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How iPhone Birding Apps Work

Birding began with the invention of hand-held binoculars.
Birding began with the invention of hand-held binoculars.

It might seem a bit out of character for a bird-watcher -- that old-school, nature-loving soul who patiently traipses through the woods, seeking a brief glimpse of some rare avian species -- to use something as artificial as an iPhone app to assist him in his quest. But remember that bird-watching is a relatively recent pastime, only about a century old, and that it emerged from the invention of a new gadget: hand-held binoculars. Binoculars made it possible for the first time to observe wild birds and examine them in detail from a distance while they were still alive; until their invention, birds were shot down to be handled up close [source:].

Also remember that amateur ornithologists are a studious, precise lot, whose personal libraries are filled with books like Roger Tory Peterson's 1947 "Field Guide to the Birds," the definitive compilation of field markings for North American bird species found east of the Rocky Mountains [source:]. But those dog-eared reference tomes, useful as they are, can get pretty heavy when you're toting them in your backpack, and it's tough to thumb through a thick book with one hand while you're trying to hold binoculars steady and track a yellow-faced grassquit. As usual, it's a lot easier to just pull your iPhone out of your pocket and look up what you need to know.

That's why birders have become so enamored of a new generation of iPhone apps designed to help them get the most out of their pursuit.