Last Updated on January 17, 2024 by Greg Gillson
The free Merlin Bird ID app accurately identifies bird songs and calls.
Using this app in the field is like being taught by a birdsong expert!
This free app can identify birds in your yard in several ways: by seeing with photos, hearing with recordings, and reading the digital field guide.
This article tells you how to use Merlin Bird Sound ID to get the best results, regardless of your skill level in identifying bird sounds. Even if you don’t know anything about birds or their identification!
What bird sounds like a…?
“I heard this bird…,” a non-birding friend will tell me. But often, when pressed, they can’t tell me exactly what sound their mystery bird made. Most people haven’t learned how to describe bird calls and songs.
I do my best, but often I can’t figure out what bird they heard. I assume it’s one of the common birds in the area.
Ten-thousand bird species in the world. All with unique calls. Half with multiple complex learned songs with local dialects. Some mimic other birds or mechanical noises they hear around humans. Learning bird songs and calls is a skill only few birders become good at. Few are the people who can identify more than 200 bird species by call.
Many people try to get Google or Siri to identify a bird they heard. Thus, they ask, What bird sounds like a… Creaking door? Drop of water? Flute? Grasshopper? Horn? Jackhammer? Kitten? Laser gun? Monkey? Phone ringing? Rattlesnake? Screaming woman? Train whistle? Wolf whistle? Xylophone? Zipper?
Until now, I was rarely able to help people identify a bird they heard. But I can now! The free Merlin Bird ID app now identifies bird sounds! It is available for iOS and Android, so works on your smart phone.
Point your phone at the bird sound and press record. The identification is made instantly!
|Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Greg Gillson.
Merlin Bird ID app
The Merlin Bird ID app helps you identify birds you describe, photograph, or audio record. You can use your smartphone to take a photo or record sounds for the app to analyze in the field. Or you can use the app to listen to recordings or photographs on other devices.
Merlin is provided free by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Here is the Merlin app official page.
There are 4 choices in the menu:
Explore Birds is the field guide section, with description and photos, range map, abundance bar chart based on your location, and bird sounds you can listen to.
Bird ID is a menu-driven helper that asks you where you saw the bird, when, how big it was, main colors, and behavior. It then gives you a photo list of likely birds to choose from.
Photo ID identifies photos. It allows you to take photos in the field with your phone. It does better at identifying larger images of single birds, such as from the back of your dedicated camera or on your computer screen.
Sound ID is the newest, most exciting, and perhaps most useful, part of the app. The rest of this post is devoted to this one aspect.
Merlin Bird Sound ID
Install the free Merlin Bird ID app from the App Store or Google Play for your device. Download the Bird Packs with the birds of your local region. It works throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. More areas are being developed.
It is super simple to use!
Select Sound ID from the menu. Point the microphone of your phone at the bird and hold still and be quiet. Press record.
A spectrogram scrolls across the top of the screen. As the app identifies birds it hears, they are added to the list under the spectrogram.
Stop recording and it saves it in My Sound Recordings. You can immediately play it back. As the spectrogram scrolls past the red line, it plays at that point. Stop, back up, go forward, or play only a selected portion.
Here, let me show you. Below is an actual screen capture from my phone. The recording was made June 1st, 2022, at 9:30 am. I was at a wooded pond in western Washington State. The recording lasts 52 seconds.
|Screenshot of Merlin Bird Sound ID app at work.
Above: The spectrogram shows that a Common Yellowthroat sings, then a Yellow Warbler. But in the background are faint singing Warbling Vireos, Red-winged Blackbirds, and American Robins! This app accurately identifies them all singing at once!
I recently got a new modern phone with more memory (iPhone 12 with 64 GB). The first app I loaded onto my phone was Merlin Bird ID. The app size is 66 MB. The data size with 2 Bird Packs and 20 recordings of about a minute each in My Sound Recordings is 1.3 GB… and growing.
To keep my phone’s memory storage from being overwhelmed, I send recordings I want to keep to my laptop. I delete recordings on my phone when I am finished.
How accurate is Merlin Sound ID app?
I find the Merlin Sound ID app to be about 90% accurate. That is awful for a self-driving car, but acceptable for identifying bird sounds.
Some birders complain about this level of accuracy. Frankly, I’m amazed the technology can do it at all. It’s not accurate all of the time, but neither am I. You need to verify what it tells you. Don’t report a rare bird based only on what Merlin identifies. View the bird and take notes or photos. Send the spectrograph as proof of the birdsong.
The app does better at identifying louder bird sounds. It works better in more quiet areas with less ambient noise (planes, rushing water, wind, talking companions, traffic).
That said, it often identifies birds before I can hear them. It can pick out single birds to identify in the cacophony of bird noises of the dawn chorus.
It does better at identifying faint high-pitched warblers, creepers, flycatchers, bushtits, waxwings, kinglets, chickadees than it does low pitched single notes such as distant crows, ravens, robins, and geese. Or, perhaps I should say, I don’t do as well as it does with high-pitched notes. My ears are now more than 60 years old. I’m happy I can still hear those birds when they are close.
Many times, the app identifies a bird I didn’t hear. Is it a misidentification? I play the recording back and–sure enough–I can detect it in the recording! Or, I walk on 50 feet and now I can hear it clearly. Many times. I tend to trust it and search for the bird if I didn’t hear it at first.
Sometimes it identifies a wrong species when multiple birds are singing at once. It once identified my stomach growling as a Rock Pigeon! But I couldn’t fool it with any of my bird imitations that bring real birds to respond to me.
And, of course, it doesn’t identify the chirps of squirrels or trills of toads or insects that some people may think are bird calls. It just lets these unidentified sounds go by without comment. So, also, any bird calls not in the currently loaded Bird Pack. It didn’t identify a loud repeated “kik-kik” call of Virginia Rail, even though I suspect it would recognize a repeated series of kik calls.
Sometimes, also, it seems slow to identify certain birds or distant birds. But once it does, it is quick to re-identify it when it hears it again on the same recording. It highlights the bird’s name again each time it hears it. So you can listen to the birds and watch the app as you both identify the birds together!
Use cases: How to get the most out of Merlin Sound ID
Who is this app for? I really like the Merlin Bird Sound ID app for 3 different use cases, from absolute beginner to birdsong identification expert.
In each case this app identifies bird calls and songs for you. But don’t take the results as absolute, as discussed above. It’s not 100% accurate. But it is very helpful.
See the 5 tips I have for you below.
Use Case 1: The curious and feeder bird watcher: Identify birds making noise in your yard
For the true beginner, Merlin Bird Sound ID can help identify birds heard at your feeder. Sit near your feeder and turn on the recorder. You’ll soon have a list of birds to look up in your field guide or in the app itself.
If you can get to within 20 feet of your feeder, you can use Photo ID and the camera in your cell phone. Zoom in and isolate a single bird on the app. It’s not as accurate as I’d like with small photos. But take several shots and see if your bird shows up.
However, the Bird Sound ID works very well on identifying feeder birds based even on the squawks and calls the birds make. Plus, any birds calling or singing in the nearby area will be identified.
What’s that bird calling non-stop early in the morning? Press record and you’ll know!
Is it a Purple Finch or a House Finch? The app will identify their calls.
What are those birds singing hidden in the treetops? Soon you will know!
Tip 1: I like sitting in the yard and just turning on the app and seeing just what birds the app can hear. Now, can you verify them with a sighting?
You will be amazed just how many different kinds of birds are in your yard!
Use Case 2: The learning birder: Help to learn bird calls and songs
Once you’ve been bitten by the bird watching bug, you’ll be heading out in the field to find birds away from home.
You will meet other birders. And you may be amazed and possibly discouraged by some birders that are really good at identifying bird calls.
In the woods I may actually only see 3 or 4 species of the 40 or more bird species I may hear in an hour. But I grew up birding in the forests of Oregon. There I chased down all the bird sounds I heard. When I heard a bird call I didn’t recognize, I stayed with it until I found, saw, and identified the bird.
You can do the same, only much more quickly than I did. I birded and learned all by myself. You’ve got a patient birdsong teacher with you on your phone!
The app is very good at identifying warbler songs and Empid calls. These are very tough ID challenges.
Press record. Watch the app identify heard birds. Look at the spectrogram. You’ll soon learn what each bird’s song looks like as frequency over time. It has a definite shape. Higher on the graph is higher pitch. Darker is louder. You’ll see whistles and trills. You’ll see rough notes and noise. You’ll learn to hear and see the sliding rising and falling notes.
Record bird song for a minute or two. Look for any birds the app says it hears but you have not identified yet. Move on a hundred feet and try it again. Realize it isn’t always 100% accurate, but if it keeps identifying a bird you don’t see, it really could be present!
Tip 2: When you play back a recording, I believe it passes through a high-pass filter. It is actually easier to hear the birds by listening to the playback, as the tire road noise and aircraft noises are attenuated. Playback is through the ear speaker, not the speakerphone.
Tip 3: Keep recordings of bird songs you’re trying to learn. Listen to them again. Keep any recordings of unusual birds to add to eBird or email to other birders as proof documentation. Delete most recordings so as to not use up your phone memory storage.
Merlin Bird Sound ID will help you more quickly learn to identify birds you hear! It will help you find birds you would have otherwise missed. Learning birdsong will help you see more birds!
Use Case 3: The birdsong expert: Identify and document even more birds!
By now you’ve got the idea. Just hit record and a list of birds that the app hears will come up.
Why? If you can already identify the common birds you hear, and you chase down anything you don’t recognize, why do you need to use Merlin Bird Song ID?
Because soon your hearing will deteriorate. It takes a long time to become expert at identifying birds by ear. While you were becoming an expert, you were also becoming older.
Using Bird Song ID, I found out that I was detecting perhaps only a third of the waxwings that were actually present in the trees above me. And I was missing most of the sounds of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Bushtits, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Unless they were within 15 feet they are too faint for me to hear anymore.
Did I just hear a Yellow Warbler? Was that a Townsend’s Warbler or a Hermit Warbler? And how did I miss that snipe calling constantly? Play back the recordings and you’ll be surprised what you missed. Even listening intently, your brain filters out some sounds.
Keep your bird sound identification skills sharply honed by competing with the app. Can you identify all the birds the app did? What can you hear that the app missed? A distant raven? The “weep” of a Swainson’s Thrush? The opening notes of a Song Sparrow song that wasn’t finished?
Is that rare bird the app came up with really a misidentification? Are you sure?
Tip 4: On the playback, if you click on the identified bird photo, you’ll be taken to the first identification of each species on the recording. Scroll back 2 seconds and then play to listen. Sometimes the app makes a mistake. Other times you may be surprised with a record of a rare bird!
The cell phone is no substitute for dedicated bird recording equipment, such as parabolic microphones. But this app is adequate to document a rare heard-only bird or provide additional proof of a rare bird seen with a recording of its call. The audio files are generally noisy, so if you like recording bird songs, the cell phone is not the equipment of choice.
Tip 5: Learn to use an audio editing tool. I have found that the free Ocenaudio works well. Here is an eBird support page dedicated to preparing your audio file to upload to eBird, in the same way as you can upload photos.
The melodic songs of birds fill our landscapes with beauty and delight, but their purpose goes far beyond pleasing our ears. Bird songs serve several crucial functions in their social and reproductive lives:
One of the main reasons birds sing is to claim and defend their territory. Their songs act as a loud and clear advertisement to other birds of the same species, warning them to stay away from their established feeding and nesting grounds. The complexity and volume of a bird’s song can even indicate its strength and dominance, deterring potential intruders.
For many birds, their songs are like love ballads, serenading potential mates and showcasing their suitability as partners. Elaborate melodies and unique vocalizations can impress females and signal good genes, health, and parenting potential. Some species even modify their songs during courtship displays, adding intricate trills and flourishes to woo their chosen partners.
Maintaining pair bonds
Bird songs strengthen the connection between mates. Singing in unison or exchanging calls helps reinforce their partnership and synchronize breeding activities. These shared vocalizations foster cooperation and create a sense of unity within a pair, crucial for raising their young together.
Identifying individuals and species
Bird songs often contain specific nuances that identify individual birds within a flock or differentiate species from each other. This allows birds to recognize specific mates, young, and potential threats, promoting social cohesion and avoiding conflict.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the sound of a bird called?
There isn’t just one single sound for a bird! Birds produce a wide variety of vocalizations for different purposes, and these sounds have many different names depending on the context and specific sound:
Song: This usually refers to a complex, learned vocalization used for attracting mates, defending territory, and maintaining pair bonds. It’s often melodic and composed of multiple notes or phrases.
Call: This is a simpler vocalization used for communication and interaction within a flock, often conveying information about food, danger, or location. Examples include chirps, tweets, whistles, and squawks.
Alarm call: A specific call used to warn other birds of a potential predator or danger. It’s often loud and piercing to grab attention quickly.
Courtship calls: Special vocalizations used by males to attract and impress females during mating season. These can be elaborate and unique to each species.
Flight calls: Sounds made while flying, often used to maintain contact with other birds in the flock or attract attention.
Does every bird have a unique song?
No, not every bird has a unique song. Here’s a more precise clarification:
Every bird species has a species-specific song, a characteristic melody passed down through generations. This is the basic theme the birds learn and use for communication, primarily for attracting mates and defending territory.
Although birds within a species share the same song pattern, there can be subtle variations in their renditions. These variations might involve rhythm, pitch, phrasing, or the inclusion of specific notes. However, these are typically minor modifications, not entirely unique compositions.
Certain species, like mockingbirds and lyrebirds, show incredible vocal plasticity. They can not only learn and mimic the songs of other species but also incorporate sounds from their environment, leading to a wider range of variations within their own songs. However, again, these variations are built upon the core species-specific melody.
While individual birds might not have fully unique songs, the presence of these variations, combined with the species-specific song, still allows for a high degree of individual recognition. Females can often distinguish different males within their species based on these subtleties, making the song effective for its intended purposes.
Imagine a language with a set vocabulary and grammar. Everyone speaks the same language, but individuals use it differently with their own accents, word choices, and sentence structures. Similarly, bird songs have a species-specific framework, but individual birds express themselves within that framework with their own nuances.
What bird has the most beautiful song in the world?
Deciding the “most beautiful bird song in the world” is tricky, as beauty is subjective and preferences vary greatly! However, some birds consistently top the charts when it comes to captivating listeners with their melodies. Here are a few contenders for the title:
Nightingale: Renowned for its rich, complex, and flute-like song, the nightingale has inspired poets and musicians for centuries. Its nocturnal serenades, filled with trills, whistles, and bursts of sound, are truly magical.
Hermit Thrush: The hermit thrush’s song is often described as ethereal and pure, with clear, flute-like notes and melancholic beauty. It’s a sound that evokes peaceful solitude and the deep stillness of nature.
Wood Thrush: Closely related to the hermit thrush, the wood thrush has a slightly more cheerful and varied song. Its repertoire includes clear whistles, rich flutings, and even mimicry of other birds’ calls.
Common Blackbird: This familiar European bird has a surprisingly beautiful and complex song. Its repertoire includes rich melodies, whistles, and bubbling phrases, often delivered with dramatic pauses and flourishes.
Lyrebird: Found in Australia, the lyrebird is famous for its incredible ability to mimic sounds, including other birds, mammals, even human tools and machines! Its own song is a complex and diverse mix of borrowed and original sounds, making it a truly unique auditory experience.