By Chris Bosak, Birds of New England
I walked outside to the truck to start my day, and among the myriad other bird sounds, I heard a high-pitched trill. I was certain it was a Dark-eyed Junco, but Chipping Sparrows have a similar song. I had seen somewhere that chipping sparrows are returning to their breeding grounds in New England, so just to be sure of the ID, I decided to test the app on my smartphone that recognizes birds by their songs and calls.
Sure enough, it came up Dark-eyed Junco. But to my surprise, the phone kept lighting up with more and more species being identified by the app. I was so focused on the trill that I didn’t realize so many other birds were singing as well. I was skeptical about these apps for a long time, but I was more than impressed with it on this morning.
It was one of those early April mornings that cry out that it is spring. Even though there would be cooler days ahead until the sustained spring warmth, this was one of those days that provided a teaser of what’s to come. The birds were in on the tease as well as they were singing up a storm and making a wonderful cacophony of bird sounds.
The app picked up House Sparrow, American Robin and Blue Jay before it recognized the junco. In rapid-fire succession, it also picked up Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Chickadee and White-breasted Nuthatch.
The app also highlights species that are already on the list when it sings again by highlighting the name in yellow. Once I focused on the individual birds, I was able to pick up all of the species that the app had picked up. If I were left to my own wits, I am not sure I would have picked out all of the species of birds singing in my yard that morning. The app recognized 12 birds and my yard is not particularly “birdy.”
I had expressed skepticism about the app in a prior column. That skepticism has been mostly put to rest with its performance that morning. I still want to try it out on an active May morning with a dozen or more warbler species in the area before I give it my full endorsement, but I have a feeling I will be impressed when that day comes as well.
There are a few such apps available for smartphones now. The one I use is Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In addition to sound ID, it also has a photo ID feature that I have used a few times and have been impressed with as well.
Learning to bird by ear is challenging, fun and frustrating all at the same time. I have done OK over the years learning to identify birds by song or call, but I have a lot left to learn. I find the app very useful in confirming, or contradicting, my guesses. It is also useful when I hear a bird I know I should recognize, but for some reason can’t place it. The app puts my mind at ease by identifying the bird. It is also good, of course, for learning songs that I previously did not know.
Birding by ear, in conjunction with the app, adds another enjoyable element to the great hobby of birdwatching. After some initial skepticism, I can say I am a believer in the app and the technology. As my father used to say, what’s next?