The free Merlin app puts the magic into bird identification

For a beginning birder, learning to use the Merlin Bird ID smartphone app is a bit like a child learning to ride a bike.

There’s the fear of falling right before a delicious rush of adrenaline kicks in. You may be wobbling along, but there’s this faith that with practice, with perseverance, a bicycle will give you the feeling that – like birds – you, too, can fly.

Here’s the amazing thing: Merlin Bird ID is not a mere two-wheeler. This free app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is more like a revved-up sports car. It has the power to advance your birding prowess from zero to 60 in six seconds flat, as the saying goes. Flying indeed.

Even the app’s name promises wizardry. The best, most basic function of Merlin is that out of more than 6,000 bird species included, the app can help you know in an instant the name of the bird you’re looking at.

“Merlin doesn’t tell you exactly what bird, but it narrows down the possibilities,” said Jenna Curtis, a project manager at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who works with engagement among eBird users. “Then it’s up to you to decide if it’s the right bird.”

When I first started birding, Merlin taught me most everything I needed to know, (or had the ability to absorb), about each new bird I saw. The sense of immediacy and mastery was intoxicating, propelling me from one bird to the next.

This is the good news. The bad news is that you have to learn to drive this magic machine. Fair warning: If you have the love-hate relationship with technology as I do, sometimes Merlin’s brilliance is mind-boggling. You just want to scream HELLPPPP, or at the very least, slow down!

Samples of Merlin app pages
Samples of Merlin app pages


 Here’s how it works:

To put it in the simplest terms, here’s what you do to identify your bird: Download the Merlin app, fire it up, and with a couple of screen taps, confirm your location and the date. Next, answer three multiple-choice questions – what size is it compared to a sparrow or a crow; what are its basic colors; and is it on the ground, in a tree or wading?

And like magic, up pops a list of photos of the possible suspects. Suddenly you can figure out what bird you’ve found. But it’s not really magic, and Merlin isn’t guessing. The app draws on the data from eBird, Merlin’s sister app built on citizen science, to analyze more than 900 million observations from birders around the world.

With another screen tap you can get a whole gallery of photos — male, female, juvenile, and if its feathers change for mating, those pictures, too. There’s also a short description of field marks and behavior, a range map and recordings of the bird’s songs and calls.

Click here for photos of what this process looks like on your phone and for a terrific short video tutorial.

Forget lugging books and lists along on the trail. This power lives in your pocket – and it even works deep in the woods with no signal within reach. It bears repeating – Merlin Bird ID is completely free, although the app is just one click away from the Cornell Lab’s nifty online donations page.

Some new features:

If you’re familiar with Merlin but haven’t explored it lately, there are a couple of new features. First of all, there’s the ability to create a Life List within the Merlin app.

“Merlin gives you a full list, with photos, of all the birds you’ve identified,” Curtis said. “It’s fun to scroll through and look at what you’ve seen.”

Merlin gets high ratings from users.

On the flip side, the app makes it painfully clear all of the birds you’ve yet to find. “But that’s okay,” Curtis said. “It can all be a little intimidating at first.”

In the old days only eBird kept track of a personal list of all the birds you’ve ever seen. And although eBird automatically links to Merlin and puts a check mark beside your Life List birds there, the folks at Cornell got feedback from birders who only wanted to use one app at a time. So they made updates so Merlin can create the lists, too.

Use a photo to ID your bird

Next up is the Photo ID feature. If you can snap a photo of your bird with your phone or another camera – even if it’s not the best photo in the world — you can upload it, and again, Merlin will identify your bird.

Click here for instructions on the Life List and Photo ID features.

 I hadn’t gotten around to using Merlin’s Photo ID until recently. The first excuse is my lazy brain didn’t want to learn a new tech trick. Second, I didn’t trust that a piece of technology could really take a terrible photo and give an accurate identification. And lucky for me, my husband Anders is a terrific bird photographer so I don’t have to bother. Finally, at the end of the day, Anders and I liked posting his mystery photos to a Facebook Group from the American Birding Association called “What’s this Bird?” Click here for info.

The “What’s this Bird?” group has over 50,000 members, and there are always experts standing by. We get a kick out of counting down how many seconds it will take before someone chimes in with the ID. Usually it’s 10 seconds or less. But sometimes a photo is confusing, and we’re especially amused when a bird puts the experts into such a fit of pique that they’ll analyze nearly every feather in defense of their opinion. (Click here to see my post about this.)

Everything else aside, I recently began to notice that folks on “What’s this Bird?” were referring to identifications made by the Merlin app. So I decided to face my fear of technology and delve into how this app feature works. Never underestimate the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — of course this process is not difficult at all, and it’s surprisingly accurate.

This isn’t all that Merlin will do. In particular, there are new functions that coordinate with eBird. But when I was a beginner and not completely familiar with eBird, any more gears would have made me want to drive this machine over a cliff. So stay tuned to future posts in the Beverly’s Basics section of Flying Lessons, as I’ll be adding more of my opinions and tips on what helped me move from beginner to advanced beginner and beyond.

One response to “The free Merlin app puts the magic into bird identification”

  1. […] Back-yard birding: Particularly during the pandemic, many birders have rediscovered the pleasure of birding in their yards and neighborhoods. This post looks at the apps that can help with that.  […]

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