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Cuckoo Clocked: Can an app make you a better birder?

Cornell Lab’s Merlin app is coming to India. They’re crowdsourcing images from local birdwatchers, and everyone’s aflutter.

more lifestyle Updated: Apr 15, 2018 08:40 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
The Merlin Bird ID app has changed birding in North America in the four years since its launch, helping novices identify species in seconds, from a single photo.(Image Courtesy Cornell Lab)

In theory, it sounds perfect. You spot a bird in the wild (or on the windowsill of your concrete jungle), take a quick shot with your smartphone, and an app identifies the species in seconds with 90% accuracy.

For those who’ve used it, four-year-old Merlin Bird ID has revolutionised birdwatching. But the app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Caltech, using crowdsourced photographs, is perhaps better known for how academia, machine learning and crowdsourced data can collaborate towards conservation. In North America, where it was launched, it’s allowed ordinary folks to identify birds without bulky field guides or long-drawn-out Google searches. Among established birdwatching groups, it’s cut down endless debates on which bird was spotted. Naturalists the world over have been using the data to understand migratory patterns, habitat changes and other avian issues.

In January, the Cornell Lab announced plans to extend the app for birds in India – a decision that is as exciting as it is daunting. India ranks among the world’s 12 megadiversity nations, with 1,266 or 13% of the world’s bird species. But for Merlin to identify Indian birds, it needs more than 500 reference photos for every species. Local birders have been urged to contribute their pictures to build the database.

Some birds like the bright blue verditer flycatcher are easy enough – contributions have already crossed 750. Others like the blue-yellow Banasura Laughingthrush are so rare, there are only seven pictures uploaded.

India’s birdwatching community is divided over the use of tech-driven tools like bird-identification apps. Some say it will popularise the hobby. Others fear it will become a distraction, reducing the activity to almost a game. (Pramod Thakur / HT File Photo)


Mohit Aggarwal, 31, a bank executive who has lived in several cities and is now based in Mumbai, has contributed over 100 images, most of rare species. “I’ve focused on filling the gaps left by other contributors,” says the birder.

He hopes the app will soothe the ruffled feathers of India’s birding community. “A unique sighting usually causes controversy,” he says. Older birdwatchers, who’ve been bird-spotting before digital cameras, tend to be dismissive, even disbelieving, of younger enthusiasts’ pictures, he says. “Photos offer proof that a certain bird has been in an unlikely region. When a picture is up for identification, you’re typically up against someone’s ego. Machine learning may be able to answer without bias.”

For Albin Jacob, 36, a software engineer from Bengaluru, contributing more than 3,000 pictures was a breeze. He’s photographed more than 800 species across India and is a reviewer for the India portal of Ebird, Cornell Lab’s massive crowdsourced database of bird observations.

“I’m excited that the app will be available for India,” he says.


When it goes live next year, the Merlin app is likely to galvanise India’s changing birding community. Phone cameras, a surge in nature tourism, and online communities have fueled an interest in bird-spotting.

Public participation has improved data quality as there are more eyes trained on more habitats.

“When I lived in Bangalore, my building complex was near the Madiwala Lake and I’d photographed four white birds landing on the water,” recalls Aravind AM, 36, a brand consultant in Chennai. “They turned out to be slender-billed gulls, rarely found so far away from a coast. That record is on Ebird and will go to Merlin, the only record of them so far inland.”

Many naturalists prefer old-school methods: binoculars, field notes, watching and learning to smartphones, fancy camera zooms and other aids. (Kunal Patil / HT File Photo)


Birdwatching stands apart from other nature activities. “It’s part treasure hunt, part serendipity,” says Aggarwal.

A single app, created with public input for the wider public can serve as an ever-evolving tool to track how bird populations have changed or moved with time. “There are data sets that let you track where lesser-known species are being sighted, identify understudied birds and regions, and record surprises,” he says. “All of it is valuable information for research, and ultimately helping bird survive.”

Not everyone is as excited about the app. Naturalist Sunjoy Monga, whose books include the 2017 edition of Birds of the Mumbai Region, says he prefers old-school methods: binoculars, field notes, watching and learning.

“The app won’t make you more observant. You could have a pair of binoculars with the ID app built in – it’s not going to make you a better birder,” he says.

Pravin Subramanian, who organizes the India Bird Races, citywide contests for bird spotting, fears the app could reduce birdwatching to a mere game of photographing, identifying and naming species without a focus on their habits or ecosystems.

“If you work on becoming familiar with a habitat, you’ll find you won’t need an app,” says Monga.

Subramanian is more poetic: “Just don’t miss the forest for the birds.”

First Published: Apr 14, 2018 19:25 IST