A new tool for better birding: Merlin’s Sound ID

Wouldn’t it be great if you could record the song of a bird you can’t identify and have it instantly recognized? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has taken a major step forward in realizing that dream with its recently launched Sound ID feature in the Merlin app.

I’ve used that app for the past few years to pin down the identities of various birds I’ve seen and heard, but Sound ID makes the app even more useful. Here are some of the advantages I’ve already experienced:

With the touch of button, Sound ID starts recording and quickly notes which birds are calling or singing nearby.
  • If you hear a familiar bird singing, within a few seconds the app will bring up the most likely candidate. I toggled Sound ID on and off while walking the nearby golf course, where I spotted and heard plenty of familiar birds. Northern cardinals, blue jays, Carolina wrens, American robins — their names and photos all came up instantly. It was gratifying to get confirmation that I can ID these birds so easily.
  • The app will alert you to birds you might not know are nearby. On my golf course walk, I turned on the app and up popped a belted kingfisher, a split second before I confirmed the sighting. At Reed Bryan Farm at Mercer Meadows Park yesterday, the app kept hearing a blue grosbeak, a bird I know from other birders is common there now. I didn’t find one, and I will try again soon.
  • The app can hear birds quite a ways off. I first tried Sound ID in my yard, and I was impressed with its ability to identify distant bird calls. I’d hear a cardinal or tufted titmouse off in the distance, and the app would pick up on it. Also, human voices, vehicles and other background noises don’t seem to faze Sound ID.
  • It can distinguish Carolina chickadees from black-capped chickadees! To me, this capability is the Holy Grail. I live in an area where the two populations intersect and maybe even inter-breed. The Carolina version was on the golf course, while the black-capped turned up when I took a short walk on the Princeton University campus. I’ll be curious to corroborate these findings when I can simultaneously get photos of the birds and a recording of their songs from the app.
  • The app allows you to save recordings. You have a choice of saving the recordings or trashing them once they’ve been made. Either way, you have the option of playing them back (listening on headphones or at low volume so you don’t freak out our little bird friends).
  • The app isn’t perfect, but it’s a huge asset. The app reported a great crested flycatcher on the golf course and, today, in my yard. While it’s possible one could be nearby, I suspect the reading is spurious, even as I hold out hope that I’m wrong.

Overall, I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed by Sound ID. Identifying birds by their calls is a skill I need to develop, and this new feature is already helping me learn and improve.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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