Since the first time birders used Shazam to learn what song was playing on the radio, they’ve been waiting for an app that can identify what birds they are hearing.
There have been attempts at the technology and we’ve been teased with releases. Princeton, for example, has been dangling the “BirdGenie” app in front of birders for years but has pushed the release date back repeatedly. (It’s currently slated for “Summer 2017.”) But FINALLY we have an app that appears to be up to the test: Song Sleuth.
This app was created by Wildlife Acoustics, the same company that makes the Echo Meter Touch Handheld Bat Detector that Maine Audubon used in its initial monitoring efforts for a pilot project to survey bats in Maine. They teamed with David Allen Sibley (ever heard of him?) to combine great audio analysis with stunning artwork and detailed species accounts. Honestly, just seeing new Sibley artwork — including non-avian species — with new maps and descriptions makes me feel like this app is worth the modest $9.99. Here are my initial thoughts on this new tool:
I’ve only been using the app for about 36 hours and I can safely say I am pretty impressed. I’ve tried testing the app while walking around Portland (lots of ambient noise) and while birding at Gilsland Farm (fairly quiet background noise) and in a controlled situation (my office). The control case, in which I played an American Crow call from a coworker’s phone, worked perfectly. Read below for how the “real world” tests went:
Field Test: Tufted Titmouse at Gilsland Farm
At Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, Maine, I found a situation perfectly suited to demonstrate how I imagine the app should work. I stepped outside and could hear a distant Tufted Titmouse singing. The bird was probably 100 yards out, across the orchard. There was very little background noise. Despite the distance, the app was able to detect the song and correctly identify it as a Tufted Titmouse. PERFECT!
Field Test: House Sparrow in the city
In the first recording below you’ll hear an excessive amount of background noise — the many sounds of snow removal in Portland — but the House Sparrow’s call is still distinct. This is what I would consider the worst-case-scenario for recording a bird and the results bear that out. The recommended ID was Red Squirrel, with Rock Pigeon and Blue Jay as other options.
As a follow up to this test, I walked further down the road and closer to the calling House Sparrow. You can see that the recording is much clearer (visible calls in the spectrogram on the left) and this time at least House Sparrow was in the “likely matches” after Human.
I’m sure that the app developers would be quick to point out an error with my first recording: the recording is too long for the app to select the bird’s call. So, I used the trim feature to narrow down to just the bird’s call and the app did much better — at least House Sparrow showed up in the top three options.
Honestly, one of my favorite things about this app is the inclusion of a few non-avian species, including frogs and toads, squirrels, and — to represent the “Great Apes” — Homo sapiens. These categories have limited breadth, with only three amphibians (American Toad, Gray Tree Frog, and Spring Peeper) and three squirrels (Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, and Red Squirrel). However, these are the most likely, or most vocal, species that you would expect to encounter.
The first issue, which I almost hesitate to point out, is the small number of species covered by the app. Two hundred species sounds like a lot until you spread those across the country and narrow them to certain times of the year. But you have to start someplace. Merlin, the great visual identification app, started around 400 species and recently updated to 650+ North American birds.
I also hope to see the app becoming more intuitive in future updates. I definitely recommend watching the (unfortunately fairly long) demonstration video when you first launch the app so that you can learn to navigate your recordings. More “Help” buttons along the way would be nice. Plus the “Species List” is grouped by families but displayed in alphabetic order. There is nothing intuitive about sparrows being at the top of the list under “Buntings and New World Sparrows” especially when none of the Embrizine Buntings are included.
I highly recommend this app for beginning birders looking to put a name to some of the common songs they hear around their yard. Birders who are already “birding by ear” probably don’t have much to gain from this app, yet. Even if you are a ‘pro’ I recommend downloading this to either: a) prove how much more you know than a dumb computer, b) be able to show and teach it to a budding birder, or c) to support Wildlife Acoustics, Sibley, and birding in general by showing that you ‘want’ more apps like this.
Our “Birding with Your Smartphone” evening lecture was rescheduled to the evening of February 21st. In that talk we will cover various field guide apps, do an introduction to “digiscoping,” and now we will certainly be showing off Song Sleuth! More information on that event is at: maineaudubon.org/events/birding-with-your-smartphone/