Merlin Bird ID: A Comprehensive App Review

Introduction to The Merlin Bird ID App

Birding and bird ID come hand in hand, but for some beginners, it can be tricky to learn differences between bird species. Some look and sound so similar, but for those seeking an amazing, futuristic Bird ID app, one of the best bird ID tools out there is the Merlin Bird ID App. 

This free app is an amazing guide for beginners and experts alike, housing some great identification tools to help narrow down your search. Merlin Bird ID App’s unique and useful features of picture and sound identification are incredibly useful, even when in the field.

We shall explore the many features, conservation efforts and answer some FAQs about the Merlin Bird ID, and, to keep your options open, suggest some great alternatives like the Birda app.

Overview of Merlin Bird ID

Merlin Bird ID was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University with help from eBird, and is powered by Visipedia. The app’s outstanding features of mostly accurate bird ID have helped all types of birders, from complete novices to those in the know. Asking Merlin to listen to your bird to quickly identify what is singing near you is the next-best thing to having a bird-nerd friend by your side. Merlin bird ID is great for those looking to;

  • Help ID pictures of birds
  • Help ID birdsong around you, or from recordings
  • Assist through a bird ID quiz, to determine bird size, color, behavior and more.

These features enhance a bird watchers’ most used senses (sight and sound) and have a huge hand in opening up the hobby to those with visual or hearing impairments. The app will quickly identify birds with decent accuracy and lists the birds heard by artificial intelligence, (AI).

Whilst AI is a great tool, some other great birding apps, like the free Birda app, use Human Intelligence (HI) through their birdwatching community to help birders with their IDs. Motivation through challenges and badges are also a plus too! Find out more below.

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User Interface and Design

Merlin Bird ID is simply laid out and makes it easy to find what you’re looking for quickly. The app opens at the ‘Identify’ screen, with options to use;

  • Sound ID – immediately start recording and the app listens for any bird calls, quickly identifying them.
  • Step by step ID – takes you through some ID questions for a bird you have seen, then offers a list of suggested species.
  • Photo ID – uses a picture from your gallery or your phone’s camera and begins to identify the bird within it.

The home screen also has a space for your Sound Recordings, which the app can save once you’ve recorded your birdsong.

These features are pretty self-explanatory and the color scheme of Merlin Bird ID is simple and effective. It is easy to navigate but can feel slightly out-dated. Visually, Merlin Bird ID is pleasing to the eye and advertises one of their best features boldly, which is their Sound ID. This is the largest button and highlighted in green, aptly with a Merlin bird perched ontop.

Data Visualization and Achievements/App Integration

As Merlin Bird ID is connected to eBird, a different birding app platform, you can integrate on the Life List page and create your own checklists. Receiving achievements from the app can come in the form of unlocking a new lifer when saving a sighting, but there is no other way to get achievements from the app.

You have to connect Merlin to your eBird account to visualise your data, but heading to Settings and pressing View Account takes you out of the app and onto a webpage to sign into eBird.

There are other forms of integration with not only eBird, but technology too. The Swarovski Optik dG, a digital-guide binocular device with the power to identify animals, record them and log them on your Merlin app. These binoculars can take photographs and automatically add them to Merlin. This is an incredible futuristic way to log birds and is what helps Merlin Bird ID stand out.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker pecking a tree. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the bird on the logo of Merlin Bird ID App

Logging Sightings through Merlin Bird ID

If you’re unsure of a bird, open the Merlin Bird ID and log birds with Sound ID, Step by Step ID or the Photo ID.

Sound ID

  1. Open Merlin Bird ID and press Sound ID
  2. This will immediately start a recording using your microphone and listen out for birds.
  3. Once a bird is heard, a blue dot will appear in the top right, indicating a bird has been heard.
  4. Any rarer species will be highlighted in an orange or red dot next to their name
  5. Stop your recording and review your birds. You will need to press on each species to confirm this was your bird to add this to your list. Once you have confirmed where you heard your bird, your sighting will be added to your list.

Step by Step ID

  1. Open Merlin Bird ID and press Step by Step ID
  2. Search for the location you saw your bird and press
  3. Confirm the date you saw your bird
  4. Choose between a range of bird sizes to narrow down your search
  5. Select the main colours of your bird
  6. Define the behaviour of the bird and what it was up to when you saw it
  7. Merlin will now create a defined list based on your choices. Scroll through the list to discover your bird
  8. Pressing “This Is My Bird!” will allow you to log your bird. You can change the location and date and then add this to your list.

Photo ID

  1. Open Merlin Bird ID and press Photo ID
  2. Choose a picture for Merlin to identify or take a photo using the camera app
  3. Merlin will ask you to zoom into the image so the bird fills the box. You may need to rotate your image using the top right Rotate button
  4. Confirm the date and location of your bird
  5. Merlin will now show you a list of possible birds in your picture.
  6. Pressing “This Is My Bird!” will allow you to log your bird. You can change the location and date and then add this to your list.

These features really help Merlin Bird ID stand out from the crowd as unidentified species mysteries are usually solved in seconds – although you do require a good photo to increase the odds of correct identification.

Though the app is good for uncovering the birds you don’t know, logging the birds you do know is a difficult process. You’ll still have to go through the step-by-step ID quiz to be able to log a bird you know, as their species guide through the Explore page has no way to log birds. Heading to the Life List, there isn’t an easy button to press to add a list.

Whilst Merlin Bird ID quickly finds your unidentified bird species, telling you the reason why that is your species is not something this app can offer. If you’re interested in learning new ways to differentiate between species, the best way to learn is through other people. The Birda app offers a birding community, where if you log a bird as ‘unidentified’ you are immediately helped by members of the global community on Birda with the correct identification. Some often leave helpful comments and tips for next time you see the bird – allowing you to learn faster.

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Life Lists

We know how important it is to have a bird list on a birding app. Merlin presents your Life-lists in a simple but effective way. Large pictures of the bird with the name, date and where it was seen. The list is also numbered so you can easily see how big your life-list is. Your list can be ordered by Species Family, or when you logged your sighting, newest to oldest.

This is a great way to display your lists, though trying to work out what species you’ve seen just this year is tricky. You would need to filter your list by Newest sighting then scroll to find the beginning of your year.

Some users might find Merlin’s list presentation a little simple as they would like to segment their lists. If you would like to have separate lists for your home, month and year, and even a photo life list the Birda app does this seamlessly. Automatically created lists from your sightings, frequency graphs and tracking your days wild may be more up your street and you’ll find these on Birda.

Map Features

Merlin has an inbuilt species guide which is fairly easy to navigate. Press Explore to greet their informative species guide and the birds that could be found in your area. The species list is ordered by species family, beginning with Waterfowl and ending with Finches. Pressing the species silhouettes helps quick navigation. Tapping on a silhouette directs you to the section of the species list where that bird family is located.

Each species on Merlin’s species guide has some great information. A description of the bird’s habitat, rarity, behaviour and the species’ description. Species have great, high-quality images of each potential variant of the species, including male, female, juvenile and any stages of immaturity. Birders can also find sonograms displayed for different bird species’ vocalizations, including songs, calls, and alarm sounds. Users can also visit the map section to find out where the species might be seen, though there is no ability to log the species from the species guide.

Using the filters in the top right corner allow users to change their location and sort by rarity, alphabetical, family and most likely. The option to hide the birds you’ve already seen is useful but some users might find some aspects of the species guide a little out of date and clunky.

Users looking for a bit more about where to go birding and what amazing migration journeys are taking place in the bird world, Birda offers some great features. Head to the Discovery Tab to find your lists, the in-built species guide and migration maps to visualize the great migrations of several species.

Offline Features

As birders, we tend to go off-grid for a few hours and find that we need the internet most when we’re struggling for a bird ID. Luckily, Merlin Bird ID has fantastic offline functionality with their downloadable birding packs to save you when you’re without internet access. Their bird packs can be a little heavy for a phone with a smaller SD card, though for the offline functionality of identifying birds easily, it’s worth the extra space on your phone.

Conservation Research and Data Collection

Merlin Bird ID is powered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an extension of Cornell University, an ivy-league school known across the states and the world. Merlin Bird ID is always learning, and user feedback on which birds Merlin has had success in identifying allows the app to fine-tune constantly.

The original bird list is powered by the impressive eBird database and each of Merlin’s features is helped along by citizen science projects through eBird and the Macaulay Library.

Six Bohemiam Waxwings perched on a tree

Room to Improve?

As we have seen, Merlin Bird ID is such a powerful tool and is really paving the way forward for AI identification to really expand birding and make it accessible for so many people. Though this is a fantastic tool for birders across the globe, there’s always room for a little improvement.

When identifying birds by sound, some species that call for a really short time can sometimes be a struggle for Merlin to pick up. Of course, proximity to the bird is essential, but for those species that are more illusive, this can be a challenge. Of course, this is sometimes more to do with your device’s microphone than the app.

Another improvement could be to add birds you already know via the species guide. For birders who are more experienced and want to log a species they know already, going through an ID quiz can be fairly time-consuming, or being in the right place at the right time to listen for the bird or photograph it is not always feasible.

Alternatives to Merlin Bird ID

Whilst Merlin is a great ID tool, there’s advantages to keeping your options open to other birding apps. A wonderfully illustrated guide for birds in the USA, Sibley Birds is a great option and for setting up alerts for birds you’d like to see, Audubon is a good choice. Though an app that incorporates so many features for newbies and experienced birders, Birda is our number one choice though, as the global community, birding challenges, badges, location finder and bird identification promote a sense of fun and motivation that is not present elsewhere in the bird watching space.

Summary of Birda vs Merlin Bird ID

Both Birda and Merlin  are excellent apps for birdwatchers and nature lovers and both offer a range of Bird ID features, but use different techniques. Merlin uses Artificial Intelligence whereas Birda uses Human Intelligence harnessing community knowledge. Both apps grant birders with bird suggestions, but Birda has a more human interaction element behind each suggestion. The good news is that, no matter where you like to log your birds you can still upload your sightings on to Birda from most birdwatching apps and still participate in the birding challenges.

Merlin Bird ID is more focused on the Bird ID sector of birdwatching, whereas Birda puts a huge emphasis on community and fun; with prize-winning challenges, funny badges and works great as an all-in-one global birding platform. If you are looking for the best all round birding app to help you explore and share your experiences of the world of birds,  Birda would be our pick.

Disclaimer: This is obviously our most ‘modest’ opinion and we are certainly biased, so we recommend you don’t take our word for it, get outdoors, look up and have a try.

Connect to nature and like-minded people while you discover and explore the birdlife around you! Amplify your birdwatching experience with Birda today. 

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