A new birdsong app identifies feathered friends by their tweets
By Chris Barncard
Squinting into windblown trees and bushes is for the birds—especially if it’s birds you’re looking for.
“You have to listen. There’s no way around it,” says Mark Berres (photo right), an ornithologist and CALS animal science professor. “The most difficult aspect of bird-watching is call identification, but calls are the most important tool for identifying birds.”
Even experienced birders have trouble matching more than a handful of songs with species, but Berres may have answered the prayers of bird-watchers, researchers and even the most casual naturalist.
Not surprisingly, salvation comes in the form of a smartphone app: WeBIRD, the Wisconsin Electronic Bird Identification Resource Database.
WeBIRD users can record a nearby bird’s call, submit that song wirelessly to a server and retrieve a positive ID of the species.
“I am amazed at how good it is,” says Berres, who also has used WeBIRD to identify grasshopper species by their clicks and frogs by their croaks. “Not only can WeBIRD tell you which species you’re hearing—in some cases it’s good enough to identify individual birds from their song.”
That’s no mean feat. Birdcalls can differ throughout the day, among groups just miles apart, and by individual birds.
“When a bird sings, the song itself may have varying amplitudes and frequencies,” Berres says. “It can also speed up a little bit and slow down a little bit. They may throw in a note here or take out a
WeBIRD dices songs into time-ordered chunks, using data-organization techniques often applied by geneticists to jumbled bits of DNA to “align temporally misaligned data, working around a lot of the variation,” says Berres.
Berres expects WeBIRD—which could be available to the public in time for the 2012 spring migration—will enable field research through remote recording and analysis. More important, he hopes WeBIRD will help birds.
“If people can appreciate intrinsic beauty—and birds have got that part down—a closer awareness of the natural world will follow,” says Berres. “Fostering a connection with wildlife is one of the ways we’re going to save it, and WeBIRD puts that connection to birds in the palm of your hand.”
Click here to watch a WeBIRD demonstration with Mark Berres.
A NOTE TO OUR READERS:
Thank you very much for your interest in Mark Berres’ work (see comments below). Many of you have asked for updates about the availability of WeBIRD. As of April 22, 2013, we do not have a release date for this application. We will let people who have posted comments know about any new developments as they arise.