A low-tech guy finds magic in an app that identifies birds from the sound of their songs | Sports And Outdoors


I’m not exactly a Luddite. And I generally don’t consider myself a technophobe — though I have my moments. But I’ve always been something of a low-tech person. And I sometimes cringe at what seems to be an unquestioning embrace of technology and technological advances by America’s mainstream culture. This embrace can be — and at times in our history, has been — dangerous, even deadly.

I’d also describe myself as someone who’s habitually behind the curve regarding technological advances (as low-tech types tend to be, I suppose). Case in point: cell phones. I resisted getting a cell phone for a long, long time. And it also took me years to transition from flip-phone to smartphone. But I finally did, long after most of my friends, family, and colleagues had made the switch.

Now, of course, my iPhone seems an essential part of my life — how did I function without it for so long? Of course, I pay too much attention to its texting, email, Internet, and many other “apps,” but that’s life. During my waking hours, the iPhone is almost always right beside me, usually tucked inside my left front pants pocket, a convenient and at times, magical tool within easy reach. Not to mention an occasional distraction from the other parts of my life.

That’s the alluring thing about certain technologies: they do have a magic about them. I find that to be especially true about some of the apps I’ve downloaded onto my iPhone. I thought about this recently when I tried my Merlin Bird ID app’s “Sound ID” function for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with Merlin Bird ID, it’s made available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose mission is “to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.”

Beyond its grander efforts, an essential part of the Cornell Lab’s mission is to help people answer the question, “What’s that bird?” So in 2009, the lab “hatched” its Merlin ID project to create an interactive tool that helps people more easily identify birds. The Merlin Bird ID app (which, I should note, is free) was officially “launched” in 2014, and since then, the Cornell Lab proudly reports, it has helped millions of people around the world do just that: more easily identify birds .

Naturally, I came to this party late. I didn’t add the app to my smartphone (or even know about its existence) until several years after it was made available to the world. And, to be honest, I really haven’t used it very much. But that is changing, thanks to the app’s Sound ID function.

Here again, I’m a late-comer, but only by a year or so. I learned about Merlin’s Sound ID through my girlfriend Jan, who began using it (at least that I noticed) this spring. I began to take serious notice when on one of our forest walks, we heard a sparrow’s song. I wasn’t entirely sure, but by process of elimination guessed the bird might be a Lincoln’s sparrow.

Jan reached for her cell phone, tapped the Merlin Bird ID app, then tapped the Sound ID bar, pointed her iPhone in the direction of the singer, and seconds later, confirmed the bird to be a Lincoln’s sparrow.

This greatly impressed me for a couple of reasons: first, I had guessed correctly; second, the app somehow recorded the sparrow’s song and, within seconds, identified the bird.

We tried it on a few other songbirds, ones I recognized, and sure enough, the Merlin ID app, and I agreed.

It did seem a bit like, well, like magic. Technological wizardry.

I figured that Jan must have gone through several steps to program her Merlin ID app so it would identify the songs of birds. I didn’t think much more about it until several days later. I was walking the Coastal Trail near Earthquake Park, and I heard a song that reminded me of a warbler. But it differed from the songs of all the common warblers that I know inhabit the Anchorage area in spring and summer.

I wondered if the singer might be a northern waterthrush, which despite its name, belongs to the “wood-warbler” family, a family that includes such common local migratory species as the yellow-rumped, orange-crowned, Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and yellow warblers.

Unlike those other warblers, the waterthrush has no yellow or golden markings, but is, in essence an LBB: a little brown bird, with white undersides that have brown streaking (it also has a characteristic “buffy eyebrow stripe”). I knew the northern waterthrush (appropriately enough) often inhabits woodlands near bodies of water, which fit the area I was passing through.

I hadn’t heard a singling northern waterthrush in years candidate (that I could tell), but it seemed a likely. I pulled out my iPhone, and tapped the Merlin Bird ID app, which took me to a “page” with several options, including Sound ID. I figured I’d have to go through several steps but was instructed to “Get as close to the bird as you can, hold still, and press record” (which has a microphone symbol).

I did as instructed, and the app began “listening for birds,” while a kind of graph began rolling across the top of the page, this being what scientists call a “spectrogram,” essentially a visual representation of an audio signal, or sound , in this instance bird song.

For a non-scientist like me, the spectrogram is a technological marvel. I won’t try to explain how it works here, because that could be an entire column in itself. But let’s just accept that scientists have figured out a way to take a bird’s song, or any sort of sound, and represent it graphically.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has built a vast library of spectrograms for hundreds of birds that inhabit North America and Europe (as of April 19, 2022, the count was 685). From that data, they somehow created a Sound ID app that, within a matter of seconds, can record a bird’s song, convert it to a spectrogram, search its vast library, and identify the bird who is singing. (The app will also admit it when it cannot identify the song or call being recorded). That, to me, is both mysterious and magical.

This brings me back to my first application of Merlin’s Sound ID. In a remarkably short time, a matter of northern seconds really, my iPhone confirmed that I was indeed listening to a waterthrush. This brought a big smile to my face and sent a wave of delight — and yes, wonder — through my being.

I have since used the Merlin Sound ID app several times, both when walking alone and also with Jan. So far, it hasn’t helped me to learn the songs of birds that are entirely new to me, or ones I’ve forgotten, for that matter. The Lincoln’s sparrow and northern waterthrush are notable exceptions. Bu the app has confirmed my identification of common bird songs that are a little tricky.

In the process, the high-tech tool has become something of a toy as well, a device to be used playfully now and then. Jan naturally dreams that I will become obsessed with the Merlin Sound ID, much like I did with my iPhone’s iNaturalist app last summer. I don’t think that will happen, but I can’t be sure until the initial magic wears off. And that might take a while, because this is the sort of technological advance I can embrace. It offers the possibility of a greater connection to the wild world we inhabit, a world more wondrously complex, mysterious, and more magical than anything we humans will ever create. And that’s pretty cool.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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