Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Unite 4 - Turn websites into apps on your Mac.

By Dan Moren

Applications Folder: Merlin Bird ID

This app is literally for the birds.

While on my honeymoon this summer, my wife was caught up in birding fever.This happens every once in a while: she’ll seize upon an idea and devote all of her time and energy to it. In this case, it was trying to identify a birds during hikes we were taking in Scotland. If only, we mused at one point, there were a way of using our phones to identify them-a Shazam for birds, if you will.

Turns out, there is. Merlin Bird ID is an app by the good folks at my alma mater, Cornell University1, that’s designed for one purpose: to help you figure out what bird that is. And it delivers on that promise.

Built on top of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s extensive databases, Merlin provides a couple of options for identifying birds. You can answer a series of quick questions—the size of the bird, its colors, where you spotted it—and the app will provide you with a list that matches those criteria. But, far more impressive, is the ability to simply take a picture of a bird you’re seeing and have your matches presented to you. While this feature isn’t perfect, and certainly works better on iOS devices with better cameras, it proved to be incredibly effective. In either case, once you find the matching bird, you can tap the big This Is My Bird! button, which is, for some reason I can’t quite describe, incredibly satisfying.

Every bird profile in Merlin’s database—which you can also browse through, filtering by your location and date to see what birds you’re likely to find—includes not only salient details about the species, but also a variety of pictures, including male, female, juvenile, and more, which was helpful when you found a bird that met a certain description, but didn’t quite match. You can also listen to a variety of its calls or see a map of where you can expect to find the bird.

What’s especially cool about Merlin is that its database spans the entire world, divided up into downloadable packs for different geographical regions. That’s a smart move, because the packs are big—they range from around 300MB to a little over 1GB—so you can just download the ones you need when you have Wi-Fi access.

While Merlin does integrate with eBird, the world’s biggest database of bird sightings, I do wish it had a more basic history feature that didn’t require going out to a separate app/service, so I could see the birds that I’d identified, where, and when. But that’s a relatively small nitpick for an app that is otherwise pretty impressive and, to boot, totally free. (You can make a donation to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology if you’re looking for a way to show your support.)

So, next time you find yourself staring at a bird and wondering whether it’s a sapsucker or a woodpecker, don’t be a birdbrain: just pull out your phone.

  1. Full disclosure: not only is Cornell my alma mater, but a friend’s mother is the chairman of its administrative board. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]

Search Six Colors