New Cornell University Ornithology App Merlin Is ‘Magical’

January 22, 2014 1:39 am0 comments

By AIMEE CHO

Thanks to a new phone application developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birds around campus can easily be identified in a matter of seconds.

The free iOS application Merlin is designed to be a “friend and a birding coach for beginners,” according to Miyoko Chu, senior director of communications for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Chu said the name “Merlin” represents the application’s “seemingly magical ability to identify birds.” “However, the magic of the app is really in the science and the help from the thousands of people who helped build it,” she said.

Pg 3 Cornell Lab of O by Shailee Shah Editor

(Shailee Shah / Sun Photo Editor)

The app prompts users with five questions about the bird they saw, according to the Merlin website. The application then taps into its database to generate a list of birds that are most likely to be in the area at that time, along with pictures, facts and sound recordings.

Along with providing a list of the birds likely to be in a user’s area, Merlin also narrows down results by color and size depending on what the user describes, according to Chu.

“No two people describe birds the same way. So we asked the public to teach us how they look at birds, by coming to our website and describing pictures of birds,” Chu said.

The resulting three million data points were used to refine Merlin’s ability to interpret descriptions.

The data that helps Merlin determine which birds are likely to appear in an area comes from eBird, a citizen science project conducted by Cornell since 2002.

“eBird is a way for [more advanced] bird watchers to record their sightings online. Lots of bird watchers tend to keep really diligent notes on the birds they see,” eBird project leader Marshall Iliff said. “We can pretty much pick any point in the United States and give a list of birds that occur within 20-50 miles of that point.”

Jessie Barry, Merlin project leader, said building the app was a difficult process that took over two years.

“We did a lot of testing using interactive prototypes to make sure each screen was easy to use. We also incorporated a database of more than 70 million eBird observations,” she said. “ It took thousands of tests to be sure Merlin would display accurate answers.”

The main team that created Merlin was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, according to the Merlin website.

Barry said the Merlin team hopes to release an Android version this spring and expand the app’s identification capabilities from the current 285 species to 500 species.

“We’ll also be using the observations that people submit to Merlin to improve its accuracy,” Barry said.

Merlin has already been downloaded 24,000 times, which the team considers a success in their mission to “hook more people on birding,” according to Chu.

“Merlin is a great example of a tangible, educational [project] that I hope will get people more involved in bird watching and caring about the world around them,” Iliff said.