February 2019

Naming That Song

Part 1: Identification

Imagine being able to just point a cell phone at a singing bird and have an app immediately identify it for you. Maybe even tell you if it's male or female. And have it ignore the other birds nearby that you already know, the chatter of other birders in your group talking, or even the airplane flying overhead. App developers have imagined this, but their efforts are not universally considered successful. Given the progress made in image recognition of bird photos (a future topic for this column), we can expect that greater success with song recognition will come soon.

Meanwhile, there are some interesting possibilities to explore, both with apps and with online archives. First the mobile applications, which have had a patchy response. None are free, and none offer a money-back guarantee, which is not surprising given the challenges involved in detecting, recording, isolating, analyzing, and comparing a "song" sample with a stored or online database. Even the better of them won't identify that Eastern Yellow Wagtail that showed up in Marin County, California in Fall 2018 - it won't be in the data set! But, if the task is to differentiate between a White-breasted or a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and your mobile picked up a clean record, there's a chance you'll get some help. Hoping to determine whether that was a Red-tailed Hawk you heard or clever mimicry by a Steller's Jay? Good luck.

The LifeHacker[1] website conducted a series of tests of three fairly effective apps, and concluded that while each got some IDs right, they all got different ones wrong. Even if you used all three on the same bird, you wouldn't know which one was right unless someone told you. And then why would you use an ID tool if you had a human expert as a resource? To resolve this quandary, each app tested offers suggested pictures to illustrate their guesses, and some even play back pre-recorded songs for comparison. Bottom line is that while these apps might be fun, they are no substitute for knowledgeable birdwatching buddies.

One way those skilled companions might have improved their proficiency at song recognition is through the use of online recording archives. Many of the major birding websites offer sound samples along with photos of the species they describe. Cornell Lab's All About Birds[2] gives a "Listen" button on each search result, and also provides a selection of songs for the chosen bird through a "Sounds" link at the top of the page.

Other sites with excellent audio resources include the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo[3], which utilizes a bare-bones, ID key-style interface and Bird Sounds[4], the amazing work of Torben Weiland from Denmark. But no list of bird sound archives is complete without including the Macaulay Library[5], which is the ultimate global reference and repository, searchable by any parameter you can imagine. Want to compare vocalizations of the Holoarctic Raven above the 50th parallel? That's where you go.

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