stocks. With species, you want a few common, easy species that you’re keen on, plus a few species they interact with, plus some rarer species you hardly ever see.

How many species are on your watch list is entirely your choice. I recommend you start small, perhaps just with one species, and gradually add more species as your skills and interest grow. A small investment in counting the wild each day will grow into irreplaceable knowledge of how wild nature is changing.