One of the most useful skills for birders is learning to recognize birdsongs by ear. Just when you think you’ve heard a Robin, a bright red bird shows up instead. It’s a Summer Tanager, often described as a Robin with a sore throat. And what about those cute little nuthatches? They all sound a bit like squeaky toys, but which species is which?
Not a moment too soon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has just added sound recognition to its free Merlin Bird ID app. This birdsong tool turns a great birding app into a superb one.
When you’re outside and not sure what bird you’re hearing, you can press a button on the app to record a clip of the song. Instantly, Merlin will suggest the most likely songsters. It doesn’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy all of the time, but this is the next best thing to having an expert “ear” birder at your side wherever you go.
We’ve been using a version of this software in another Cornell app called BirdNET for the past year or so. Now a version of a similar system has been added to Merlin to give the lab’s most popular app four different ways of identifying birds. The sound element is easy to use and also helps you to get more familiar with those hard-to-remember calls and songs.
Merlin and BirdNET are both available for free in the Apple App Store and Google Play. If you’ve already got the Merlin app, you can add the sound recognition element with a quick upgrade. Here’s Cornell’s list of instructions for everything you need to know about how to use Sound ID.
Over the past year, as scores of people discovered the joys of birding during the stay-at-home stage of the pandemic, we built a section on Flying Lessons called Beverly’s Basics to help newcomers get started. This post will be added to our library of stories that range from how to get started to buying your first binoculars to what to take along on the trail.
The science of sound recognition has come a long way in the past five years. Before that, the few available birdsong apps were mostly an experience in frustration. They rarely worked very well – and some didn’t work at all. But the technology has steadily improved, with Cornell generally leading the way.
The lab has an advantage over the rest of the field. It has been developing the science of listening to birds for research purposes through its K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. One of the most popular blogs here on Flying Lessons has been a side-by-side comparison of all the bird recognition apps on the market. The Cornell app turned out to be by far the best of the lot, we found after testing all the contenders for accuracy and ease of use.
The Merlin version of the birdsong recorder draws on a database of 400 species — all of the common birds and the bulk of the species in North America. The app uses the same mechanics as BirdNET, but it has a simpler interface. Although it draws on a fewer number species, it’s designed specifically to help developing birders identify and learn calls and songs.
Drew Weber, the Merlin Project Coordinator, said the new addition is different from BirdNET in that it’s built to work on the phone and doesn’t need an internet connection — a big advantage when you’re without cell service. The development team tested it for months to find the best mix of accuracy and response, he said.
“The Sound ID model for Merlin was custom engineered for the functionality the Merlin team decided — after extensive design and user testing iterations — would be most engaging and helpful for the process of teaching people to identify birds by song,” Weber wrote us in an email.
The new Merlin version is a little easier to use than BirdNET, (as well as most other apps on the market), and is built into the same tool that includes three other identification options: A set of questions about the bird you’re seeing that gives a list of potential species; a photo tool where you upload your own photos for on-the-spot ID, and a library full of professional photos, recorded birdsongs, and other information that can help you figure out what your bird is. Cornell has helpful online tutorials for each of the Merlin functions. To find them, click here.
Both of the Cornell ID apps are based on the eBird citizen science project the lab has built over the past two decades. When you use eBird to track and list the birds you see, you’re contributing to all of these tools — as well as to the many research projects at Cornell.
“Both Merlin and BirdNET rely on data from eBird to filter results, which helps us maintain accuracy as the number of species increases,” Weber said.
If all of this isn’t enough, Merlin will also build a digital scrapbook of your birding memories with its Save My Bird function. Tap “This is my bird!” each time you identify a bird, and Merlin will add it to your “Life List.” Go for a bird walk, use this app, and you’ll be amazed at how that Life List will grow.