A new photo-recognition app aims to help birders figure out just what the heck that yellow and black fella up in that there cedar is. Known as Merlin Bird Photo ID, the smartphone software is a joint venture between Cornell’s Ornithology Lab and Visipedia, a sort of image-heavy Wikipedia offshoot with an avian fixation. A weatherbeaten Sibley Guide this app is not: By snapping a photo of a bird, identifying anatomical structures like bills, and answering a few behavioral questions, a birder sends the app down a path to find the most likely critter out of about 400 known North American birds.
The right bird is in the top three candidates about nine out of every 10 queries, according to its creators. That number has the potential to get better over time, too, as the identification software analyzes more photos and improves with machine learning.
But like many aspects of birding culture — birders can be a salty bunch unless you approach them quietly — how to use birding apps has been more of a contentious affair than you might think. Apps that emit birdsong, for instance, can be used to lure reticent birds from hiding. You get to glimpse a bird you’d perhaps never see — however, so the thinking goes, you might be tricking a bird into a fake territorial dispute with a iPhone when it should be off gathering food or protecting its young.
There hasn’t been such an outcry about Merlin, so if you need it to identify that Bohemian Waxwing, go ahead and get it for free here.