Bird identification can be an overwhelming and intimidating process. But the challenge of putting a name on a bird is at the heart of what makes birding fun. A new app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology aims to make bird identification a little less overwhelming and a little more fun. Designed for beginning birders, Merlin Bird ID asks users a series of simple questions about a bird sighting and then conjures up an educated guess at the ID. Most of the time, Merlin gets it right.
The secret to Merlin’s magic is eBird, the real-time, online database software launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society.
The eBird database contains millions of sightings submitted by birders in the field, and Merlin uses this data to guess users’ mystery birds with seemingly uncanny accuracy.
Merlin has been a long time in the making. When Cornell Lab released the app in early 2014, I immediately downloaded it and gave it a test run. I thought of a bird I had seen that day—a common merganser—and began to play 20 Questions with Merlin.
Actually, there turned out to be five questions: Where did you see the bird? (Select a city.) When did you see the bird? (Select a day.) What size was the bird? (Select one of seven size categories.) What were the main colors? (Select from one to three colors, from nine options.) What was the bird doing? (Select one of six options: eating at a feeder, swimming or wading, etc.)
After a few moments, Merlin generated a short list of birds matching those criteria, with my bird—common merganser—at the top of the list. Cool!
I tried out a few other birds and finally managed to stump Merlin a couple of times. The first version of the app had 285 North American bird species, covering most of the birds that beginners were likely to be looking for, but occasionally coming up empty-handed. As of July 30, 2014, the app featured 400 species.
If Merlin misses the ID, users have the option to go back and modify the search criteria by answering one or more of the questions again. The app contains photos, sounds, text, and range maps for each species.
Though designed primarily for beginning birders, this app will be a great resource for birders of all experience levels to hone their own skills or to teach others. The simple, game-like setup of the app is bound to be a hit with kids, especially those already interested in nature.
Perhaps the best part of this app is its price: Merlin is free to download from iTunes (bit.ly/ MerlinApp). Merlin works on any Apple mobile device (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) that can run iOS 7 or newer operating systems. In July 2014, Cornell Lab released an Android version of the app. Developers are also working on a web-based version of Merlin that will not require a mobile device at all. Watch Merlin’s website (merlin.allaboutbirds.org) for updates.
An earlier version of this review appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
About the Author
Kyle Carlsen is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. Find him on Twitter @kycarlsen.