Prairie Warbler
Photo by Mark Tegges/

Bird identification app takes the guessing out of birdwatching

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One of the most common questions birdwatchers get asked is how to identify birds in the wild. This ability is painstakingly earned over thousands of hours watching our feathered friends. The birder slowly builds a comprehensive knowledge of markings, calls, habitats, and behaviours specific to hundreds of birds.

With a learning curve this steep, it’s easy to get discouraged when trying to identify birds in the wild. But thanks to Cornell University’s new bird identification app called Merlin, life just got easier.

Smartphone users may be familiar with an app called Shazam, which can identify songs just by listening to a brief segment of the music. Merlin does the same with photographs, isolating key elements and consulting with a robust database to find a match.

Developed by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, it is currently limited to 400 of the most common species across North America, but that should be enough to solve most of the common sightings that a hiker may encounter.

The hitch is that the program requires you upload a photograph. Sometimes getting binoculars on a bird is hard enough, never mind a clear photo. You are also required to draw a box around the bird, and click areas of the image to identify the eyes, bill tip, and tail tip.

With this information, Merlin consults the citizen science database to determine the most likely avian.

While the project is still being tested, its developers urge outdoors enthusiasts to begin using Merlin right away. The program becomes more reliable as more people use it, so you will be contributing to a great project that may help people gain a greater appreciation for the outdoors.