What Kind of Bird Is That? The Merlin Bird ID App Can Tell You

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

Merlin bird app
The Merlin Bird ID app is free to download and can identify birds through images or songs. Cornell Lab of Ornithology/HowStuffWorks

Birding is a whole thing. If you're into amphibians and reptiles, you can look at a turtle sitting on the log on a riverbank and assess what species it might be based on its looks, where you are in the world, its behavior, etc. But birds are tricky for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • They're often small, quick and difficult to see.
  • You often need binoculars to get a good look at one.
  • Many of them look similar, which makes picking the right one out of a field guide difficult.
  • Many of them migrate, so they're difficult to identify based on geography alone.
  • Not only can they be identified by look and behavior, you can also tell a bird by the sounds it makes, and a single species of bird can make a bunch of different calls.

So, to be an effective birder, you've got to have some equipment, a good memory for sights and sounds and an understanding of seasonal migration patterns — not to mention lightning quick reflexes.

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But in 2014, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology created a free app that can help us all become better birders. The Merlin Bird ID app does what no field guide can do, which is identify a bird with voice recognition. Although Merlin isn't the first app to promise this, it is much more accurate than other voice-recognition apps for birds, as it uses a database of tens of thousands of recordings collected by over 5,000 citizen scientists for the Cornell Lab's eBird Initiative.

"Merlin is really focused on helping people easily identify their first bird," said Drew Weber, Merlin project coordinator at the Cornell Lab, in a press release. "You just answer five simple questions about date and location, plus the bird's size, color and behavior. Or you can ask Merlin to identify a bird in a photo. In either case, Merlin lists the likely birds based on what's been reported in your area at that time."

Although Merlin can help you identify a bird with a photograph, or with a little quiz, the voice recognition is arguably its most impressive feature. To use it, you simply take your phone outside and press the button to record and watch a spectrogram pop up on your screen, mapping out the sounds of the birds around you. Merlin can pinpoint the one screech owl in the woods or untangle a dizzying chorus of early morning birdsong with around 90 percent accuracy.

At this point, Merlin can identify around 400 species of North American birds, and includes more than 6,000 birds across the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. When you download Merlin on your phone, you can opt to install the data for all of North America, or all of Europe, for example, or just your specific region.

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