White-throated Sparrow by Kevin Pero/Macaulay Library.
White-throated Sparrow by Kevin Pero/Macaulay Library.

From the Summer 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now. Updated January 2023.

Its an scrutinizingly 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 Labs Merlin Bird ID app can now identify bird sounds. At the time of the feature’s 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. (Note: as of late 2022, the sound ID full-length could identify 870 species in the U.S., Canada, Western Palearctic (Europe), and Neotropics. More well-nigh sound ID coverage.)

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

Each sound recording a user makes gets converted from a waveform to a spectrograma way to visualize the width [volume], frequency [pitch], and elapsing 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 birds 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 well-nigh 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 self-ruling Merlin Bird ID app and follow the prompts. If you once 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 printing record. Merlin will instantly start listing the birds it hears. On your phoe screen you’ll see a list of possible species, well-constructed 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 torturous it, and trammels these tips to help you minimize irrelevant noise.

Take Time to Review. When youve finished recording, you can go when 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 when 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 hands compare each sound to recordings from Merlins sound library.

Merlin automatically saves each recording to a folder on your device so you can wangle it anytimeand 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 Merlins Save My Bird feature.

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

Try These Other Fun Ways to Use Sound ID

Try these specific uses of Sound ID, recommended by Merlin project coordinator Drew Weber, to make your birding by ear plane increasingly enjoyable:

Decode the Dawn Chorus: In spring and early summer, mornings overflow with bird songsometimes a dozen or increasingly species at once. Merlin can tease untied these threads and reveal the identity of each individual in the soundscape. And considering you can go when and dial in to the sound and image of each bird that was identified, you can listen then and again. Sound ID is a unconfined tool to help you learn bird songs and calls.

Decipher Tricky Tweedle Notes: As if bird songs weren’t difficult enough, birds often communicate with little increasingly than a few short, unmusical tweedle notes. Weber says that for many worldwide species, such as Northern Cardinal, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco, Merlin should be worldly-wise to make the ID from a well-spoken recording. Give it a try and see how Merlin fares.

Use Merlin as a Set of Super Ears”: Some bird songs are easier to hear than others. Birds that are singing in the distanceor ones with stratospheric songs such as Blackpoll Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Cedar Waxwingcan be nonflexible to pick up and plane harder to ID. You’ll finger like you have a superpower as Merlin detects and displays those difficult-to-discern calls, and checking what Merlin hears can be a unconfined way to train your own ears.

Alder Flycatcher by Tom Johnson (left), Willow Flycatcher by Ethan Denton, both from Macaulay Library.
Merlin Sound ID can help ID similar looking species that sound different, like Alder Flycatcher (left) and Willow Flycatcher (right). Alder Flycatcher by Tom Johnson, Willow Flycatcher by Ethan Denton, both from Macaulay Library.

Does Sound ID Really Work?

To train Merlin to identify bird sounds, the team assembled virtually 500 recordings for each species. Working on computers, volunteers trimmed and classified each recording by hand surpassing it was fed into a machine-learning model that learned each song and its variations. The app moreover uses eBird observations to know which birds are most likely to be found at a particular place and time.

Baltimore Oriole by Andrew Simon.
A Baltimore Oriole may be distinctive looking, but songs of variegated birds vary making this species' sound ID a rencontre for Merlin. Photo by Andrew Simon/Macaulay Library.

Even with all of Merlin’s computing power, some species present increasingly of an ID rencontre than others. A bird like Willow Flycatcher where all the individuals have a very similar song wideness all of North America, is easier for Merlin to identify, says project coordinator Weber. Compare that to something like a Baltimore Oriole, where each bird has its own twist on the typical song. For species like that, it can be difficult for Merlin to make the correct ID with very upper accuracy. Fortunately, we have thousands of examples of oriole songs and calls to yank on in the Macaulay Library and the model will get largest and largest over time.

Weber says future updates to Merlin will continually sharpen its skills. Users will sooner be worldly-wise to directly upload audio from Merlin to Macaulay Library, which will well-constructed the whirligig and indlge Merlin recordings to directly train future Merlin machine-learning models.

Merlin project leader Jessie Barry says that Merlin sound ID marks a unconfined leap forward in the worthiness for people to connect with and understand the sounds of the natural world virtually them. Macaulay Library web designer Matt Schloss, who describes himself as an wide beginner and beta-tested the app, agrees.

Merlin has helped me find birds that I might have overlooked before. It unquestionably makes me finger like I have a superpower, or at least enhanced skills, Schloss says. I truly think this is going to transpiration the way people bird.

Merlins new sound identification sufficiency is the product of years of work by the Merlin team, and was made possible thanks to the enormous hodgepodge of bird observations and sound recordings unsalaried by tens of thousands of resider scientists who use eBird and the Macaulay Library. Thank you.