How do bird identification apps for cellphones compare with the popular identification books?

If there is a related book, chances are there is a good app to go with it. No book, then the quality varies.

Apps can be great. The good ones offer multiple photos, recordings of songs, video, checklists and website links in addition to text and maps. Recordings of songs, for example, can make a big difference. The songs and calls on the apps I own are what I appreciate most.

On the Apple app store website I found 42 apps that I consider more or less pertinent to the task. Some are better than others. Some are way better. Some aren’t (limited content). Many are for foreign birding locations.

As you shop, look for names you know: Audubon, Sibley, National Geographic, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example. If you liked the book, you’ll probably love the movie.

Like most things, app quality comes with a price. The best apps contain the information found in the best books plus more.

You can buy apps that contain all North American bird species, as do the basic ID books. You also can find apps containing the birds of almost any country with a birding reputation.

Before you buy, read the fine print. Read the reviews. Check operating system compatibility; some aren’t available for Android devices, for instance.

Learn to interpret app-store lingo. The word “get” can mean you’re buying a taste, and you will have to pay for additions to have a fully usable app. Ditto the small print reading “In App Purchases.” “Ad” means the app compensates for lower price by including advertising. If ads can be removed, you will pay to do so.

Consider carefully. There can be tempting add-ons. You could be buying bells and whistles you will neither ring nor blow.

I have these apps on my iPhone, all for North American bird species:

Merlin Bird ID, free from Cornell Lab — far and away your best install. It has identification photos, range maps, and text for over 2,000 birds of North, South and Central America, via a series of free downloads. The basic download contains the most common U.S. species. You can choose the other geographic areas you wish to cover, also free. Downloads are fast. Merlin identifies birds from photos on your phone, doing a reasonably good job if you give it a decent image.

iBird Pro, from the Mitch Waite group, a California software company that offers three upgraded versions of this app. The basic $14.99 app works for me. It has the complete 2018 North American bird list — photos, text, maps, songs, plus a new feature called Photo Sleuth, said to ID birds from any photo, quality aside. Look for version 12.0, updated Nov. 13.

Fieldstone Guide to Birds, from the team that produced the National Audubon Society bird field guides and the bird guide from the National Wildlife Federation. $9.99. North American birds complete, photos, text, maps, songs.

The Warbler Guide, Princeton University Press, from its fine book of the same name, plus more. Warblers in every plumage from every point of view. $12.99.

Audubon Bird Guide, from National Audubon. Basic ID is fine. Has photo and location functions I’ll never use. Free. (Not using app functions is idiosyncratic with me. I like meat and potatoes.)

Raptor ID, from HawkWatch International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, two more names you can trust. Video is helpful; raptor flight patterns can be distinct. Free.

Audubon Owls, from the National Audubon Society, includes all Minnesota owl species. Free. Requires your e-mail address.

Minnesota Birding News, a free app that offers everything related to birding sites, parks, refuges, books, contacts, photography — everything. It was created by Richard Hoeg of Duluth. Visit

Why own more than one general ID app? Why not? Like the books, there are differences. Specialty apps often duplicate what complete apps offer.

Apps, of course, are better on pads because screens are larger.

There are apps like Song Sleuth that will record a bird song and tell you the name of the singer (not always, according to reviews). Or, apps that use your cellphone photo or a photo loaded to your phone to give that bird a name. Success depends heavily on lighting and focus in a closely cropped photo.

David Sibley’s app adapts his highly rated identification book for your cellphone. $19.99. I don’t have it. You can test out the Lite version for free at iTunes.

Also look at for Audubon Minnesota’s birding guide — 137 places to bird in Minnesota. It has interactive maps, habitat descriptions, maps, checklists, park and refuges’ amenities, telephone numbers, and links to websites.

The Minnesota Birding News app ( and Audubon website will help you get the most from the apps you buy.


Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at