Bird Identification Using Merlin Sound ID

Last Updated on May 22, 2024 by Nancie

Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot Main Menu
Merlin Bird ID Main Menu (IOS version)

Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID app is a fun way to learn more bird songs and calls. The Sound ID portion of this simple to use free smartphone app can help you identify a bird by sound. Spend some time with this app and you may find yourself identifying more and more birds by their songs.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

A few years ago, I did a blog post on “My Four Favorite Birding Apps”. Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID was not one of those four, but my husband and I have been experimenting with the app’s Sound ID lately and it really is cool. While not perfect, it does a pretty amazing job at catching and identifying quite a lot of birds around us.

Screen Shot - Photo ID Page
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Photo ID section)

Using Merlin Bird ID

The Merlin ID app is easy to use. When you open the app on a smartphone or tablet, it presents you with four options: “Start Bird ID”, “Get Photo ID”, “Sound ID” and “Explore Birds”. The Bird ID portion helps you ID a bird using a series of questions: location, date, size of the bird, main colors and the bird’s activity. You then are given a selection of possibilities that can help you ID the bird. Photo ID, instead helps you ID the bird using a photo that you take with your device’s camera or photo library. The Explore Birds option gives you a brief overview of each bird species you might see. This includes photos of the bird, sound recordings and a range map.

Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot: Sound ID Page
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Sound ID Start)

Using Sound Identification

But this post is about the Sound ID portion of the app. Tap on the Sound ID option and you are presented with a screen instructing you to, “Get as close to the bird as you can, hold still, and press record.”

Screen Shot (Best Matches)
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Best Matches Bird List)

Once you press the green record icon, the app then starts listening for birds. A running spectrogram at the top lets you actually see the sound patterns the app hears. Below this is a list of best matches. Each time the app hears another bird species, it adds it to the list. If you have downloaded one of their bird packs, you’ll see a representative picture of the bird. Otherwise, you’ll just see the species name. (Downloading the bird packs are not required to use the Sound ID portion of the app. The app can also be used offline if you like.)

If Sound ID then hears that same species again, it briefly highlights that bird in the list in yellow. (See the screenshot above.) Press the red stop icon at the bottom of the screen to end recording at any point. You can leave the recording running as long as you like, although after ten minutes, a message pops up asking if you want to continue recording. Really long recordings can be slow to save and it can also be easy to forget you’ve got it running. So I found the reminder to be welcome.

Screen Shot (Best Matches)
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Best Matches)

Ways to Use Merlin Sound ID

Sound ID can be useful in a few different ways. One way is to help you ID a bird that you can only hear. In this case, try to get your phone as close to the bird sound as you can without interrupting its behavior. The possibilities the app presents you with might also help you figure out where to look to confirm the ID. For example, is it suggesting a bird that tends to be found on the ground or high in a tree?

It can also help you find an elusive bird that you think might like an area where you are birding. For example, while walking in a botanical garden, my sister suggested an area where she had previously seen Blue-headed Vireos. While we didn’t actually get eyes on it this time, the app heard one right in that area.

My husband and I went on a birding hike recently and used Sound ID quite a lot. While I picked up many of the songs/calls on my own, the app was helpful in confirming what I was hearing, So yes, that flycatcher was in fact an Acadian Flycatcher. Very cool!

Alternatively, you might instead just settle yourself somewhere, turn on the app and let it run. In a bird friendly environment, you might be surprised to find all the birds talking around you. We found that, although we were familiar with most our backyard birds’ main songs and calls, there were other things being said by these same birds that we hadn’t associated with them specifically.

Using the App to Learn About Birds

You may also start to see patterns. For example, currently in May, the Northern Cardinals are CONSTANTLY talking. We have quite a few in our yard, but still, every time I start Sound ID, Northern Cardinal is one of the first birds that comes up. Carolina Wrens are also currently quite chatty in my yard.

Watching the running spectrogram at the top of the screen lets you to “see” the bird song and call sound patterns. This can help you learn them so that you’ll be able to recognize them in the future, even without the app. If you can, also try to watch the bird itself sing or call. That can really help associate the sound with the bird.

Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Best Matches)
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Best Matches)

The Accuracy of Merlin Sound ID

Merlin Sound ID is just a point to start with identifying a bird. You shouldn’t assume that the app will always get the ID right. Cornell cautions that,“Merlin shows a list of possible birds based on the songs and calls you recorded, and matches that with the birds that are likely in your area. Explore the matches provided by Merlin and compare the provided audio recordings to see if it matches your bird. Merlin is a great birding companion that suggests which species are more likely, but it relies on you to confirm what you’re hearing or seeing.”

From our own experiments, the app seems to do pretty good telling the difference between human or machine noises and bird sounds. For example, my sister tried to trick it by whistling, but it wasn’t fooled. That said, the app still does pick up the sounds you make or other sounds in the area. I’ve found that talking while the app is listening can make it hard for the app to hear birds. Other nearby loud sounds would likely do the same. If your neighbor is using a lawn mower or leaf blower, that will probably mask any bird noise on Merlin. But more distant background sounds of traffic and airplanes, while they show up as visual noise on the sound spectrograms, don’t usually interfere with closer Sound ID.

Bird songs and calls can sometimes be similar across species, so the possibilities that Sound ID suggests are its best guess. I saw the app be fooled once by a very good imitation of a Cooper’s Hawk by one of our backyard Blue Jays. And sometimes it comes up with some pretty unlikely possibilities. (I highly doubt there was a Wild Turkey in my suburban neighborhood or a Broad-Billed Hummingbird in my Maryland backyard!) So don’t get too excited if the app comes up with something uncommon or rare. Use the app as a starting point and verify!

Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Explore Birds)
Merlin Bird ID Screen Shot (Explore Birds)

Give This Free Birding App a Try!

Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID is free. Look for it in your device’s app store. It runs on IOS and Android smartphones and tablets but not desktop computers. While the descriptive info on bird species are not as in-depth as some other bird identification apps that you must pay for, it’s still very worthwhile to load onto your phone. Give it a try. I think you’ll have fun with it and may just learn quite a lot!


Learn More

2023 Cornell Article about Merlin: Merlin Milestone: App now helps ID birds worldwide

All About Birds Article on how to Identify Bird Songs and Calls with Sound ID

Cornell Help Center Article about Merlin Bird ID

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