I’m not a birder—but I value birds.
I didn’t always value them. They were just flying around my neighborhood, largely unnoticed. Of course I marvelled at owls, hummingbirds, bald eagles or great blue herons when I spotted them—but on the whole, birds did their thing, and I did mine.
Then, a few years ago, I read the bad news.
According to research published in the journal Science in late 2019, wild bird populations in the U.S. and Canada have declined by almost 30 percent since 1970. If you do the math—and believe me, I don’t want to—that’s up to one in four birds gone. Or an estimated loss of 2.9 billion.
I took this piece of depressing news personally, perhaps because it dated to the year of my birth. The study implied that 1970 was the beginning of something new and ominous—the point at which human progress and affluence really started to show its destructive flipside (mainly in habitat loss, pollution and predation by domesticated cats).
However, 1970 saw the first Earth Day celebrated, so if it was the start of something bad, then it was also the start of a renewed ecological awareness that has since grown immeasurably.
Back to the birds, or the lack of them. Since reading that sobering news, my awareness shifted. I didn’t become a birder, but whenever I stepped outside, I listened. I recognized that birdsong was a soundtrack I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to. And I had no idea of the species I was hearing, apart from the obvious ones.
I bought a monocular to keep in my day-pack but I lacked the patience to lie in wait. Unless you’re willing to crouch in the proverbial weeds for the long haul with a long lens, you won’t be compiling much of a life list.
Then I discovered Merlin. A mobile app (developed by Caltech and Cornell Tech computer vision researchers in partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) it helps you ID birds using both sight and sound. With the aid of machine learning that draws from a database of millions of photos and audio clips collected by birders over many years (and housed at eBird.org) you can quickly ID a bird by answering a few simple questions in the app, uploading a photo or recording song.
My first visual ID was an eastern kingbird in the Menary easement. My first audio ID was a great crested flycatcher in the Bayview Escarpment Nature Reserve.
So why does the Merlin app matter? I see it as a small but important part of a suite of tools we can use as volunteers and citizens raising awareness in the face of habitat loss. Only since my 2019 bird-crisis epiphany have I come to realize how much birds help to maintain ecosystem balance and biodiversity by dispersing seeds, pollinating and controlling pests. As human populations impinge on more habitats, birds need our help to do this work.
In addition to working as a BTC member to secure more natural habitat, try sharing the Merlin app with, for example, a phone-obsessed teenager. If a phone can serve as a tool to raise awareness of biodiversity, then this is a clear win for the birds and for our shared future.