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Cornell Merlin Bird App

Dear Bird Folks,

My daughter is all excited about the new Merlin app for identifying bird songs. She loves it and says it finds birds in her yard she never knew she had before. Do you have it and if so, what do you think?

– Fahy, Duxbury, MA

Got it, Fahy,

I got the latest Merlin update when it was released a few weeks ago and it was like getting a new bike for Christmas. Huh? One of the best presents any kid could ever receive from Santa, at least in my day, was a new bike. It meant your walking days were over and you could now explore parts of town you had only heard about. There was just one drawback, especially for kids in New England: the streets at Christmas are typically covered in snow and ice. Any true biking adventures would have to wait until spring. This is how I feel about the Merlin update. It came out this summer, but birds do most of their singing in the spring. This time of year birds do less singing and are more concerned about feeding their newly fledged chicks and getting ready for fall migration and, perhaps, riding the new bikes they got for Christmas.

Produced by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, the Merlin app for bird identification was introduced in 2014 and has been improving ever since. It helps to identify mystery birds based on descriptions, or photos and now by sounds – and it’s all free. They only thing you need is a phone…a smart phone, that is. Sorry, the app doesn’t work on landlines, pay phones or party lines (remember those?). I started reading an account of how the eggheads at Cornell were able to put this whole thing together, but it was a little technical and halfway through I lost interest and just went outside to try it.

Just as I had predicted, the first patch of woods I visited was indeed dead quiet; there were no birds singing anywhere. It was like walking through an empty church…only I didn’t have to take off my hat. I kept moving until I found a patch where the birds were slightly chattier. As soon as I heard singing, I pulled out my phone, opened the app and clicked “Sound ID.” The app uses the phone’s microphone to record whatever it hears and transforms the sound into a visual image called a “spectrogram.” (See why I stopped reading halfway through?) Within seconds, it compares your bird’s song to the thousands of spectrograms within Cornell’s vast audio library and displays an image of the bird when it finds a match. What if more than one bird is singing at the same time, you ask? No problem. The app is able to sort them all out and list the different singers. Are the identifications accurate? Hmm. Let’s just say sometimes the app has a bit of wishful thinking…like a lot of birders do.

More than once the app told me a bird was singing when I was quite sure no such bird was even in the area. For example, I could hear a family of young crows begging for food, yet the app suggested the sound was coming from a Black Scoter. Black Scoters are sea ducks, yet I was in the middle of the woods. I’m pretty sure the app missed this one. Either that or a vacationing family of scoters were camping under a nearby tree and I didn’t see them.

But even when you think the app makes a mistake, it doesn’t go down without a fight. It actually offers proof. As I mentioned earlier, the app records all that it hears. If there’s an issue, you can replay the call in question and seek a second opinion. This is the best feature of the entire program. If, for instance, you hear several birds calling in your yard and one call in particular is driving you nuts, the app will list all the birds it hears. It will tell you that perhaps, cardinals, orioles and titmice are singing nearby. That’s swell, but how do you know which bird of the three is your mystery bird? Simple, just tap on the picture of any of the three birds listed and the exact recording you have just made will start playing. This is a great way to learn bird calls. Also, if you disagree with the app’s choices, you at least have recorded proof of why or why not it was wrong. BTW: In my yard, the mystery bird is a titmouse. It’s always a titmouse.

Should you get this app, Fahy? Absolutely. It’s free. Duh! Is it perfect? Absolutely not. I’m sure upgrades will make this app even better, but right now there are still a lot of holes. I found it didn’t work well out of cell service range and while it easily identified the “classic” calls, there were also a lot of swings and misses on less common (baby crow) calls. Your daughter, who says she has birds in her yard that “she never knew she had before” probably still doesn’t have them, no matter what the app said. But at least she has recorded proof, and can dispute it with Cornell. Speaking of Cornell…


Sick Birds Update, Good News

Last month we were advised to take down our feeders due to a mysterious illness that was affecting birds in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. Well, there’s good news, kids! Cornell has announced that the illness does not appear to be spreading and is actually disappearing in some areas. They believe it was likely caused by an outbreak of cicadas (that were then fed to baby birds). They also found “nothing infectious” about the illness. In other words, we can all stop putting masks on our birds, but still need to be vigilant about keeping things clean. And most importantly, we probably shouldn’t fill our feeders with cicadas. That’s always good advice.