One of the most common questions I get in my Tech Birding classes is, “Why is there no Shazam-type app that will allow me to use my phone to identify bird calls?"
1. Birds have accents. Generally, when you hear Adele singing “Hello” over a speaker in a Target in Minnesota and then a few months later hear Adele sing "Hello" over a speaker in a Walmart in Florida, it's the same song. However, a cardinal in Minnesota is going to sound different than a cardinal in Florida.
2. Also when a song is playing, there’s usually only one song going on at a time. How many times is there just one species of bird singing at a time?
That said, there's a new app called Song Sleuth that wants to help you out!
Developers at Wildlife Acoustics have released the Song Sleuth app available for iPhone (an Android version should be coming in a few months). Wildlife Acoustics actually came out with an app before there were smart phones. It was in the form of a blue box you would wear around your neck that would record calls and try to id them. It wasn’t all that user friendly and was a bit cost prohibitive. I can’t remember the exact cost, but it was over $100.
That technology didn’t go over well in the consumer market but it did go over well in the biological survey field. When I used to do bird surveys for wind farms, I’d have to work with bat audio equipment from time to time and it was always Wildlife Acoustics software. The microphones would be set on timers to record sounds at night and then software was used to ID all the spectrograms of the different bat calls. It’s really the only way to monitor bats and get a handle on the species that may be in an area.
This is not as user friendly as a Shazam app, but it is indeed a useful tool to help you learn your bird songs. And I hate to use all caps here but I feel this is really important:
THIS IS NOT AN APP YOU CAN BLUNDER YOUR WAY THROUGH. YOU MUST READ THE DIRECTIONS OR WATCH THE YOUTUBE TUTORIAL before you start to truly understand how it works and how to use it in the field.
This app is very cool for recording calls. When you have the app open in recording mode, the mic is always on and recording, but not saving everything. If you suddenly hear a bird start to sing that you want to identify and hit the record button, it will automatically default the start of the recording to the three seconds before you hit the record button. As you record, you’ll se the spectrogram of sounds from the song you are trying to id as well as your own noises from walking or coughing and ambient noise like planes.
After you have captured the recording, the app will generate three possible species that made the sound. It's best to try and trim the recording down to the actual song you want to id. If you use the whole recording and there are other birds singing, chances are good that you'll get a misidentification.
When Song Sleuth brings up the list of possibilities you can either agree or disagree with it. If you aren't sure, you can listen to the preloaded calls to compare to your recording. You can even compare spectrograms of the prerecorded calls to the ones you captured. If the app brings up the incorrect identification, you can go into the full list of birds in the app to try and find it.
I played around with this app with sounds from the All About Birds site and with bird calls in my local patch. Let me tell ya, trying to find singing birds in a Minnesota winter is not that easy. I had mixed results with the app. I would say about 60% of the time it nailed the id, especially if I trimmed down the recording and try to filter out wind. But 40% of the time the bird I was trying to id wasn't on the list. Part of it was disagreement with the app about what birds occur in Minnesota in winter. We have an influx of tufted titmice in the Twin Cities this year and the app didn't think they should be here so never considered the bird a possibility. I had to go in and manually include in the list of possible birds.
But I do love that this app gets you into a habit of visualizing bird sounds on a spectrogram. I think that visual clues are very handy for someone just starting out and you'll be surprised to see the distinct vocal patterns birds can have, even with an accent. I also love that this app lets you record calls and even if it doesn't get the correct id right away, you have something you can take home and compare with bird sounds online. I played with this on an iPhone 7 and was able to pick up bird and squirrel sounds from far away. Ideally, you want to be as close as possible to get the call, but considering the size of the microphone on an iPhone it does a decent job.
I also think that over time the app will improve as more people start to use it. To get an idea of how it works, check out the video on how to use the app. It's not a perfect app, but if you are struggling to learn your bird calls, I do think it's worthwhile to download.