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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Peaceable Man Files #7: On Discovering the Joys of Bird Listening

The bobolink blackbird

Random musings on my gypsy existence at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else the road, and life, take me.

I have discovered a new passion in my later years.

Bird watching. Or more precisely, bird listening.

Curious to learn more about our feathered friends who color our world with such beautiful music—and do so freely, expecting nothing in return except that we take care of the environment that sustains us—I have taken to stalking birds with my smartphone while out on my walks with Cassie, trying to capture the songs I’m hearing so I can find out who is singing which song.

The tool I’m using for this purpose is a very cool bird identification app by the name of Merlin. Now, I’m not normally one to advocate mixing technology and nature. Devices, after all, have an insidious way of separating us from the present moment, and when I’m in nature, that’s where I want to be—in the present moment.

But short of taking along an experienced bird guide on my walks with Cassie, how else am I going to learn about birds? Plus, for an app, Merlin is about as unobtrusive and easy to use as an app can get. It was developed by the very smart people at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in partnership with Birds in the Hand, LLC as well as volunteer citizen scientists and bird enthusiasts from around the world.

The app, which is free to download, has visual and sound data on some 7,000 species of birds from around the world. After setting up an account, all you need to do is download a “bird pack” specific to the region where you live and you’re ready to go birding.

Merlin offers two ways to identify a bird: by Photo ID and by Sound ID. Personally, I prefer the Sound ID function, since my old iPhone 8 camera doesn’t have a great zoom function. When I’m in the vicinity of a singing bird, all I need to do is tap the record button, hold up my phone, and wait for the app to tell me who is doing the singing. The answer comes back in seconds.

If you want to learn more about the bird you’ve identified, just go into the “Explore Birds” function, do a search, and the app brings up a wealth of information on the bird’s range, migratory habits, coloring (by sex), and breeding habits.

And here’s one of the coolest things about the app: if multiple birds are singing in the vicinity of where you’re recording, the app will bring up all of them and then highlight which specific bird is singing at any given time. For me, that really helps in distinguishing the song makers.

The other day, while up at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, the app recorded no fewer than seven different species of birds singing in a patch of woods where I was standing: the American Robin, a song sparrow, a yellow warbler, a red-winged blackbird, a brown-headed cowbird, and two species I’d never heard of before—the bobolink and the “least flycatcher.”

Also cool is the fact that the app stores recordings that you make of birds by date, so you can look back and see which birds you listened to at different places and at different times of the year.

I’ve only been using the app for a couple months, and already my bird knowledge has grown immensely. I’m now able to identify the mellifluous birdie-birdie-birdie song of a Northern cardinal; the bold, throaty songs of the tiny Carolina wren; the reedy call of the tufted titmouse; the scratchy bursts of a red-bellied woodpecker. These are in addition to the birds that I already know how to identify: bluejays, robins, crows, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks.

I must hand it to the people at the Cornell Lab; they’re created a powerful little app that is helping to bring millions of people around the world, myself included, closer to the natural world.

If you’re at all interested in birding, I encourage you to check it out. You might just become a bird listener like me.

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