Birding with Merlin: Comparing smartphone apps Merlin and iNaturalist

Screen capture of Merlin app main menu

Sometimes in Extension we joke that we mostly identify plants and animals for people. While there’s some truth to this I’m delighted to say there are now very easy ways anyone can get great identification information free from your smartphone.

Last February I wrote a article about the iNaturalist app: iNaturalist a great app, community and project opportunity. I’m still a big fan and use iNaturalist weekly, but Merlin, an app dedicated specifically to birds and developed by The Cornell Lab, is a better app for bird information and for novice birders, those still learning, or those wanting to learn or listen to bird calls. 

The Merlin app is free from your smartphone store. Once you download the app you’ll need to “Choose Bird Pack”. This is easily done by hitting the “View Suggested Pack” and then giving the app access to your phone's GPS data. My app very quickly recommended the “Midwest” pack for me in Rochester, MN. Because you’ll need to download location specific information you’ll also need to add information if you go somewhere out of your home region and want to birdwatch. For example, if you live in Minnesota and go to the Everglades in Florida you’ll need to download information specific to the southeastern US including Florida. This little additional work is quick, easy and well worth doing.

For a quick tour of Merlin, check out this short video (3:16 minute), Explore Merlin Bird ID App - eBird Essentials, about how to quickly use the app to identify a bird by estimating bird size, color and location (without needing those tricky to get bird pictures!). Merlin uses the vast eBird dataset to inform it’s app thus weaving human reports and artificial intelligence together similarly to iNaturalist. 

I’ve known for years that from the main Merlin menu page it is easy to start bird ID, get photos, get sounds and explore birds, but I just recently learned Merlin can now identify birds using just a sound recording! Check out this short video (2:08 minute), Merlin Bird ID app now identifies bird sounds, about how it’s converting bird songs into visual images that are then easily sorted by artificial intelligence to quickly identify the singing bird near you! 

An old, but super cool feature in the Merlin app is playing bird songs. About a month ago we saw an owl fly through the woods beyond our campfire. It was dusk and the shadows were too deep to identify the owl to species. I quickly opened my Merlin app and we played all the owl calls that seemed appropriate. We weren’t successful in calling the bird in, but it was magical sitting by the fire looking into the deepening dark listening to owl calls and hoping one would approach.

I find Merlin to be a better app for bird identification and learning than iNaturalist. It is possible to add recordings of bird calls to iNaturalist but that platform relies on good quality images (which I struggle to capture of birds moving quickly through tree branches!) and humans to do the identification. Merlin bird identification is quicker and faster. In areas here I have an iNaturalist project I use Merlin to identify the bird and then record that sighting in iNaturalist separately. It’s a bit of double entry but quite manageable. 

This is a great time to spot new birds as they migrate south. Try the Merlin app to get to know those birds more!