Merlin: an iPhone Bird Identification App For Beginners

IMG_8324Merlin, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s new bird identification application, is a seamless, quick way for beginners to identify birds on-the-go. Taking into account the bird’s color and size, habitat, and time of year, the application provides accurate possibilities of the bird you found. The location uses the eBird citizen-science database to compile a list of birds within a 30-mile radius of the bird you are trying to ID.  Since it is hard for many to estimate actual sizes, Merlin assesses the size of birds in relation a sparrow, a robin, a crow, and a goose—birds familiar even to non-birders. In Merlin, the identification process focuses more on visual observations rather than audial observations, a great benefit for both beginners as well as experienced birders who have trouble identifying birds by song. The application easily determines your current location and is set to the current date so you do not have to spend time plugging in this information while you are out in the field. If you want to identify a bird you found previously, simply enter the zip code or name of the location and date you found the bird. Previously entered locations are retained in case you need to identify more than one bird in a location. The application is currently restricted to iOS devices, but an Android version is coming out soon.

The application asks five simple questions to narrow the identification to a few species. From there, you can choose your bird from the possibilities Merlin has generated. The questions are very simple. Beginning birders may not take note of characteristic attributes, but these basic features are easy to recognize for neophytes.

Five simple steps is all it takes!!

Five simple questions!

What’s even better is that the application learns with you! As you answer the questions, Merlin collects the answer combinations to help refine combinations for future Merlin users. Once you have identified the bird you have found, you click, “This is My Bird!” to confirm the identification, thus helping the Merlin improve its algorithms. The application currently has algorithms to identify 285 North American birds, excluding many of the lesser-common birds as well as many of the warblers, though it is expected more birds will be added to the app as it gains popularity. Prior to, or after clicking the “This is My Bird” icon, you can read information on identification, listen to some of the bird’s songs, and look at a range map which can be zoomed in to look at a specific region. The species “pages” on Merlin display excellent photos of males, females, and juveniles in nonbreeding and breeding plumage. In this way, a user can quickly learn the basic plumages and sexual dimorphism exhibited in a species.
Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.27.09 PM
Although the application may help you learn one bird at a time, it is difficult for to dichotomously distinguish groups of species (i.e. Icterids from Emberizids), as the main algorithmic questions do not ask about shape or provide any information on characteristic shapes of types of birds. However, you can also browse by a bird’s family, or in an alphabetical listing. In the “Browse by Family” selection, you can scroll to a certain group of birds (e.g. Loons and Grebes), or  click one of the small silhouettes on the right side to arrive at a certain group.
I would like to see silhouettes incorporated into the algorithm of Merlin, as I think it would greatly help users associate shape with the general type of bird, though it would make the identification process a bit more lengthy. I would also enjoy seeing a feature that helps with terminology. Pointing out field marks, such as the crown, nape, primaries, and secondaries could help beginners distinguish similar species, which can be difficult solely using Merlin.
What is there to lose? Merlin is absolutely free—”The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s goal is to help you and millions of others to learn about birds.”