Meet Merlin: the Must-Have Bird ID App

Solve bird ID mysteries with the help of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's app.

A combination of color, behavior and location helps Merlin users figure out that this is an eastern bluebird.Robert Merrifield (B&B reader)
Robert Merrifield (B&B reader) A combination of color, behavior and location helps Merlin users figure out that this is an eastern bluebird.

Gone are the days of committing tricky-to-identify, stripy brown birds to memory until you get your hands on a field guide. Nowadays, identifying new-to-you birds is as easy as a far taps on your smartphone. Jessie Barry, project leader at the Cornell Lab, shares details of the Merlin birding app.

What is Merlin?

It’s a tool designed primarily for beginners. Basically, Merlin asks you a series of questions about what your bird looks like, what size it is and where you saw it, and then delivers a short list of possible species. A lot of people glance out at a bird feeder and wonder what they’re seeing. With Merlin, you get an answer.

Is it only for beginners?

I think it’s a good tool for any birder who’s been frustrated by flipping through field guides or Googling “little brown bird.” What makes Merlin really awesome, in my opinion, is that it gives you a targeted list of the birds most likely to be seen in your area that day.

How does Merlin do that?

The app pulls customized ID suggestions from the more than 70 million observations stores in eBird (Cornell’s citizen science online database of observations). Merlin cross-references your answers with observations reported to eBird by bird-watchers over the past three years from roughly a 30-mile radius of your location. And then, along with the species name, you get text about the bird’s appearance, behaviors and habitat preference, plus several stunning photos of each species to help you make an ID.

Is sound part of the app?

Yes, you can listen to the bird’s songs and calls with audio files pulled from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library, and you see the species’ range maps pulled from Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America online reference.

How can I get Merlin and how much does it cost?

Go to the Merlin website for simple directions on how to download the app. It is designed for smartphones (iOS and Android devices), but it works great on tablets, too. Another really cool thing about Merlin: It’s completely free! Part of the mission of the Cornell Lab is to make birds more accessible to people.

Get more tips on how to identify mystery birds here!

Birders Review the Merlin App

Merlin comes in handy in a pinch, and I think it is well-thought-out. The app runs into difficulty on tricky IDs, such as migrating warblers in nonbreeding plumage. But it generally gets you in the ballpark, so you can narrow things down in a field guide. — Bobby Hiebert Salina, Kansas

I downloaded the app after moving from Ohio to Florida. I had a bunch of new birds to ID, and it really helped! Merlin is good for basic identification and usually shows a couple of different photos of each bird and a map of its range. — Tiffany Ertle Homosassa, Florida

I used Merlin a while back, but because it took up a lot of space on my smartphone, I deleted it. (Plus I’m pretty comfortable ID’ing in a field guide.) However, the app did correctly identify birds when I used it, and I would definitely recommend it! — Grace Huffman Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook, Associate Editor, Birds & Blooms Although Kaitlin is a newbie when it comes to birding and gardening, she loves getting to learn on the job. (She's already impressed a few friends by being able to identify a couple songbirds!) Previously, she worked on other Reader's Digest magazines like Reminisce and Country Woman. Hidden talents include playing the ukulele and speaking Japanese.