Using the Merlin Bird ID App to Identify Birds
Photo: American Redstart (m) photographed in the Algoma Region (August 2023). Photo by Matthew Palarchio.
Birding (birdwatching) is very popular among the Naturalist community around Lake Superior, (and more broadly, the entire Great Lakes Region), showing strong growth in popularity over the past few decades. Some naturalist clubs, including Nature London, have entire committees devoted to birding. Until recently, many birders relied primarily on photographic field guides, bird song mnemonics, and visual observation to identify local bird species. Although these identification tools are still relevant today, the release of Merlin Bird ID by Cornell University in the 2010s has changed the methods that people use to develop their birding skills.
Merlin primarily functions as an comprehensive, online field guide. Essential features of field guides, such as species distribution maps, and a description of distinguishable features are included for each species in the Merlin. Sound and Photo ID technologies are also included. These technologies are revolutionizing birding, making the development of birding skills easier and more accessible.
Merlin Bird ID is affiliated with Cornell University’s eBird, which is the world’s largest online bird observations database. Observations submitted to eBird are used to continuously improve and refine the quality of the Merlin’s technologies.
Merlin is downloadable as an app compatible with both Samsung and Apple Devices. Once the Merlin is downloaded, users of Merlin install “bird packs”; a compilation of bird species organized by region of observation. I would recommend the U.S. – Northeast bird pack for Ontario, which is more resourceful than the Canada East bird pack (in my opinion). Downloadable bird packs are available for most regions of the world; including remote locations such as Iceland, South America’s Amazon, and Antarctica. After installing the desired bird packs, Merlin can be fully utilized as an interactive online field guide.
Left: Examples of Bird Packs. Larger packs will contain more species but will also occupy more storage. Right: I would recommend the U.S. Northeast bird pack, which contains 338 bird species. Many are common to the Northern Great Lakes Region [incl. Sault Ste Marie] , examples being Ovenbird and Black-and-White Warbler, but also uncommon species such as the Golden-Winged Warbler, and southerly species, including the Louisiana Waterthrush.
Merlin’s Sound ID feature is another very helpful bird identification tool, making bird identification far easier for many amateur birdwatchers. To identify a bird by sound, a user of Merlin can record any bird sound. Merlin will then automatically process the recording and will usually display the name of a corresponding bird species if the recording is of sufficient quality. Though Sound ID is capable of misidentifying birds, this only happens when one species has a very similar sound to another species; in these cases, Merlin will display the names of both species. In general, Merlin is very reliable – misidentification is very rare considering good-quality recordings of distinctive, common bird sounds.
In addition to Sound ID, Merlin has several recordings of common sounds embedded for every species downloaded. These recordings can be played at any time by the user. Playing these recordings in repetition can greatly increase proficiency in bird sound identification without relying on Merlin’s Sound ID feature.
Ethics need to be considered when utilizing bird recordings. The naturalist community generally discourages the use of bird sound recordings in the field, as this disrupts the natural behavior of birds. Sound recordings can be particularly harmful in the breeding season (May-July), due to the high sensitivity of nesting birds. Do not play bird sound recordings around any species of conservation concern (i.e. species-at-risk).
Merlin also has a Photo-ID feature. Bird species are automatically identified when Merlin processes photos. You can also utilize iNaturalist for the purposes of photo ID – it has the added benefit of a global, interactive database. By utilizing the search feature on iNaturalist, users can explore iNaturalists maps to access thousands of birding records. Photo Identification on both Merlin and on iNaturalist is very reliable; misidentifications are almost unknown for good-quality material.
Beside the photo of each downloaded species, Merlin will also display a bar chart, conveying the probability of a bird species occurring in a location throughout the year. Essentially, Merlin displays to birders which species are likely to occur at their location. Not abundant and uncommon / rare species will be marked with an orange and red icon respectively.
In my opinion, Merlin is very user friendly. Users can choose to display birds from all downloaded bird packs, or just one. The order of the birds in the field guide can also be customized; Merlin can sort birds by likeness, family, or in alphabetically.
Photo: Black-Capped Chickadee, photographed in the Algoma Region. (August 2023). Photo by Matthew Palarchio.
Photo: American Goldfinch, photographed in London, Ontario (August 2023). Photo by Matthew Palarchio.
Photo: Canada Warbler (f), photographed in the Algoma Region (August 2023). Photo by Matthew Palarchio.
Photo: White-Breasted Nuthatch, photographed in the Algoma Region (August 2023). Photo by Matthew Palarchio.