I’ve recently started using the Merlin Bird ID iOS app produced by The Cornell Lab, and I can’t stop raving about how amazing it is.
I had heard people say how good it was — particularly for identifying birds by their calls and songs, as it is often described as ‘Shazam for birds’ — but I had not got around to installing it. As you probably know, I am a biologist, and I am moderately proficient at identifying most British birds by sight. I can also turn my hand to birds of other regions that I visit with some help from a good guide book, though some species are easier than others. Does it look like a hi-viz vest just flew past? It’s an orange-backed troupial, and photographs do not do justice to how fluorescently orange they are. However, my knowledge of calls and songs is embarrassingly poor, so I need all the help I can get to improve my skills. I finally installed it a few weeks ago, and I’ve been amazed by its capabilities.
It is free to use, though you need to give an email address so that they can send you an activation link. You then choose which databases of birds you would like to install, based on your location. Some of these can be quite large in size, so you need to check you have enough free space to install them. I chose to start with the one for birds of Britain and Ireland (657 MB), but I could also have chosen the whole of Europe, or the whole of the Western Palearctic region. This would be useful if you travel, or if you are in a region where you might be more likely to spot the rarer migrants and visitors. There’s another much smaller download to enable photo ID of birds.
The sound ID feature is simple to use and beautifully designed: choose ‘Sound ID’ from the menu, hit the record button, and point your phone in the general direction of the bird sounds. As the recording runs, the top of the screen shows a sonogram display of the live sounds, and as birds are identified, their images are highlighted in a list below. They accumulate as more species are identified, and if a previously identified bird is recorded again, it is highlighted in yellow. This is really helpful in helping you to pick out the song or call of that bird and help to identify it yourself later. The recordings are saved, and when you go back to it, you can click on a bird in the list to scroll to it, and a dropdown menu provides you with recordings from their archives of songs and calls of that species, often with regional variations, which is fascinating. It works impressively well, even in the kinds of noisy urban environments I find myself in, and using only the iPhone’s built-in microphone. I love pausing my regular walk in our local ‘patch’ (a scrap of park/nature reserve in the middle of housing sprawl) to make a recording and see which species are hiding beyond my powers to detect them through sound alone. It’s thrilling when a new bird pops up, like a blackcap or goldcrest.
The app can also identify birds from photographs (which I haven’t tried yet), and it can show you which species are likely to be around when and where you are (with a neat little graph of occurrence at different times of year and an indicator of rarity). Finally, there’s also a kind of simple visual ‘key’ that walks you through questions about your geographical location, the rough size of the bird, what the main colour was and so on, and then shows you a list of possible matches.
While I generally prefer to leave tech behind and focus on nature when I am outside, I love this fusion of science and technology, and the way that it can help to immerse you more deeply in nature by revealing the details of what surrounds you. It has become one of my favourite apps.