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Birding with a Tricorder


Here’s a photo from a bird walk this past Sunday afternoon:

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. Four birders are pointing their smartphone cameras at a flowering rabbitbrush, a plant favored by painted lady butterflies. Painted ladies, you may have heard, are staging a remarkable population outbreak all across North America. If you’ve gone birding in the past couple weeks, you’ve likely seen one or two or hundreds of painted ladies.

This scene would have been inconceivable in the late 1990s. In the late 1990s, people still had phones that looked like this:

Enter Martin Cooper, inventor and Trekkie. In a striking example of life imitating art, Cooper conceived the cell phone while watching Star Trek. Captain Kirk’s phone looked like this:

The setting is the 23rd century, but the image is hopelessly old school. For starters, those velor threads. Please. And then there is the matter of the object in Captain Kirk’s right hand: The dude is using a flip phone. You can’t get more old school than that.

Now enter Steve Jobs, another inventor and Trekkie. Jobs re-conceived the flip phone of yesteryear—not simply as a better communicator, the name given Captain Kirk’s device, but, rather, as something entirely different. If our old flip phones were Star Trek communicators, then today’s smartphones are tricorders:

According to Wikipedia (something else that wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen as recently as the late 1990s), the tricorder is a “multifunction handheld device for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data.” What was that about life imitating art?

A couple hours prior to the bird walk that Sunday afternoon a few days ago, I was out on my own, tricorder in hand. I’d come upon a flock of White-crowned Sparrows at a nearby mini-hotspot, and I set upon the task of separating among the several subspecies possible in my area at this time of year. In addition to morphological variation, there are differences in song. White-crowns habitually sing on fall migration. So I pointed my tricorder, a.k.a. my smartphone, at a singing sparrow, and got a recording that I promptly uploaded to eBird.

No external microphone, no other fancy accessories. Just a recording of a White-crowned Sparrow, subspecies gambelii, with the characteristic buzz at the end of the song. Assuming you clicked on the link at the end of the preceding paragraph, you saw an animated sound spectrogram, frequency in kilohertz plotted against time in seconds, a graphical representation of the millipascals of energy emitted from the bird’s syrinx and detected by my smartphone’s microphones. Talk about sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data!


No question about it, smartphones have changed the way we bird. But this isn’t mere Six Million Dollar Man stuff: better, stronger, faster. We’re talking about a qualitative change, a quantum leap, in how we bird.

Go back to that picture at the beginning. It’s not just that those four people are pointing their phones at a bush, something nobody would have done a quarter-century ago. Consider the fact that they’re even looking at the bush in the first place. Everywhere I go these days, I encounter birders who are looking at arthropods.

I actually taught arthropod identification in the mid-1990s, and I can tell you that the whole undertaking was an exercise in futility. In order to ID insects and spiders, you need iNaturalist and Singing Insects of North America, you need state and provincial Facebook ID groups, you need field guides with digital photos, and, most of all, you need a digital camera—none of which existed back when I was teaching arthropod ID.

(Yes, I know you can catch ’em, kill ’em, stick ’em on a pin, hold a magnifying glass up to their genitalia, and put a scientific name on them. That’s awesome for science, and I am a strong supporter of scientific entomology. But I’m also pragmatic enough to accept that the catch-’em-and-kill-’em approach holds exceedingly limited appeal for the broader public.)

Anyhow, insects and spiders are accessible to birders in a way they weren’t before smartphones. And it’s gratifying to me that birders have followed suit. I’ve never put much stock in the notion that birders are one-dimensional. It’s just that, until recently, we birders didn’t really have the resources to branch out into, say, arthropods. Not all that long ago, it was unusual to meet a birder who doubled as an entomologist; these days, its seems, everyone’s onto odes, butterflies, tiger beetles, and more.

Go back to that picture one more time. And compare it now with this one:

That image by Michel Gosselin, appearing on the cover of the October 1981 Birding, was an instant classic. It’s tempting to laugh it off, but, actually, so much about the guy in the right panel is spot-on. Like the beard. How many twenty-something and thirty-something beardless male birders do you know? Me neither. Michel, if you’re out there, you should be an advisor to the fashion industry.

Note also that the birder from the future is birding with smartphone-like technology. It’s easy to imagine that he’s analyzing molt (read: smartphone camera), recording flight calls (read: smartphone recorder), uploading sightings to a universal database (read: eBird app), predicting nocturnal migration (read: animated Doppler radar loops), and updating the exact geo-referenced coordinates of a stakeout (read: Google maps). I count five gizmos on our birder from the future. The only difference, really, is that our unobtrusive, fit-in-your-back-pocket smartphones do all five of those things, and a lot more.

All that said, there is one sense in which Michel’s marvelous cover misses the mark: Each of the three figures appears to be solitary.


I’m beating a dead horse now, but that picture of the butterfly-watching birders wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-smartphone era. I’m not talking about the fact that the folks are using a new technology. Neither am I talking about the fact that they’re enjoying as aspect of nature study that was essentially inaccessible until recently. No, I’m talking about something else: I’m talking about the fact that they’re there in the first place, gathered as a group of like-minded nature enthusiasts.

This picture isn’t from a bird club outing. It’s certainly not from an ornithological society field expedition. Rather, they’re gathered under the auspices of the City of Lafayette, Colorado, which organized this outing through digital means. Outreach was via online social media. I asked folks where they heard about the outing, and the answers were varied: texts, Facebook, the state birding listserv, even the city’s old-school website.

No, no, no. That’s not what I meant. Texts and Facebook and so forth are software. I wanted to know the hardware. And in response to that question, the majority said the same thing: from their smartphones.

Look, I know about all the dangers—real and imagined—of too much screen time. I live with a teen and a preteen, and I can tell you that their pediatrician is more concerned about their iPads than the combined effects of drugs, guns, and STDs. But digital technology, like atomic energy and the internal combustion engine, isn’t perforce a bad thing. Our birding community has, on the whole, made good use of smartphones. For one thing, our smartphones have made us better birders—better in the Six Million Dollar Man sense. But I think our smartphones (and other digital technologies) are making us better in a deeper sense: I think they’re promoting a stronger community and a richer sense of what it means to all be in this thing together. And if that’s really the case, then this is the biggest breakthrough in the history of birding.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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