Identifying birds by sound is my superpower

Memory is a funny thing. I can recall bird songs I heard 30 years ago, but I can’t remember where I left the car keys. Birding-by-ear is my sole superpower. As superpowers go, it’s not as useful as invisibility or, say, predicting winning lottery numbers, but I’ll take it. I don’t recognize 100 percent of all the bird noises in Maine. I’m probably down somewhere around 99 percent.

So I was shocked to hear an unknown bird noise this week. It sounded like a raptor, but not one that I recognized.

It was my perfect opportunity to try out Merlin — a free app for smartphones that can identify bird sounds. I held my phone in the direction of the weird call, and Merlin instantly told me it was a sharp-shinned hawk. I’ve seen hundreds of these small woodland hawks, but they seldom make any noise except near a nest. Seconds later, a male flew over, as the female continued calling from the backside of the grove, confirming the identification.

Thus, today, I am here to recommend Merlin, an app offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from its website at I don’t do so lightly. There have been several commercial attempts to produce such an app over the last decade. Generally, they have disappointed. They were often wrong, or they offered too many potential IDs to be effective. I put Merlin to the test and was quite pleased with the result, although even Merlin admits it’s not perfect.

It works like this. Merlin uses your phone to “listen” for birds. It then makes a sonogram of everything it hears. A sonogram is just a graphic representation of recorded sound — a technique that has been around since 1929. Nowadays, computing technology can compare your digital recording with a massive database of recorded songs, and the app just looks for the best match. It’s quick, and usually right. But not always.

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