March 10, 2014
Springtime is prime time for bird watching. In preparation for spring, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is rolling out a new smartphone app. It’s designed to help people who’ve never gone bird watching identify a bird by answering a few questions – sort of a “baby’s first field guide.”
It’s a bitingly cold morning in Ithaca, with frozen snow covering the boardwalk in Sapsucker Woods.
“Right now we’re seeing, barren trees. No leaves. And it’s really great because we can actually see the birds,” says Jessie Barry. She heads the team of ornithologists who spent the last two years building the Merlin Bird ID app.
Here’s the gist of it : you come across a bird and have no idea what it is. So, you enter your location and date. Then select the size from silhouettes of four birds, ranging from sparrow-sized up to a goose. Pick the colors and the bird’s activities. And voila! Up pops photos and descriptions of a few likely candidates.
“Merlin’s really like your birding coach. The questions it asks are the same ones an expert birder would ask,” says Barry. “Merlin knows what species are likely at a given spot, right? But that takes YEARS of birding experience to accumulate.”
Barry says her team first came up with the idea when they found users had been searching bird descriptions on Google and the lab’s website.
“When you type in something like ‘orange bird’ into Google, you’re going to get pictures of birds from Peru, birds made from oranges...”
But not a description of the scarlet tanager you’re looking for.
Another problem came up with the lab’s bird database. Volunteers submit descriptions, which are later used in research. But misidentified birds were skewing data.
“A lot of the mistakes that are made are just kind of opening a book and thinking ‘oh this book looks like the one I saw’ but not noticing it’s only found in Arizona.”
So the team embedded the app with 285 common species. And programmed it to only search birds within a 30 mile radius of the user’s location.
“He just went ‘sss’ it’s just one high-pitched note,” says Barry. She uses the app to identify this tiny screeching bird clawing the trunk of a tree.
“Wanna pick up the binoculars. There were just a few white streaks on the back, so let’s see if we can identify our teeny tiny brown bird. So we’ll go for sparrow sized and smaller. And Merlin’s coming up with our possible matches. Let’s see what we’re gonna get... Okay, and our matches could potentially be purple finch or song sparrow. We’ve got a flag saying those are uncommon. Oh here, this guy!”
It’s a brown creeper. And the app has a few mp3s of his very high-pitched call.
“Asking that question : 'what is that bird I saw?' is the first step to getting interested,” says Barry.
That’s the case for Binghamton resident, Lou McKeage.
“We’ve got a couple of birdfeeders. I can hardly tell a chickadee, but you know, I enjoy it.”
He’s trying out the app for the first time on a couple of brown ducks paddling in the Chenango River.
“Swimming or wading. Well it’s showing mostly gulls right now... Here we go! (What’d you find?) The birds we’re lookin’ at – mallards. That was pretty easy!”