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


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If you are wondering what is that chirping sound that you hear, but you are not an expert in birds, wonder no more – there is an app for it.

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

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

Jessie Barry is the Application Project Manager and Program Manager at the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She spoke with Matt Galloway on The stream about that. Here is part of that conversation.

It’s magic for those of us who love birdsong. How it works?

Merlin is basically an app that was formed to identify bird songs because we have this archive, the Macaulay Library from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We have examples of bird sounds from all over the world, then we can train the machine to find out what bird you hear. And we sort of convert that sound into an image and use the computer vision technology we have today to help you identify birds in the field.

OK, explain how it all works, because I used the app. I love it. But explain what really happens when I record the sound of the bird?

When you’ve recorded the sound, it basically converts that sound into an image, then looks for any small differences in that image and gives you real-time response.

So when you use the app you will see an image scrolling with the sounds of birds that are in that environment at that time. And then that will let you know which species are vocalizing while you are listening.

How accurate is it?

Accuracy is around 90% [accurate] in the kind of experimental tests. And when you go out into the field, the circumstances are a little different. If you have wind, if you are in a noisy environment, you may lose accuracy, but if you get close to the bird without scaring it, it will also increase your accuracy.

(Source: merlin.allaboutbirds.org)

How far away do you have to be for this thing to work?

Not really that close. With the fantastic microphones on mobile devices right now, maybe 20 meters or so. But you might be surprised that you don’t need to be right next to the bird. You can stay quite a distance.

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

Yep, actually, we’ve done a lot of work making very precise annotations and training Merlin to pick up different vocalizations so that he can even handle overlapping species.

It is certainly necessary on a spring morning when you might have a dozen birds singing at the same time. Merlin is able to select individuals.

There is a whole community behind this app. Tell me about sound recorders.

There are volunteer sound-takers from all over the world and bird watchers who submit their observations to [an online database called] eBird. And this combination of very dedicated people going out into the field and submitting their data gives us this picture of bird populations around the world.

And they give us the data that helps create an app like Merlin that can let anyone go out there and have fun birding, maybe for the first time.

How could an app like this demystify the bird world you love so much?

Merlin is there for you in those times when you see something and you are not sure [what it is], because you don’t need to have answers to get started.

If you just open Merlin and answer a few simple questions about the color, size of the bird, Merlin will give you a list to choose from based on your date and location.

If you hear bird sounds, there is this recording feature where you can get those responses to birds that are nearby. So it’s really accessible to anyone who is just curious enough to find out what species are in their part of the country.

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

I think it will be essential that more people notice the birds and pay attention to them, because the birds are so cool when you take that minute to look and say to yourself, wow.

Many people who see birds are starting 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 we live in.

I think ultimately more people who are birdwatching and starting to take an interest in them can help us make the changes we need to improve environmental health.


Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kate Cornick. Questions and answers edited for length and clarity.


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