The Current·Q & A

Shazam for birds: Merlin Bird ID app can identify a bird from its song

If you're wondering what that chirping noise you hear is, but you're not a bird expert, wonder no more. There's an app for that. The Merlin Bird ID app can identify a bird by listening to its song.

Jessie Barry hopes it will help people fall in love with birds and want to protect their environment

Don't know what species of bird this is? The app Merlin Bird ID can help. (If you don't have the app: it's a tufted titmouse.) (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

If you're wondering what that chirping noise you hear is, but you're not a bird expert, wonder no more: there's an app for that.

The Merlin Bird ID app can work its magic to identify about 400 different birds by their tune, and that audio feature was just added in June.

The app was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and launched in 2014. It's currently available for Android and iOS devices.

Jessie Barry is the project leader for the app, and program manager at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library. She spoke with Matt Galloway on The Current about it. Here is part of that conversation. 

This is like magic for those of us who love the sound of birds. How does it work? 

Merlin is essentially an app that's been trained to identify bird songs because we have this archive, the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We have examples of what birds sounds like from around the world, then we can train the machine to figure out that bird that you're hearing. And we're kind of converting that sound into an image, and using the computer vision technology that's available to us today to help you identify birds in the field. 

OK, explain how that all works, because I've used the app. I love it. But explain what's actually going on when I record the sound of the bird?

When you've recorded the sound, it will essentially convert that sound into an image and then look for all the little differences in that image and give you an answer in real time.

So when you're using the app, you're going to see a picture scrolling across with the bird sounds that are in that environment at that time. And then it's going to let you know what species are vocalising right as you're listening. 

How accurate is it? 

Accuracy is about 90-per-cent [accurate] in the kind of experimental tests. And when you go out in the field, circumstances are a little different. If you got wind, if you got a loud environment around, you might be dropping the accuracy, but if you get closer to the bird without scaring it, that's going to boost your accuracy as well. 

(Source: merlin.allaboutbirds.org)

How close do you need to be for this thing to work? 

Not really that close. With the fantastic microphones in mobile devices right now, maybe 20 metres or so. But you might be surprised that you don't need to be right next to the bird. You can stay pretty far away. 

What happens if there are multiple bird calls that you can hear at the same time? Is it able to decipher those? 

Yes, actually, we've done a lot of work to make very precise annotations and training Merlin to pick up different vocalisations so it can even handle overlapping species.

That's certainly needed on a spring morning where you might have a dozen birds that are singing all at once. Merlin is able to pick out individuals. 

There's a whole community that is behind this app. Tell me about the sound recorders.

There's volunteer sound recordists from around the world and bird watchers who are submitting their sightings into [an online database called] eBird. And this combination of folks who are very dedicated to going out in the field and submitting their data are giving us this picture of bird populations worldwide.

And they're giving us the data that's helping build an app like Merlin that can enable anyone to go out there and just have fun watching birds, perhaps for the first time. 

How could an app like this demystify the world of birds that you love so much? 

Merlin is there for you in those moments where you see something and you're just not sure [what it is], because you don't need to have any answers to begin with.

If you just open up Merlin and answer a few simple questions about the colour, the size of the bird, Merlin will give you a list of choices based on your date and location.

If you're hearing bird sounds, there's that recording feature where you can get those answers to what birds are nearby. So it's really accessible for anyone who's just curious enough to figure out what species are in their neck of the woods. 

How do you think an app like this could help save birds? 

I think it's going to be critical for more people to notice birds and to pay attention to them, because birds are so cool that when you take that minute to watch and you're like, wow. 

Many people who see birds start to fall in love with them and we need more people who are connected to birds in the natural world in order to improve the health of the planet and the ecosystems that we're living in.

I think that ultimately more people who are looking at birds and starting to care about them can help us make those changes that we need to improve environmental health.


Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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