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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology releases iPhone app to help identify birds

PHOTO CREDIT: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., has released a free iPhone app to help people identify 285 birds in North America. Created with support from the National Science Foundation, the app asks five questions and then displays photos of birds that match your description — customized to your location and time of year.

“We named the app ‘Merlin’ because of its uncanny, almost magical, way of guessing which bird you saw,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Jessie Barry, whose team created the app with partner Birds in the Hand.

Barry says that, far from magic, Merlin uses data from citizen-science participants and birdwatchers to understand how people see and describe birds —and to narrow the list to the birds found nearby.

The app is the first to use data from the eBird citizen-science project to dynamically select the birds found within about a 30-mile radius of your location at the time when you saw the bird.

“This type of precision is only possible because birdwatchers report their sightings to eBird from locations across North America every day of the year,” Barry said. Merlin draws upon 70 million eBird sightings to calculate which species you’re most likely to encounter.

Additionally, birdwatchers “trained” Merlin to understand how people see and describe birds. By participating in online activities to describe birds based on photos, they contributed more than 3 million data points that Merlin uses to deduce which birds are the most likely based on people’s description of color, size and behavior.

The app records your response when you confirm the bird you saw, enabling researchers to identify successful interactions and improve Merlin’s performance over time. It also displays photos, ID tips, sounds and range maps for each species.

The Cornell Lab plans to release Merlin for Android and online use in the coming months, and to continue adding more species.

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