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Merlin Bird ID Program Identifies Birds By Photo

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The future is here!

The smart folks over at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have developed a program that allows you to upload your bird photos and then uses the magic of technology to identify the species. This program is truly a game-changer in the world of birding.

Before I continue heaping praise on the new Merlin Bird ID program, I must acknowledge the fact that an app like this already exists. The Birdsnap app debuted more than a year ago on the App Store and was able to pretty accurately identify birds based solely on a user-submitted photo.

icon175x175Birdsnap is amazing and groundbreaking, but the major downside was its inability to identify birds photographed by your phone. Getting close enough to a bird to get a clear picture with your phone is next to impossible, so you would either need to use a digiscoping lens with smartphone attachment or import photos from your DSLR.

This new Merlin Bird ID program doesn’t overcome that hurdle just yet, but they bypassed some of the same complaints about the Birdsnap app by making it a web-only program at the moment. (They said they won’t release it on mobile yet until they can figure out how to ID birds with phone-quality photos.)

While Birdsnap is fantastic, Merlin has several advantages over the existing app. First, it was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is the organization in the world of birding. What they’ve brought to birding is invaluable. Not only is the app developed by Cornell but it also has the backing of Google. The tech behemoth is working on similar visual recognition technologies, so it was a no-brainer for Google to sponsor the program.

Along with those two things, the program is still learning, so it will only get smarter. When you click, “This is my bird” once the program identifies it, volunteers make sure it’s true. That feedback is used next time.

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To use the Merlin Bird ID program, you upload a picture from your computer. Then it’ll ask you to draw a tight box around the bird, click on the bill tip, click on the eye, and click on the tail tip. Then it’ll come up with a couple of options on what the bird might be. The first one that comes up is usually the right answer.

For those who already have the Merlin app, the accuracy is spot-on. That app can usually correctly identify a bird based on when and where the picture was taken along with a few of the colors and general size of the bird. It’s unclear how much this actually recognizes a bird or simply looks at its colors.

The few times I’ve used this new program so far have been right on the nose, but I haven’t tested some of the trickier species yet.

I absolutely believe this is a great thing for birding (for both amateurs and experts). What I’ll really look forward to is the point when we can take a photo with a smartphone (the bird being blurry and far away) and have it tell me what species it is. Until then, I’ll have to stay amazed at the accuracy of the Merlin Bird ID program.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.