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Digital Bird Song Identification a Reality?

Even since the introduction of the smartphone app Shazam, which, when held up to nearly any piece of recorded music can quickly and seemingly miraculously name the song and artist, techy birders have been clamoring for something similar for bird vocalizations.  Imagine a computer program that could identify a bird in the field simply by analyzing a short recording.  It would revolutionize birding in a way not seen since the advent of the binocular.

For years such a device was prohibitively difficult to implement for fairly obvious reasons.  Birds, after all, have myriad vocalizations, and while recorded music is predictable and repeatable, a singing bird is practically anything but.  But Mark Berres, an ornithologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, thinks he’s finally cracked the code with WeBIRD, the Wisconsin Electronic Bird Identification Resource Database.

Barres plans to have WeBIRD up as a free app in the spring of 2012, but the questions as to what this means for birding are obviously huge.  They pertain both to the limits of this technology (does the bird need to be singing loudly, or nearby?) and the ethics of using it (heard birds are obviously allowed on ABA lists, but what about birds identified by a computer?).

I’m certainly curious to put it through its paces and, at very least, to see if the thing blows up when faced with the spring’s first American Redstart.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • I think we are all anxious and a bit skeptical about the practical reality of this app. I, for one, hope it works…and I hope it works really really well. It would revolutionize birding identification and our learning will increase. Birding competitions may have to adjust rules, but entering “app-identified birds” on eBird will be just fine. Their presence being reported at a specific location is the most important to bird science.

  • First of all, I see all the useful, scientific applications for this devise, especially as they relate to the study of nocturnal migration, rain-forest ecology, etc.

    But as an app for birders, I see it as one more techie gadget that further separates people from the natural world. Now we won’t have to listen to birds anymore. There’s an app for that. I don’t know about you all, but most of the birding I do is by ear. I make a distinction between listen FOR birds and listen TO birds. Nuance and diversity are part of the joy of being outside connecting with nature. By it’s design, an algorithm based identification devise homogenizes the experience. It focuses on sameness and it’s impersonal. And we’re looking at (and listening to) a computer, not the organism we went outside supposedly to enjoy and connect with.

    There’s a school of thought that argues one should leave one’s field guide in the car. The time we spend fussing with our field guide is time spent not observing. All these new fangled electronic doo-hickies are an even or insidious kind of distraction. I would advocate leaving them in the car, too.

  • As Mike points out, the positive applications for science are many, but in the end, I fear it will just make us collectively dumber. I’m a huge advocate for studying the birds beforehand and leaving the field guide in the car. This device is like a calculator for birding. How many will bother to learn long division?

  • I think this is fantastic news! Like Mike Patterson, I identify most birds by ear, well before I see them. In fact, in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest I sometimes identify >50% of the species by ear without EVER seeing them, or if I do, it’s a silhouette far up in the tree tops against bright overcast skies with no apparent color or patterns. (See “Seen only” — bad photos, great birds in the forest.)

    But as a tool to help a birder learn to identify birds by their sounds, I think this would be a wonderful device! Many birders do not listen, even if one does not know what species is calling, one can follow the sound of a feeding flock of multiple species, for instance, and find more birds that way. (See Hear the Motorcycle.)

    Realize, though, that even if this device works, it will likely only give a “best guess.” It may say there is a 60% chance the singing bird is a Bewick’s Wren, 30% chance it is a Song Sparrow, 10% chance it is a European Starling (or other species) imitating a Bewick’s Wren, etc. Is this acceptable? For learning bird calls and songs, yes. For a “heard only, computer identified” list? Perhaps. It depends upon how accurate it is, how long the recording is, likely range of the bird, etc.

    Unlike Mike Patterson, I don’t mind having more tools to identify birds. Binoculars, field guides, scopes, gps, cameras,… I just wish I had someone else to carry all of them for me!

  • What’s next, a camera that you take the picture and it identifies the bird for you? I think this can be a useful tool, but along with most technology it is making people lazier and lazier. Gone are the days where birders spend hours, weeks, and months if not years learning songs and calls.

    Just last week I witnessed a birder show up knowing an uncommon sparrow had been reported, and instead of taking the time to look for the bird, they whipped out their iPod and went right to playing. What laziness.

    The lazy birder is more common than ever, and these “technological advances” are creating an even lazier breed. How is this fun for anyone? Part of the thrill of birding is the chase, and in the case you don’t know what that song or call is, you take the time to find the bird and figure it out. I enjoy that.

    Just my two cents.

  • Patrick Belardo

    I see it as a potentially great learning tool.

  • jb

    No need for knowledge. No need for skills. Just think folks, with all these technological advances to find & id birds for us, the day will come when we won’t even have to go outside! It seems the interest is more in playing with electronics than birding. I for one am a bird lover and a nature lover. All I need is a field guide, binoculars and some birds and I’m a happy birder. I’d rather be looking around and listening for birds than staring at that thing in the palm of my hand.

  • Marcel Such

    I for one am not looking forward to any bird-song identifying technology advances. I have been honing my ear for birds for my entire birding life, and take great pride in my abilities, shaky as they may be at times. The second any old Joe can point his iPhone, Android, or whatever at a bird and know what it is, much of the joy of birding, in my opinion, will be lost.

  • Excellent point about Cornell. In fact, I meant to mention their work creating programs that record and log nocturnal flight calls.

    That seems to me to be a fascinating application of this tech.

  • I think that the limitations of this software will become fairly readily apparent. If tethered to the microphone of a smartphone, there are very few vocalizations it will be able to pick up in the field without some sort of external mic. Most birds will need to be practically right in front of you.

    So while it will potentially be useful for beginning birders interested in sussing out the Chickadees and Titmice and other common species in their backyard, I think skilled birders with even only decent sensory ability will be able to out-perform this thing 9 times out of 10.

  • Kevin Morgan

    Any tool can be used well or abused. An argument could be made, without being too far in jest, that inexpensive decent spotting scopes have made it easy for lazy birders to avoid having to get “dirty” when they can just set up on a boardwalk and scope for a quarter-mile in any direction. Audubon got by just fine without binoculars (though, admittedly, with the advantage of a shotgun and no restrictions on its use).

    I see a potential benefit that hasn’t been mentioned. How many times have we heard of an amateur birder finding a bird he can’t identify, and not letting anyone know for fear of looking foolish? An austral migrant, for instance, that isn’t in any field guide he can find? A device like this could alert him to the fact that it’s not that his skills are deficient, it’s a really rare bird that should be reported for confirmation by others who DO know what to look for.

    That said, unlike playback, you’d still need a microphone you could point directly at the sound source, to overcome ambient noise. Once you get into that realm, you’re eliminating a huge chunk of people from using it – either by not having access to the necessary equipment or not knowing how to use it.

  • Liz Gordon

    I have a hard time picking out lyrics in music. My son on the other hand can do it with ease. I like to look at the words written in the jacket of the recording this helps me learn lyrics. I have met several people that feel like they have this same kind of limitation. Unfortunately, I fear this carries over into my birding. I would welcome an app that could help me.

    I might not always use it but there are times I’d love to have a crutch.

    There are some cool people out there doing very cool things. My hat is off!

  • This is an amazing tool, and I sure hope it works well even for birders out in the field!

    Being from Europe, I very well remember my first days at Point Pelee in May, the enormous volume of strange and unfamiliar bird sounds and the helplessness I felt not being able to use my ears for bird identification – as I am so fond of doing in Europe on familiar stomping grounds.

    This electronic tool would at least help me sort out the commoner species and recognize species worth looking for. It would allow me to focus the often time-consuming process of trying to spot a calling bird on those birds that I am keen on seeing.
    Yes, yes, I know they are all worth looking for, but come on – there are times in each birder’s life when they prefer trying to spot their life Cerulean Warbler in the canopy instead of soaking in their umpteenth Butterbutt perched right in front of them. And if this app helps us to know that there is a Cerulean around in the first place, or that pursuing this one specific call for half an hour would only lead to a Brown-headed Cowbird sighting and might thus not be worth the while when time is short at a migrant trap during a fall-out, it surely can’t be wrong?

  • Robert

    I’m not an avid birder, nor even an amateur, and certainly not a snob. However, to get more people interested in the world around them, I believe a device like this would help immensely. Often times, I’m in my home in Honolulu, and I hear a bird I’ve never heard before. I can’t see it from inside, and the second I step out, it flies away, or I’m unable to spot it in the dense foliage. I know a bird’s call or song I’ve never heard before helps me understand what birds come to my area occasionally, and just how many may be out there. I don’t think an “app” like this would have a negative impact. What could be wrong with listening to songbirds in your office at work? Learning about and sharing nature, and expanding its support base are all good things, are they not? Sometimes it takes a new tool to reach a new audience. Only today I posted a note on the Audubon Society’s facebook page asking to have something like this developed, unaware others were like thinking. Aloha!

  • On one level, I totally agree with Marcel.

    On another level, I think Marcel’s fears are unfounded.

    I supposed I should explain.

    Yesterday afternoon, I was waiting for one of my kids at school. Not a very birdy venue that schoolyard, but I did hear a Downy Woodpecker calling in a pine tree; I also heard a Song Sparrow calling in a weedy patch across the street.

    Nothing especially exciting about a Downy Woodpecker and a Song Sparrow–two of the most familiar birds in North America.

    Except they aren’t. Not at all. As I heard those two birds, it occurred to me that, even in “green” Boulder County, where I live, only 1 in 100 people, tops, would have any idea of what those two sounds (the Downy’s pick and the sparrow’s tchep were. I think 1 in 1,000 would be closer to reality.

    I’ve had lots of special sightings over the years–in places like Cape May, Peru, Monterey Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Asia.

    But y’know what’s more special, and more precious, to me than any of those memories?–being able to stand around in a schoolyard and recognize the brief, monosyllabic utterances of totally common woodpeckers and sparrows, birds UNknown to almost everyone.

    For sure, I want to be able to share that “secret knowledge,” as far and wide as possible.

    But for now, it’s still pretty arcane knowledge.

    I’m just don’t think we’re anywhere near the point that “any old Joe” is going to start recognizing the calls of unseen Downy Woodpeckers and Song Sparrows in schoolyards.

  • Thanks for posting this. I was fascinated by the idea that an app would create lazy birders. I think that may be true in the far distant future, but not yet. I just posted some thoughts at my blog In short, I see this app mainly serving as an interesting way for novices to begin to tackle the challenge of bird song ID, and if it gets people started and gives them a little more confidence to continue, that’s a great thing.

  • I can see a lot of positives and negatives associated with this program and they’ve for the most part been mentioned.

    I have a background in biomedical engineering and am constantly learning about the newest forms of analyzing signals from human bodies. Despite countless time, money and many very talented individuals being invested into these technologies many biological signals simply cannot be perfectly ‘analyzed’ or decoded…etc

    And I think that is the case for any bird song App. It will be able to identify the very obvious songs/calls but what about a song that is mixed in with several other songs, as is usually the case.

    For example, at a cocktail party the human brain is very capable of ‘tuning in’ on one voice and can easily understand what that person is saying despite many other conversations going on at the same time.
    However, computer programs simply cannot do this.

    So, I think the App will help beginners figure out the very clear cut and distinct songs (as DSibley wrote). However, someone relying on the App while out in the field will be no competition to someone who knows their bird songs.
    When they realize that they’ll surely want to learn how to do it themselves!

    And oftentimes one hears a bird song only once. Someone who knows the song may be able to ID it but the person with the App will not even have a recording of it!

  • One of the most enjoyable aspects of birding is birding by ear. Part of the intellectual enjoyment is to hear something new and then quietly wait (and wait and wait …) until the mystery bird reveals itself. A slightly different sounding “chip” note can turn out to be a great find.

    I always carry an iPhone (for “safety”) — and it’s loaded with birding apps. So will I cheat the game and just sound-shoot the bird? I hope I have enough discipline to not do that; and I think so. Lazy birding is not as much fun. If I was lazy then I wouldn’t have walked the three miles to bird out in the cold in the first place. The burden is on the user.

    On the other hand, if that unknown bird is singing deep in poison ivy scrub or in canebrake rattler habitat, and I’m out of wait-time, I’ll be glad to have a way to close on the mystery.

    Also, I’m noticing an increasing trend towards assuming “always-on” internet connectivity. My understanding is that WeBIRD matches your field recording with a database on a server (rather than filling your mobile device’s memory). But that means having a mobile connection/cell signal in the field … and I’m still finding an awful lot of black holes out there.

  • A tease: In the January 2012 issue of Birding, Diana Doyle will have more–quite a bit more–to say about apps, “ear birding,” and learning bird vocalizations.

  • Susan Lang

    Same problem here. Getting old!

  • Susan Lang

    And not-so-new birders in a different locale from their norm. I’m moving and the birds will be different, but there will always be those LBBs that I can’t quite make out, or take off before I can distinguish those faint markings, but leave a song behind.

  • Susan Lang

    At 63, moving through the jungle that is inland South Florida is not a great idea. I just finished cataract surgery, and my distance sight has improved tremendously, but I’m still not traipsing thru the jungle! My hearing is starting to lose its upper register, so I can’t be totally sure of what I’m hearing. Ask my daughter. she gets so fed up with me because i misunderstand what shes saying to me….This is not laziness, Lady, it’s age. I should give up trying to outfox those LBBs that show up for one second, leave a song and then leave? Try to figure out what that is in the jungle across the street?C’mon! Leave me something to do when I hit rocking chair age! I was hearing a Pileated woodpecker out there somewhere, but it wasn’t until he came in to pound holes in a dead pine I had left up that I was able to see and hear and ID. Drove me nuts for a month! Somewhere I have a photo of him in his hole…..
    As for information being on the server instead of the phone(you’d need some super storage on that phone!), one could record and save as an MP3 or whatever,until back in civilization and then send it on to the server for ID.

  • C. Tyler

    It sounds like a complicated task to bring to fruition. All I want to know is, is it ready yet? If not, when will it be ready? How much will it cost? Will it have a feature where we can enter the state where we are, or will it use a GPS? Will it be user friendly and have photos of birds as well as sound graphs?
    May 6, 2013

  • Rita Good

    I’ve been wanting an app like this for several years. Ever since Shazam. Do we think Shazam makes people lazy? I don’t. I love finding out the name of that beautiful music. And I can’t wait to be able to learn the name of that beautiful bird. I know my grandchildren will be more interested in birding with me, too. This is our new world. Let’s share the information rather than having the experts want to stay separate from the masses!!!

  • BadBadger

    I’d bet that the very people who criticize this technology haven’t spent the 10 seconds it takes to realize that without various other technologies, they wouldn’t be half the birders that they think they are. But maybe they’ve never used any technology in the pursuit of their hobby. You know, things like photography, field recorders, computers (sonograms), and the Internet.

    Maybe we should be touched by their concern for the dumbing-down of humanity, but it sounds more like elitist snobbery to me.

    Bring on the hi-tech!

  • Jaimee Zins

    I’m an avid, amateur birder and I fully support going out and looking and listening, without all the gadgets. However, I went camping this weekend and spent the entire night in my tent, awake, listening to one bird call ALL NIGHT LONG. By sunrise, the bird was nowhere to be found. I heard it again by early afternoon and could NOT find the bird in the high, dense canopy. It drove me NUTS. ALL DAY! Unfortunately, I’m not very good at birding by ear and I have difficulty distinguishing similar calls. I spent the entire day trying to find this bird. It was close, but not close enough. I used my Audubon app to try to narrow it down by listening to the calls, but I just couldn’t find the right one. By the second day, I was ready to tear my hair out and pitch my binoculars. This app would have saved me so much trouble. LOL I still don’t know what the bird was…

  • Jaimee, if you have the Audubon app I’m guessing you have a smartphone. Most smartphones include a function to make a sound recording which would probably work to capture that elusive song you can’t identify at the time. You can then have something to playback for a birding friend or to study later when you can compare it to other recordings.

  • Gary T Lefko

    Looking forward to this technology leap …

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