Beginning birding: An app that slows me down

I have a new toy.

A smartphone app called Merlin Bird ID, released by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, coaches beginning birdwatchers in the fundamentals of bird identification by asking five basic questions:

  1. Where did you see the bird?
  2. When did you see the bird?
  3. What size is the bird? (A radio-button option allows the user to pick the size from silhouettes of various birds.)
  4. What were the main colors? (select from 1 to 3)
  5. Was the bird…?
    • Eating at a feeder
    • Swimming or wading
    • On the ground
    • In trees or bushes
    • On a fence or wire
    • Soaring or flying

marbled red birdIt then creates a list of possible birds based on the user’s location and offers a sequence of photos, including males, females, and juveniles, to confirm the bird’s identity.  Audio clips of bird songs and calls help users to distinguish between similar-looking birds. When the user clicks the button “This Is My Bird!,” the sighting data is added to the lab’s database to help build the app’s accuracy. And over time, this citizen-science approach may help scientists to detect shifts occurring due to climate change or other environmental factors.

Data shared with the lab on regular bird sightings throughout the US and Canada inform the possible choices, and help new users to learn what species to expect in their regions at particular times of year. The app also informs the user if a particular option is uncommon or rare. So far, I’ve spotted the usual suspects: male northern cardinals and American robins in particular, but also Carolina chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, and an eastern towhee. And not only is it fun to build knowledge and competence in a new subject, but bird identification requires me to slow down, be still, and observe: some things I need to do much more often.

The app is free on iTunes. An Android version is coming this spring.