Merlin’s “Sound ID” uncovers hidden birds
Published Aug. 5, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
By Barb Gorges
Learning to identify birds by sight is simple: page through the field guide until you see a bird that matches or go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you.
One shortcut to the process is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin app.
You give it the bird’s specs–relative size, color, behavior/habitat–and it gives you a short, illustrated list of possibilities. You can also give it a bird photo from your phone (including a photo of the screen on the back of a camera) and hit “Get Photo ID.”
Learning to identify a bird by song or call is easy here on the edge of the Great Plains. Our most common birds vocalize while walking on lawns and prairie, sitting on bare branches and fence posts, swimming on water or soaring above. I can see robins chirping, crows cawing, house finches singing, collared-doves moaning, house sparrows cheeping.
It turns out I’m missing the birds that like to hide in vegetation but can still be heard. I’ve always thought that some winter I would sit down with a compilation of western bird song recordings and memorize them–hasn’t happened in the last 30 years.
But now Merlin has a new feature, “Sound ID.” It came out last summer as part of the free app, but it’s this summer people are talking about it, even our Airbnb host, for whom it sounded like his gateway drug to birdwatching addiction.
The first step is to download the Merlin app, for Android or iOS. Then open the menu (those three little lines stacked up) and choose Bird Packs. Install the one for “US: Rocky Mountains.” This helps Merlin give you better choices. You can change it if you visit elsewhere.
Choose “Sound ID” from the home screen. Tap the microphone icon and hold out your phone towards the bird sound you hear. Closer is better, but start recording where you are first, in case moving closer scares the bird away. I found that Merlin doesn’t hear everything I hear.
Merlin creates a spectrogram of what it hears, and it scrolls across the top of your screen. Eventually, it creates a list of the birds it is hearing, including a photo of each. Each time Merlin hears a species, it highlights the name so you can connect sound and name. Also, if you click on the bird, you’ll get a list of other recorded sounds you can compare for that species, to double check Merlin’s accuracy.
Early one morning recently I stood on a corner in my neighborhood, recording and watched as half a dozen bird names filled my screen. But wait—great-tailed grackle? We have them in Cheyenne, usually at the country club and the air base, but I have not heard their loud, raucous calls on my side of town. How do I tell Merlin I heard common grackles instead? But I will still give every shiny blackbird’s tail a closer look.
On the other hand, while I was hiking the Headquarters Trail at the end of July, Merlin told me I was hearing a warbling vireo. I hardly ever see them, so I have never perfected identifying them by sight, but now that musical warbling in trees along a creek will have me considering them when I hear it again.
And there’s more. You can add these sound recordings to your eBird checklists. You can see if it’s a bird already on your life list. Or Merlin will generate lists of birds where you plan to travel. It can sort them by most common at the top of the list. And for the most competitive birders, it can generate a list of birds they haven’t seen in that area—their target species.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology can tell you how all this magic happens. Mostly, it is from the crowd-sourced data from its community scientists all over the world–us birdwatchers.
Some 30 years ago, Beauford Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher at Davis Elementary School, told me we would have hand-held devices that would help us do all kinds of things. I was imagining typing notes, maybe a digital day planner. Now I use my smart phone for video calls, photographing and identifying flowers, reading books, tracking hikes, finding recipes and cafes, and counting birds.
Recording birds could become another time-eater, but learning bird songs and calls and contributing to the global avian knowledge is worthwhile. But let’s not forget to sometimes go outside and enjoy the world empty-handed again.