Santa Barbara Birding: Identifying Species by Sound

App Identifies Birds by Their Songs and Calls

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I think many birders like to think of themselves as throwbacks to a simpler and slower-paced time, where the observer can become close to being at one with nature. But there is no denying that of late, technological innovations have helped further the enjoyment of the hobby. 

Binoculars, the main tool of the trade, have improved immensely over the past couple of decades. I well remember my first pair; the view through them was so dim it’s a wonder I didn’t give up birding before I got started. After their first good soaking in an English rainstorm, they were good for nothing. In those days, to get anything reasonable, you would have to pay a small fortune; now, with recent innovations in lens coating and mass production, you can get waterproof binoculars with a bright, clear view for around a hundred dollars.

Another great leap forward has been the advent of the digital camera. As a youngster, I longed to be able to photograph the birds I saw, but the cost of the equipment, film, and development was way out of my price range. Now, with the invention of the superzoom point-and-shoot camera, decent bird pictures are within the reach of anyone who desires them. I will sometimes take two or three hundred pictures in a day and often only have a handful that are worth keeping.

There are now apps for phones that help with bird identification. One such application, which is free, is Merlin, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Up ‘til now, there have been two ways to use Merlin for identifying birds. The first is to answer five simple questions about a bird you’ve seen. Merlin will then give you suggestions as to the bird in question, along with photos to help you narrow the ID down. The second is a photo recognition tool. If you have a photo of a bird, Merlin will identify it with 90 percent accuracy.

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In recent weeks, Merlin has added a third way to identify birds: by sound. I haven’t used Merlin in the past, but this new feature got me curious and excited. I’m currently on vacation in the Eastern Sierra, and so I decided to give the sound recognition feature a trial with birds far from my home base. I pride myself on knowing the majority of songs and calls of California birds, but some birds have so many different vocalizations that it’s impossible to learn them all. An app like Shazam, which can recognize a song playing in Trader Joe’s, has it relatively easy; there’s usually only one version of the particular tune you are listening to for it to pick out. 

I downloaded the app to my phone and within minutes was able to start recording sounds. It helps if you’re close to the bird in question. I heard a familiar raspy cry coming from nearby pines and touched the record button. The app produced a sonogram of the call and immediately identified the bird correctly as a Clark’s nutcracker. And so it went along my walk on the trail: Merlin correctly identified Steller’s jays, Cassin’s finches, mountain chickadees, and pygmy nuthatches. I found that the app will even pick up birds calling quite far away and will accurately identify them, such as the hairy woodpecker that called from far downslope.

Then came a test. A bird began singing from deep within the undergrowth, and I knew it was one of two species whose songs always confuse me: was it a fox sparrow or a green-tailed towhee? Merlin immediately told me it was a towhee, and after a patient wait, the orange-crowned towhee revealed itself.

There have been some amusing errors. I was recording a song for identification when the beeping of a truck backing up intruded onto the recording. Merlin confidently identified the truck as a Saw-whet Owl, a species that does have a rhythmic beeping or tooting song. A friend tells me a screaming child was identified as a greater yellowlegs. The app does have some limitations, and I’m sure some bugs will need to be sorted out, but by and large, it is extraordinarily accurate. I strongly encourage newcomers to birding to give it a try. It might help give you a new appreciation for the wonders on your own doorstep. 


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