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An open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond

Here is an amazing, free bird-identification phone app

A free bird-identification cell phone app is available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It has ID capabilities for North America, Mexico, Central America, and Western Europe. It has a photo-ID feature.


It’s called Merlin. Download it from the Cornell Web page at


Merlin runs on any iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch with iOS 8 or newer and 250-400 MB of free space. Download from Cornell or open the App Store from your device, then search for “Merlin Bird ID.”


Merlin runs on Android handheld devices with OS 4 or higher and 250-400 MB of free space on the phone. To download, open Google Play from your device. Then search for “Merlin Bird ID”.


I have four bird-ID apps on my iPhone, all of them purchased. Merlin is far, far better than any of them. 


Merlin can work as a coach for beginning and intermediate birdwatchers. It asks you for information that helps with ID. Tell Merlin date and location of your observation. Add detail on color, size, and behavior. Merlin will give you a short list of possible species.


Click “This is my bird” when you have a positive ID. Merlin saves the information to help improve future performance.


The newest version of Merlin has an amazing Photo ID tool for either Apple or 

Android. Select an image from your smartphone image gallery or snap a shot from the back of your cameras viewfinder. Merlin will help you use two quick steps before showing you a list of possible species. This is a separate download.


Once you have the app installed you are asked to choose from a list of various geographic regions. Choose the Midwest for birds more common here, or choose from several North American regions. 


You also can select several other packages of ID information. Choose Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Mexico Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico Oaxaca and Chiapis, Central Mexico, Gulf of Mexico, Northcentral or Northwest Mexico, the Baja Peninsula, Mexico West, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.


If you have enough memory on your device, get them all. 


This is an a very impressive piece of software, amazing really. And it’s free.


I did a test of the photo app software. I chose a picture of a Blue Jay from my desktop computer file. I brought the image to my desktop. I used my iPhone to take a picture of the picture. Merlin took my location from the phone, also today’s date. Adding that information (region, season) to the photo, and — Presto! It’s a Blue Jay. 



A 12-step program for birders


Birders now have their own 12-step program.


It has nothing to do with addiction, although birding can be addictive.


A new book by a pair of long-time birding guides offers 12 steps to help you become better at identifying birds. “Peterson Guide to Bird Identification in 12 Steps” will be released in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Authors are Steve N. G. Howell and Brian Sullivan. Howell is an international tour leader and popular speaker. Sullivan works at the Cornell Lab of Ornirthology.


They do not make this information difficult to understand and use. Like any 12-step program, however, it requires some effort.


Keeping their suggestions in mind will make you a better birder from the time you leave home. Just the first four steps can make a big difference. They stress context. Context defines the bird.


Open your field guide to any page. You are looking at a family of bird species. They share characteristics — shape and behavior as two examples. 


You are looking for a particular species. Being able to narrow the field to family will save you the frantic paging most of us have done at some time. Where is the bird that looks like the bird I am looking at? It’s gotta be here somewhere!


First, become familiar with the book and the order in which bird families are presented. This is important. It need be, make a list of the order. Tape it inside the cover.


Next, to find your bird, pay attention to where you are. Birds favor particular kinds of habitat. You are unlikely to find Brown Creepers on a stretch of prairie. Creepers are woodland birds. Nor is the grassland longspur likely to be seen in the woods. 


In the book, after you look at the illustrations, read the text and look at the maps. The maps are important sorting tools. You’re narrowing your choices.


Large,long-legged white birds wading in the shallows of a pond, as the authors explain, are like likely to be egrets, Great Egrets or Snowy Egrets. Not Cattle Egrets. Cattle Egrets are the long-legged white birds you find on grassland, often times mingling with livestock. One is very unlikely to be seen in the habitat of the other. Habitat counts.


Season counts. Birds move with seasonal change. They are very faithful to this trait. That small yellowish bird at your feeder in December is unlikely to be a warbler. Wrong season. And warblers are eaters of insects, not seeds.


The authors move on. They deal with the tricks light can play on your ID efforts, with the tricks distance can play on your estimations of size. They want you to pay attention to what the bird is doing: scratching in the dirt for seeds or flitting through the tree tops, looking for bugs? Some species scratch, others glean.


What does the bird sound like? How about structure? All birds don’t have the same profile or shape characteristics. And color. Color can be influenced by the bird’s age, the season, the position of the sun, and the bird’s sex. Avoid making an ID leap.


Even if it looks like an Allen’s Hummingbird, here in Minnesota, it’s most likely not. (Believe the range map.)


Weird, unexpected birds do appear in impossible places, but probably not. To paraphrase the philosophical rule known at Occam’s Razor, the simple answer is usually the correct answer.


This book is built around a good idea: you will enjoy birding more by knowing what you are looking at. Here are 12 steps to help you do that.


The book is Peterson field-guide size. It has a waterproof cover. It is well made; it will stand up to use. It is illustrated, has an index, and 152 pages. It is published with the cooperation of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.




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