Innovation is not always progress. And we live in an innovation blizzard.
Does anybody remember when “atomic” was the word of the future? The Atomic Age! An atomic car. An atomic watch. Thankfully, no one suggested atomic binoculars that did the bird identification work for you.
If only we were so lucky in this, the digital age. The Age of the App.
Recently announced was an app that insults the intelligence of bird-watchers and the sport of birding. It’s called Merlin Bird ID.
You take a photo of a bird with your digital phone. The app will assist you in identification of that bird. It does have a limit, 400 of the most common North American species. (And if they are “most common” don’t you think the average birder eventually could determine their ID on her own?)
When I began birding, when birding apps consisted of a Peterson field guide and a pair of binoculars, a successful ID was an achievement. It often required some effort, but most worthwhile things do.
As I built the list of bird species I could identify on sight or by sound, I was proud of myself. I acquired that knowledge the hard way, as the saying goes — I earned it.
I have come to the point, after decades of birding, of being able to identify some flying birds by silhouette and flight pattern alone. And it still feels good when I do that. Every single time.
Taking a photo and letting the app do the work is sad. It removes the challenge I find essential to birding adventures. The challenge is part of the fun.
There also is an app, I believe, that will identify a bird by song if you can record that song on your phone. That’s probably a good learning tool, if used that way.
I have songs on my iPhone and iPad, parts of the bird ID apps I bought for the songs. I use the song IDs in the spring, when I annually pretty much start from scratch with songs. (It’s easy to learn bird songs. I do it every spring.)
The app is far better than the awkward tape deck I once hauled around, the song I sought buried somewhere in there, eventually found by going back and forth, winding and rewinding.
I am not a total Luddite. I have the devices. I just prefer not to spoil the fun.
Merlin was developed jointly with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The app uses your photo, your answers to questions it asks, a song recording if you can capture one, and the geographic digital bird database called eBird, a Cornell project.
Merlin waves his wand. Presto — another bird pulled from the hat.
Where is the fun in that? Where is the challenge? What is there to be proud of? It’s an achievement based on thumbs, not brains — hardly an effort.
A computer science professor at Cornell who was involved in development of the app was quoted as saying, “What we want to do is use their [birders’] time much more efficiently.”
Well, using time more efficiently isn’t always progress, either. Who goes birding with efficiency as a concern?
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.