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What’s That Bird Song? Merlin Bird ID Can Tell You

By Marc Devokaitis

It’s an almost universal feeling: the thrill of hearing a mysterious new bird song. And it’s usually followed up by the question: What was that bird?

Today, the question got much easier: the Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID app can now identify bird sounds. At the time of the initial launch, Merlin can recognize the sounds of 400+ species from the U.S. and Canada, with that number set to expand rapidly in future updates.

Automatic song ID has been a dream for decades, but analyzing sound has always been extremely difficult. The breakthrough came when researchers, including Merlin lead researcher Grant Van Horn, began treating the sounds as images and applying new and powerful image classification algorithms like the ones that power Merlin’s Photo ID feature.

“Each sound recording a user makes gets converted from a waveform to a spectrogram—a way to visualize the amplitude [volume], frequency [pitch], and duration of the sound,” Van Horn says. “So just like Merlin can identify a picture of a bird, it can now use this picture of a bird’s sound to make an ID,” Van Horn says.

This pioneering sound-identification technology is integrated into the existing Merlin Bird ID app, meaning Merlin now offers four ways to identify a bird: by a sound, by a photo, by answering five questions about a bird you saw, or by exploring a list of the birds expected where you are.

How to Use Sound ID
Download Merlin. To get the new Sound ID feature, simply download our free Merlin Bird ID app and follow the prompts. If you already have Merlin installed on your phone, tap Get Sound ID.

Find a Singing Bird (or Birds). If you’re hearing bird song, just select Sound ID from the main menu and press record. Merlin will instantly start listing the birds it hears. On your phone screen you’ll see a list of possible species, complete with a thumbnail photo of the bird and examples of songs and calls for each species.

Adjust Your Setup If Necessary. If Merlin has trouble identifying your bird, try getting closer without disturbing it, and check these tips to help you minimize extraneous noise.

Take Time to Review. When you’ve finished recording, you can go back and select a section to see which species are singing which songs. Or tap on any of the species in Merlin’s list of possibilities, and you’ll zip back to the point in the recording where that sound occurs. That way you can see and hear what separates it from other birds you’re hearing, and easily compare each sound to recordings from Merlin’s sound library.

Merlin automatically saves each recording to a folder on your device so you can access it anytime—and those recordings can be deleted or uploaded elsewhere if storage space is an issue. And you can save each bird species Merlin helps you identify to your life list using Merlin’s Save My Bird feature.

If you’re still having trouble installing or using Sound ID, check the Merlin help pages.