I’m just addicted to the Merlin app’s new Sound ID feature. Whenever I’m outside, walking my daily 10,000 steps or sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, I hit the green button to see who’s out there singing.
I’ve struggled for years just to learn the repertoires of all the sparrows and warblers. Most of them still elude me. Speaking of 10,000 steps, translated to hours, that’s about what it would take for to me to learn all of the 456 species that Merlin recognizes in a snap.
Last week Anders and I did a Zoom workshop on the Sound ID feature in the Merlin app for a group of seniors in Washington, D.C. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology added sound recognition to its free Merlin ID app a few months ago, promising real-time suggestions for the songs and calls of 456 bird species in North America. Most of our workshop attendees were new to the app and eager to learn the finer points of how to get the most out of this powerful tool.
Right off the bat I should tell you that while Sound ID is truly amazing, it isn’t perfect. Based on our own experiences with the app while traveling across the country this summer — plus questions from the workshop – we’re using this post to add some pointers to my “Beverly’s Basics” page here on Flying Lessons.
Before we get started, if you aren’t familiar with Sound ID, please click here for our recent post that covers how to install the app on your phone or iPad, and here for the Cornell lab’s basic tutorial.
For those of us who don’t love learning a new technology, here’s a bit of incentive: According to a recent study by the National Park Service and several universities, birdsong reduces your stress more than any other sound in nature. (Click here for the study.) Listening to birds can be even more enjoyable if you know which birds are singing. Sound ID is especially useful in a dense forest and other landscapes where it’s way easier to hear birds than to see them.
Merlin also feels like a personal tutor when you’re starting out trying to learn birdsongs, and it’s a fun and effective way to make progress no matter where you are in learning to recognize songs.
Merlin works best when you’re fairly close to the birds – especially when the birds are making chip calls instead of singing. Unless it’s extremely noisy, Sound ID will work. It recognizes birds in the midst of most extraneous sounds, including normal conversation, barking dogs and even lawnmowers. But again, you need to be fairly close, and I hope the lab can find a way to extend the range over time. Merlin is really good at recognizing hawks and crows even when they’re pretty far away, so there’s hope!
Here are some of the finer points of how to use Sound ID:
If you downloaded Merlin before Sound ID was added in June this year, you’ll need to go back and update the app in the App Store or Google Play. Sound ID is also available for iPad if you have software version 13.0 or above.
Next, be sure to install the suggested “Bird Pack” – the app’s name for the database of birds located in the region of North America where you currently are. (As a side note, the lab does plan to expand Sound ID to other countries.)
The first time you use Sound ID, Merlin is going to ask if it’s OK to use your phone’s microphone. Tap allow. (In some cases, you may need to go to the app in your phone’s settings to give this permission.) This first time you use the app, you’ll get “help” slides that you can read through, or just advance through with one click.
Here are a couple of really cool features of Sound ID – and a stumbling block: You can save your bird recordings to a personal list that you can go back and hear, (or delete), at any time. You can also add the bird to your Life List within Merlin, or else you can save it to an ongoing checklist in the companion eBird app with just one click. (Check Beverly’s Basics for more info about eBird.)
For the most part the lab has done a great job of making Sound ID intuitive, using obvious icons like a green microphone to start a recording and a red box to stop it. And most of the time all of these commands fit on one phone screen, making it easy to click through.
But here’s a problem:
Each time Merlin hears a bird, the “best match” for the ID appears on your screen in a little photo box. These photo boxes stack up one after another, in real time. (It’s great fun to watch, and the boxes flash yellow to indicate which bird is singing at that moment.)
However, once you stop the recording, Merlin wants you to confirm the ID by tapping a “This is My Bird” button. That button is not located on the screen in front of you, and there’s nothing intuitive telling you what to do.
So, when there’s just one bird box on your screen, do this: Underneath the photo box, Merlin will show a list of all bird recordings contained in its database. (These provide reference points in case you need help confirming the ID.) Scroll down below all of these songs until you see the “This is My Bird” button and tap it.
When there’s more than one box, song lists don’t automatically appear. So, do this: At the far right of the screen, tap the green “down arrow.” The song list for each bird appears. Now you can scroll down and tap “This is My Bird.”
The next steps are intuitive, with a couple of slides asking you to confirm your location and save the bird to a personal list. At the bottom of the “Sighting Saved” slide, if you tap the “ID Another Bird” button you’ll land back on Merlin’s Home Page.
From the Home Page, you can access some other goodies: Look to the top left and tap the stack of green lines. You’ll get a slide-out, gray “half screen” with links to all of Merlin’s functions, including your Sound Recordings list, your Life List and the Bird Packs mentioned earlier. The slide-out screen has a toggle function, so if you don’t want to navigate away from the Home Page, just tap anywhere that’s white to go back to it.
Another thing I don’t like about Sound ID is this: While I’m out birding, I don’t really want to take time out to confirm the identities of all of the birds Merlin hears. When the birds are singing, it feels time consuming and a bit clunky. For a long time I didn’t think there was any other option, since there’s nothing in the app or website tutorial I could find to indicate otherwise. However, in clicking around the app to prepare for our workshop last week, I discovered that you can go back later and make the ID’s. Merlin saves your recordings to a personal list even if you don’t ID the birds on it.
Here’s how: From the aforementioned slide-out gray screen, tap “My Sound Recordings.” You’ll land on your list. Tap on any recording, and then you can follow the instructions in point #5 above to ID your birds.
Here are a few more tidbits:
If you’re out of range of a cellphone signal like we were this summer in many remote places, Merlin still works pretty well, although not perfectly.
Sometimes, even though a bird is singing loudly nearby, Merlin doesn’t come up with a possible match. Most likely that species isn’t yet included in the 456 species available.
Out of the blue, Merlin occasionally takes a long time to switch between functions, especially within the Sound ID slides. I kept thinking my phone was frozen until I figured out that when this happens, you just have to be patient for the next page to load.
Speaking of patience, my advice is to spend a little time practicing with Merlin because, despite a few quibbles, it truly is a wizard. Simply click around the app to see what happens. You can’t break it, and when you make recordings you don’t want to keep, just “swipe right” to delete them from your list.
Even though Merlin isn’t perfect, it comes pretty darn close. And it’s completely free. That fact alone, when you stop to consider it, is a true gift to birders.