Merlin Bird ID: Name It and Claim It

 Free from the iPhone App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android)

Beyond the bright red of a cardinal, identifying birds can be tough – especially if they are on the move!  But help is literally at hand if you have the Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

Merlin Bird ID provides two ways to identify the 1,500+ birds in its database: by using a wizard interface that steps through questions about size, color, and environment for your sighting, and by taking a photo of a bird.  Just a quick look at a bird is usually enough for the wizard to identify a bird, but the app also offers multiple bird calls and songs for each bird to help identify or confirm an identity of a particular species.

During a recent hike in the Forest River open space (see map at: ) I caught a glimpse of a bird that I thought might be a kingfisher, but I wasn’t sure.   I used the wizard to find the kingfisher entry and then listened to the recordings of its call.  Sure enough, the sounds I continued to hear, long after the bird had flown, confirmed the identification.

When you start the app, you choose your preferred identification method by clicking either “Start Bird ID”, “Get Photo ID”, or “Explore Birds” (see Screen 1).  After selecting “Start Bird ID” the wizard asks you for your current location, the date of your sighting, an estimate of its size using a neat graphical interface (see Screen 2), the color(s) of the bird, and what environment it was in (see Screen 3).  It then shows you a list of birds (see Screen 4) with photos, descriptions, and options to hear bird songs or see more details, photos, or maps (see Screen 5).  In my experience, the bird I’ve seen is usually somewhere in this list and the photo is the key identifier.  If you are successful in identifying your bird, you can provide that sighting information back to the Cornell lab for their research.

The Photo ID method has tantalizing potential, but in practice, it’s pretty difficult to get close enough to a bird to get a photo that is good enough to be recognized.  I’ve tested it by pointing my camera at someone else’s photo of a bird, so I know it works, but I’m glad the app offers an easy-to-use wizard method as well.

The app also offers an “Explore Birds” method for those who want to browse or for birds you think you know, but just want to look up a specific type.  For example, if you see a bird that looks like a hawk, you can enter “hawk” in the search box to see a list of six hawks (see Screen 6).

The Merlin Bird ID app draws on the research data from an institution that is devoted to the study of birds, so the photos, habitat maps, songs, and descriptions are excellent.  I’ve been using the app for several years, and the data has been expanded and updated many times over that period.  They now offer free “Bird Packs” for different areas of the world which can be downloaded individually, depending on your location.

Marblehead is on the Atlantic Flyway for bird migration, so it gets more than its fair share of native and migrating birds.  Knowing the names of the birds you’re seeing is a great way to enhance the open space experience for both kids and adults, and Merlin Bird Id is a great companion to make that possible.

– David Krathwohl, Trustee

Screen 1: When the app starts, you choose your method of identifying a bird


Screen 2: An easy, visual interface lets you specify the approximate size of the bird you are  trying to identify.


Screen 3: Choosing the type of environment for the bird is important to narrowing the choices.


Screen 4: Once the wizard has all the information, it presents a list of likely suspects, complete with photos, songs, a description, and options to see more details.


Screen 5: The Details section also offers a map showing where the bird can be found.


Screen 6: Exploring by name lets you specify a type of bird so you can select the particular species