by Bob Ross
24 May 2022
Why do I write about this topic? Because bird identification has changed so drastically in my lifetime and deserves some comment, as well as some prediction as to where it is going. I now have in my hand a device, smaller than my hand, that when a button is pushed, it detects, identifies, and shows a picture of every bird singing or vocalizing within several hundred yards of my location. I have tested it (the “app” is called Merlin, named after a small but fast North American falcon) on the big marsh near my home in Wellsboro PA, where I have recorded every bird species that has visited or lives there over the past 3 decades. This thing is accurate and reliable, though not without some error, as in humans. The scientific basis for this phenomenal ability has been known and available over all of my lifetime: sound spectrograms, graphs of frequency in Hertz versus time in milliseconds, for any recorded sound. Merlin runs these spectrograms across the top of its display while recording sounds (see photo). I used a parabolic dish and recording device to capture bird sounds for my own undergraduate work and thesis on bird communication in college. I had micrographs of those sounds printed off with the help of a researcher/professor whom I visited at the University of Buffalo over 5 decades ago. But the young researchers and “techies,” who only recently saw the power of applying this technology to a burgeoning interest in birds and competitive birding, are nothing less than revolutionaries.
When I was young and became interested in birds, the technological tools available at the time were: a pair of binoculars with high-quality lens’, perhaps a spotting scope, and a Roger Tory Peterson comprehensive bird field guide. That was it, except maybe for a notepad and pencil. My generation learned birds the hard way: hiking into good wild habitat, listening for a target species, focusing binoculars on rapidly moving, often small, songbirds in the canopy or distant forest floor, enduring endless insect bites to get that diagnostic color pattern or behavior, then comparing what was observed to what was pictured or written in the field guide. After a dozen mosquito bites you didn’t forget that image and the identity it proved! With further observation over the years the bird’s song and call notes were learned and not forgotten either, especially for young people in zealous pursuit of this body of knowledge and skill.
Why was “bird watching” or “birding” so engaging? Partly because “listing” (or “ticking” as the Brits would say) became a competitive game, I believe. How about a peaceful pastime? Outdoor recreation? A way to impress a buddy or teacher? A rewarding social activity with like-minded people? A step toward a career? For me, it was probably all the above.
But now so many have taken up the sport, I believe, simply because of the high-tech nature of “apps” easily downloaded onto one’s pocket phone. Apps such as eBird, a leading citizen-science program where anyone can contribute to our understanding of bird distribution and thereby bird conservation, lead the way. Since then a number of apps, such as Merlin described above, have emerged, each going a step further to assist beginning birders or to add scientific understanding of bird sounds, color patterns, and global distribution. eBird (www.eBird.org) alone has a user base that contributes >100 million observations to their database annually with a growth rate of 20%/year and has spread to nearly every country in the world. What conservation potential! eBird is the brainchild of young scientists and technologists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just 2 hours away from my summer home in PA! Of course folks at firms in Silicon Valley and many other tech centers across the nation played important roles in its development as well.
So where is this technology going? I don’t know. Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra once said. But here’s a scenario I can imagine, spreading like a corona virus variant to a different set of interests and users, one which uses a hypothetical app called T-Bird:
[JR and friend Gino in the car] “Hey JR, what do you say we cruise on out to The Bell for a burger and some fries? I’m hungry.
Oh, why not, things are a little slow right now…nothing but the usual Corollas, Cherokees, and Silverados out there. Yesterday I had a ’71 Datsun 521 pickup down on State Street, but nothing great since then.
Wow, those aluminum engines are still running after all these years? Great find!
JR, wait a minute…T-Bird just picked up a Gran Torino, only a half mile west of here!!!
[silence] Hang a right!”