Smart Data

Recognising bird calls via app

During the holiday season, we should put our smartphones aside, says our columnist Markus Sekulla, who advocates more "digital detox" on //next anyway. One exception is apps that help us get to know the flora and fauna around us better - a fascinating option especially on holiday. In this article, Markus therefore takes a closer look at two apps that work like a kind of "Shazam for bird calls". 

The window in my bedroom faces a large courtyard. In summer, there is a beeping, chirping and whistling concert there early in the morning from 3:30 a.m. onwards, which is so loud that visitors in the neighbouring guest room always have to put some earplugs on the dessert table. There seems to be shift work: first one artist chirps, then the other beeps. And often you wonder - once you have woken up again - which bird is looking for a mate or which secrets of the universe it wants to share with its fellow species. We humans may never be able to understand the latter, but we can now find out what species this or that bird is by using an app. 

"There's an app for that"

Recording sounds and identifying bird species - all this is supposed to be child's play and only a few clicks away. At least that is the promise of the app manufacturers. From the multitude of offers, I first picked out and tested two programmes, namely "Vogelwelt" by NABU and "Merlin Bird". Two apps that seem very similar at first glance, but which are supposed to fulfil different wishes and needs of hobby ornithologists. I am curious!



"NABU Vogelwelt" - explore the local bird world (iOS/Android)

First, let's take a look at the app offered by NABU, a very well-known nature conservation organisation in Germany: Its app currently contains 308 bird species. A triad of useful and substantial features is supposed to ensure that we can identify, compare and report the birds with just a few clicks.

If you want to hear the songs in the app and don't want to miss out on videos and 3D images, you have to pay a small amount (1.99 euros a month or 9.99 euros a year), part of which goes to NABU's projects.

A great strength of the NABU app are the identification charts and detailed species portraits: great importance was attached to defining and explaining the individual body parts with their identification characteristics. Even the risk of confusion has been prevented. With the integrated compare function, bird enthusiasts can easily recognise and differentiate differences between similar species in order to accurately identify the animals. Of course, you can also tease this app a little and so I found out that our balcony squirrel seems to have a greater resemblance to a magpie, alternatively: to a redstart, a snow duck or a moor duck:

Nobody's perfect: Apart from minor weaknesses, the NABU app is very accurate in identifying native bird species.

Apart from that, however, I have been able to achieve very good results with the NABU app: It is very easy to use, offers a search field for a quick search for a specific bird species and is completely in German. And users even participate in species conservation: by taking part in various NABU campaigns, not only the bird lover but also the NABU association itself record trends in the populations of individual bird species. This can help to identify declining populations and to initiate necessary conservation measures.


"Merlin Bird ID" - for international use (iOS/Android)

The great strength of this app from Cornell University lies in its internationality: while the NABU app only shows native birds, Merlin Bird ID has more than 7,500 species stored. For each region in the world, however, the user has to download the respective "Bird ID Pack". At first glance, this may sound like a disadvantage, but the advantages are obvious: the mobile phone memory is not unnecessarily burdened and the loading time performance when opening the app is not affected. So it's a bit like the navigation apps for abroad if you don't have a local data package.

Each "Bird ID Pack" contains not only photos, but also sounds, maps with the distribution areas of the animals and explanatory texts. The highlight: each animal has a special ID. As soon as the user identifies a bird species, he can add it to the "Merlin Life List".

However, the app has small shortcomings: while the menu navigation and the explanatory texts are in German, the species names are in English. Standardisation for easier use and identification would be desirable. A detailed identification table and possibilities for comparison with other, similar species did not exist.

The bottom line

I remember my first Shazam experience in a bar, and I was flabbergasted: the concept of not having to go to the bar and ask what song was playing with just a recording was just brilliant. The bird call recognition is also great, because let's be honest, who knows anything about identifying birds, trees, mushrooms or similar things in nature these days? The two apps I tested at least introduced me to the blackbird and the house sparrow. A good start, isn't it?

Text: Markus Sekulla