By Georgann Schmalz
It was a Northern Parula. Definitely a Northern Parula. I knew some birds’ voices pretty well in 1960's and '70s, the songs and chip notes of robins, crows, blue jays, cardinals. But what I didn’t realize was how important, if not magical and awesome, those songs were. This little warbler, just him, caught my ear in the midst of a cacophony of other spring migrants that were singing loudly. Wow, I thought, these birds are all yelling their IDs to me without my seeing them. I tuned in to another song and the next and the next. Over time it became my compelling behavior, enough to enable me to share the birding by ear process for more than 45 years. I began to understand that 90% of birding is half listening (sorry, Yogi Berra).
Historically, in the field techniques have changed, albeit slowly in those 45 years. How often have we imagined a convenient way to isolate songs, play them back for study, dissect them with their song characteristics. I remember returning home after many field trips and immediately listening to the LP records by Donald J. Borror, searching for the songs I had heard hours before. The vinyl evolved into plastic reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes. As cumbersome as they were, at least we could take cassettes players into the field with us! And then, came the holy CDs. Digital recordings at our fingertips, no rewinding tapes, no waste of time. In 1999, we had the Blackberry 10 devices, which then begat iOS and Android platforms. By this time, we were all thinking that what we really needed was a handheld device that had not only songs, but also photos, range maps, descriptions — in other words, an app field guide with instant information and gratification on a handheld device with speakers and microphones and just throw in a camera and phone for the heck of it.
Enter the new kid in town: the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Originally known for its visual identification of birds, it became an audio recognition of songs and chips in 2022.
Merlin identifies bird sounds using computer learning technology to recognize species based on spectrograms or sonograms — visual representations of sounds. For Merlin to learn to recognize a species by sound, it uses audio recordings from the Macaulay Library that include a variety of sounds for each species to “train” Merlin’s "ears." Sound ID is currently available for more than 1,000 species and will be expanded in the future to include species world wide. To do that, the Cornell Lab team needs a minimum of 150 sound recordings for each species. You can help to add new species to Merlin by recording the birds and uploading them with your eBird checklists.
The other day, I wanted to see just how Merlin was doing, ear to ear. I chose an early morning location with many birds singing. During the three-minute test, I identified every bird that Merlin did, but I heard a few more birds than it did. I’m not saying that I’m better than Merlin, but there are a few things to be cautious about:
For many years I’ve helped (I hope) beginning birders to learn bird songs. Yet, I’m constantly incorporating new methods, ideas, and skills into my latest recommended techniques. And now, I find myself telling friends and even complete strangers about Merlin. Their world will never be the same again!
For more information on using Merlin, visit http://support.ebird.org, Help Center, Merlin Bird ID.( https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/ https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/)
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