Bird Watcher's General Store

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Lots of Bird Apps to Choose From

Dear Bird Folks,

My girlfriend is a new birder and I was thinking about giving her an iPhone bird app for Valentine’s Day, but I’m overwhelmed by the choices. Could you please write a column reviewing the assorted bird apps so guys like me would know which one to choose.

– Jason, Harwich, MA


Wow, Jason,

You sure are the romantic type. Forget the long-stemmed roses, candlelight dinners and scented packages from Fredrick’s of Hollywood. Go right for the one item that no woman can resist – electronic birds on a phone. If that doesn’t make you the best boyfriend ever, nothing will. I’d like to give my wife one of those bird apps myself, but the only thing she wants is candy. Last year I gave her a large heart-shaped box of chocolates. I thought she’d be thrilled, but I made the mistake of eating some of the chocolates before I wrapped it. I honestly didn’t think she’d notice, since she never notices other things (like when the car needs gas). However, when it comes to chocolate, she has a sixth sense. Yet, when it comes to cars and gas, she has no sense at all. (I think I’ll stop now.)

Bird apps on smartphones are as revolutionary as the phones themselves. With a device that’s not much larger than a credit card case, not only can we talk to people all over the world and perform a million other functions, but we can also view bird photos, hear birdcalls and access a wealth of other avian information. In the past if we wanted to have this much bird info with us we would’ve had to carry an assortment of books, a CD player (to play the calls), and, of course, a separate cell phone if we wanted to report a rare bird, or order a pizza. Smartphones and their apps have changed all that; yet they have one major flaw. It is hard to see the screen in bright sunlight. When using a smartphone in the field, you’ll get better results if you seek the shade of a tree or a bush, or in a pinch, the shadow of a slow moving fat guy.

The bird app that I have been using for years is called iBird Plus. I have always liked this app and have recommended it to lots of customers and to all my friends…both of them. To learn about a particular bird you simply type its name – for example, House Finch – and before you have finished typing the first few letters of the word “house,” the bird’s image pops up on the screen. Tap a button and you will see a series of House Finch photos, both male and female, in assorted plumages. Press another button and you’ll see a map showing where this bird normally lives, plus information about the bird’s behavior and natural history. And if you want to hear the song of a House Finch, no problem; iBird does that, too. iBird was one of the first bird apps on the market and is still one of the best. Plus, the name, “iBird” just sounds cool. How can you not want it?

Not to be outdone, Roger Tory Peterson came out with his own bird app, which is impressive considering that Roger died long before smartphones were invented. Unlike iBird, the Peterson app doesn’t have an easy-to-find search feature. Instead, you are given a screen showing icons of common birds (ducks, hawks, etc.). So, if you are again looking for a House Finch, you just tap the generic image of a finch and several pages with different finches will appear. I found this annoying. I would rather go directly to the bird I was looking for and not have to hunt through pages of its relatives. On the other hand, beginners might like it this way. All of the similar birds are on the same page, which makes for easy comparison. And once you’ve found the bird you are looking for, all you have to do is tap the image of the bird itself to hear its song. I thought this particular feature was very clever. Old Roger is pretty hip for a guy who has been dead since 1996.

National Geographic has also produced a bird app, and while I’m not the biggest fan of Nat Geo’s print field guide, I did like this app. What I especially liked is that the user can easily enlarge a bird’s image with a simple finger gesture (no, that gesture). Spreading your fingers on the screen allows you to zoom-in. A larger image makes the fine details more visible and that’s really important for someone like me, whose eyes have permanently moved into squint mode.

When I started writing this piece my favorite app was iBird, but after trying the Sibley bird app, which I downloaded just for the sake of this column, I’ve changed my mind. Sibley provides several images and information about the bird all on the same screen. There is no tapping different buttons to move to different screens. More importantly, Sibley highlights key field marks right on the bird’s image. iBird doesn’t do that. Last week I was trying to sort out some terns, which can be tough to ID in their cryptic winter plumages. Sibley pointed out a black wing patch on one of the terns that made identification simple. Any app that can help me identify confusing winter terns gets my vote.

I think your girlfriend will find any of these smartphone apps helpful, Jason. Just keep in mind; they aren’t free. They cost between ten and twenty bucks each. I was hoping to review more apps for you but all those charges started to add up. I spent so much money purchasing apps I could only afford to either buy my wife a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, or fill the car with gas. In other words, I’ll be doing a lot of walking.