I Can't Stop Using This Free App That Uses AI to Identify Birds

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin Bird ID is the only AI app you need on your phone. Here me out.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's free Merlin Bird I app for iPhone uses AI to help identify birds vi...
Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty; Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Other than cars, the thing I hear most often at home is birds. I live in Southern California, in a relatively suburban neighborhood, outside of an even more metropolitan downtown. I don’t get the opportunity to really consider the natural world other than the palm trees on my street and walking a few blocks to the park near my apartment. But I’ve always wondered about the birds I hear every morning, and after being introduced to the Merlin Bird ID app through, believe it or not, a podcast, I had to try it.

And safe to say, it’s one of the most pleasant and visible uses of artificial intelligence on my phone — machine learning laid bare thanks to how simple the app works. And similar to apps that help you organize and think with things you’ve already taken notes on, Merlin Bird ID is one of the few uses of AI I feel purely good about.

Using AI to Identify Birds

Listening to a bird sound recording outside on the Merlin Bird ID app.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Merlin Bird ID is developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, as I’ve come to learn, one of the premier sources for records and information about birds in the United States. The Cornell Lab manages the Macaulay Library, an archive of photos, audio, and texts about the avian friends we share our sky with and other wildlife in North America. Using a model co-developed with CalTech and trained on the images and sounds of those birds, Merlin can take a photo you snapped or listen to a recording and attempt to identify the bird you saw or heard and then connect you to more information about them.

The app itself is unassuming. When you first use it, you’ll have to create an account to be associated with the information you log (Merlin also aims to expand Cornell Lab’s archive) along with your location, so the app can download the appropriate information for reference. From there, you have several options for identifying a bird: “Sound ID,” a “Step by Step ID” that lets you fill in as much information as possible, and “Photo ID,” which lets you capture or upload a photo and identify a bird visually.

An AI that helps push you away from your phone and appreciate the world around you — what a concept!

Sound ID is what I’ve used most often, just because it’s a lot harder for me to see birds where I live than it is to hear them. When you start a Sound ID session, your phone will just start recording audio. You’ll see the waveform and how it gets deformed when you hear a bird call. But even wilder, Merlin will identify the birds on the fly based on the call, even listing multiple options if it’s not quite sure or you’re hearing multiple birds. You can tap on the individual bird types to learn more about them, where they’re typically found in the United States, what kinds of terrain and plants they like to live in, and what their call normally sounds like. Merlin also gives you access to recordings other people have made of the bird so you can compare them with your own.

In my neighborhood — surprise, surprise — I get a lot of American Crows, but the app also said I’ve heard a fair number of Bewick’s Wren, a small, slender, brown bird with a long tail and white marks above its eyes that look like eyebrows. Bewick’s Wren are common along the Pacific Coast, but I’ve only ever seen them quickly darting from perch to perch. I’d never known what they were before I sat and listened, holding up my phone for audible verification. This, to me, was the initial charm of Merlin: The feeling of being encouraged to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on around me, and learning a bit in the process with a tool that connects dots that would otherwise require a field guide or some research on Google that I might not finish until the bird flew away. An AI that helps push you away from your phone and appreciate the world around you — what a concept!

How Birders Feel About AI Identification

Other than crows, what I heard most in my neighborhood were wrens.

picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Speaking to experienced birders, that’s the feeling they’re drawn to, and they don’t really care if an app was what got you there. “I’m thrilled anytime anyone wants to pay attention to birds, if they hear a bird song and want to know what it is, I think that’s great,” author and legendary birder Kenn Kaufman tells me over Zoom. Kaufman’s interest in birds blossomed when he was a teenager and has led to a lifelong passion for identifying North American birds — as evidenced in his series of highly recommended field guides and his position as the Field Editor for the National Audubon Society.

“I don’t think that if somebody starts off by identifying things with an app they’re going to be prevented from going back and learning to recognize them,” Kaufman continued. “The way a baby learns language is not built on learning the parts of speech… we learn language in a very, very haphazard manner, and then go back and sort of fill in what we missed.”

In that way, Merlin can stoke curiosity, and act as a gateway to more information and further research. Or at least it’s supposed to. Digital tools are the norm with birding now, at the very least with younger generations.

“When I started birding it was 2005 and that was really the start of eBird... which is an online organization tool where birders collect their sightings and you can look up different sightings and stuff,” Maine Audubon employee Nick Lund says. “And so that for me, the online component of birding has always been really central to my experience.”

The issue with apps like Merlin is that if the app misidentifies a bird, it’s negligibly easy to upload your incorrect sighting to eBird and start introducing false information into an app people rely on, particularly ironic considering Cornell Lab runs both. Kaufman was able to think of a specific example in western Canada where Merlin identified the bird songs of “dark-eyed juncos as those of orange-crowned warbler, which is a migrant into that area, but shouldn't be there yet.” If that information was then uploaded to eBird, that could become a problem over time for people looking for help tracking bird sightings. The site and app have their own moderators, and this is obviously not at the level of other kinds of misinformation plaguing the internet, but it is yet another example of how trusting AI as a first principle is bad.

What Noticing Birds Gives You

For Kaufman and Lund, the magic of birding that Merlin gives the layperson a way into is a new awareness of the world around you.

“I think anyone’s life is going to be improved if they start noticing more of the natural world around them, whether it’s the birds or the bees, the butterflies, whatever. It makes life more three-dimensional,” Kaufman says.

Even in my short time using Merlin, I could see how a deeper investment in any kind of observation of the natural world could do that. It’s a “shift,” as Lund described it, to not seeing nature as background noise “but the sounds of particular creatures living their lives, with their own histories, and their own places to go.”

“I think anyone’s life is going to be improved if they start noticing more of the natural world around them...”

That’s the kind of experience I’m trying to have, and if machine learning can get us there, then I’m certainly more open to it than chatbots that spew images and text. New AI gadgets seem to at least be gesturing at the idea too. In the case of the Rabbit R1, that’s navigating apps and online services for you so you can get back to whatever you enjoy. For Humane’s Ai Pin, the company’s wearable not only allows its Ai Bus to retrieve functionality and experiences as needed, it doesn't have a screen at all. We’re still waiting to learn how these new devices change how we behave, but at the very least for now, Merlin Bird ID gives you a taste of that increased awareness for free.

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