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Monday, June 8, 2015

How To ID Bird Species From A Photograph

There are about 10,000 species of birds in the world. Bird photography and watching have become a very popular past time and profession for many. Identifying the birds correctly every time can be quite a challenge because of the lighting and angle, etc.

Merlin Bird Photo ID is a project attempting to identify birds via a photograph. It is a collaboration between Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Visipedia. The database is very limited right now and I find it less useful than buying a good bird field guide and peruse it thoroughly. However, it may get better with time and more funding. Below is an excerpt of their story.

At one time or another, everyone asks the question, “What is that bird?”

Finding the answer can be remarkably challenging. Part of the mission of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is to help people find that answer. We know it is hard to figure out the name of the bird you saw when sorting through a massive field guide, using search engines, and other resources.

Merlin is designed to be a birding coach for beginning and intermediate bird watchers. Merlin asks you the same questions that an expert birder would ask to help solve a mystery bird sighting. Notice that date and location are Merlin’s first and most important questions. It takes years of experience in the field to know what species are expected at a given location and date. Merlin shares this this knowledge with you based on more than 70 million sightings submitted to eBird from birders across the United States and Canada.

Merlin also asks you to describe the color, size, and behavior of the bird you saw. Because no two people describe birds exactly the same way, Merlin presents a shortlist of possible species based on descriptions from Cornell Lab experts as well as thousands of bird enthusiasts who helped “teach” Merlin by participating in online activities. They’ve contributed more than 3 million descriptors to help Merlin match your input with the most likely birds. When you identify a species and click “This is My Bird,” Merlin also saves your record to help improve its future performance.

We launched Merlin with 285 species most commonly encountered in North America. Our goal is to add more species and more features to keeping improving Merlin’s accuracy through time. High on our wish list is a prompt enabling you to give Merlin a hint about the shape or type of bird you saw (e.g., songbird, shorebird, raptor). We appreciate your feedback about what’s working for you, what isn’t, and features you’d like to see. If you’d like to support our efforts to continue developing Merlin, please consider making a donation. We hope you enjoy using Merlin and sharing it with your friends and family!

Meet the Merlin App Team

Jessie Barry has a passion for bird identification and sharing it with others. A birder since age 10 and now top bird ID expert in North America, Jessie thinks that leading the Merlin team is just like living a dream.

David Bell is a lifelong birder who has spent his career in businesses devoted to improving the environment. His expertise ranges from birds to physics and machine learning. Dave leads the team at Birds in the Hand, LLC, which partnered with the Cornell Lab to develop Merlin.

Alex Chang is known as “Tech Norris” by the Web Communications team he leads at the Cornell Lab. There isn’t a technical question, business strategy, mountainous trail, or rock wall Alex won’t tackle.

Miyoko Chu leads the Cornell Lab’s Communications team and is the principal investigator of the NSF-funded Merlin project. She has been amazed to see Merlin go from an idea to reality, thanks to a talented team and thousands of contributors.

Scott Haber reviewed every photo in Merlin and still has not tired of looking at birds! As the content manager, Scott’s knowledge of birds and organization of rich media formed the backbone of Merlin and All About Birds.

Will Morris is an interface and visualization designer at the Cornell Lab. He leads design for eBird, Birds of North America Online, and Neotropical Birds.

Sarah Seroussi created the look-and-feel and led the UX strategy for the Merlin Bird ID app. She also built this responsive app marketing website, to showcase the app. Sarah has designed several major citizen-science websites for the Cornell Lab. She has over 10 years in user experience and interactive web design.

The Merlin team at the Cornell Lab includes Steve Kelling, Rick Bonney, Tina Phillips, Tim Levatich, Ben Barkley, and Luke Seitz. Special thanks to John Fitzpatrick, Adriane Callinan, Mary Guthrie, Sean Scanlon, Nicola Leckie, Hugh Powell, France Kehas-Dewaghe, Syed Rehman, Greg Desile, and Marshall Iliff.

Merlin Photographers

Brian Sullivan: In between leading eBird and serving as the photo editor for the Birds of North America Online, Brian manages to snap a few shots on his travels. By a few, we mean thousands! He has 18,000 Red-tailed Hawk images. Can you guess Brian’s favorite bird?

Gerrit Vyn: Few photographers have the artistic eye, patience in the field, and bird expertise to come back from expeditions with stunning images, sounds, and videos every time. Gerrit is a cinematographer and photographer in the Cornell Lab’s Multimedia program.

Christopher Wood: Chris has been carrying a camera on his birding trips since he was in the 5th grade, documenting one rare bird after another. Chris serves as project leader for eBird and Neotropical Birds.

In addition to Brian, Chris, and Gerrit, we thank the following people for contributing images for the app: Laura Erickson, Kelly Colgan Azar, Steven G. Mlodinow, Penny Bauer, Gerry Dewaghe, Timothy Lenz, Scott A. Haber, Sam Hough, Tony Leukering, David Waltman, Mark Eden, Margo Goetschkes, William Edward Kendall, Thomas B. Johnson, Susan E. Newman, Luke Seitz, Shawn Billerman, Judy Crawford, Jim Cummins, Jason Daly, Tripp Davenport, Jim Dubois, Susan Edmiston, Olivia Graves, Cory Gregory, Dan Haas, Wanda Harnish, Burney Huff, Marshall Iliff, Evan Jackson, Adam S. Johnson, Marty Jones, Larry Jordan, Alex Lamoreaux, Thomas Meinzen, Carol Miller, April Molina, Tom Murray, Carol O’Neil, Laurel Rezeau, Arlene Ripley, Will Stuart, Jeremiah Trimble, Jim Williams, Liam Wolff, Ginnie Yerkovich, Cameron Rognan, Donna Bragg, Herb Helmstaedt, Mairis Kilcher, Michael Henry, Nancy Merrill, Tony and Louisa Katlubeck, Ed Kendall, Terry Johnson, Bill Thompson.

Recordists and Contributors

Audio recordings: Recordings from more than 85 recordists who have contributed to the Macaulay Library are featured in this app. The majority of the recordings in this app were recorded by Geoffrey A. Keller, William W. H. Gunn, Wilbur L. Hershberger, Gerrit Vyn, Michael J. Andersen, and Randolph S. Little. Audio engineer Matt Young led the charge selecting recordings. You can explore more than 150,000 sounds and videos on the Macaulay Library website.

Identification text: Jessie Barry and Luke Seitz crafted text for each species specifically for Merlin. The text is tailored for those moments when you are watching a bird in the field and using Merlin to pick among species. Thanks to Hugh Powell and Chris Wood for their valuable comments.

Maps: Sourced from the Birds of North America Online. Special thanks to Brooke Keeney for updating and reformatting the maps.

Intro video: Produced by the Cornell Lab’s Multimedia program. We appreciate the creative work of John Bowman, Tom Swartwout, Karen Rodriguez, Eric Liner, and Yula Kapetanakos.

Our Thanks

Merlin is made possible by support from the National Science Foundation (grant number DRL-1010818), Pennington® Wild Bird Food, the Faucett Catalyst Fund, and friends and members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We would like to express our gratitude to them as well as to the photographers who generously donated more than 2,000 images included in the Merlin app. We also give our heartfelt thanks to the dedicated volunteers who made this app possible: eBird participants, visitors to All About Birds, and sound recordists who contributed their audio recordings to the Macaulay Library.

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