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In the Garden with Susan: Technology can play a hand in identifying birds and their songs

This pair of cedar waxwings like to nest in Susan Mulvihill’s hawthorn tree every year.  (Susan Mulvihill)
This pair of cedar waxwings like to nest in Susan Mulvihill’s hawthorn tree every year. (Susan Mulvihill)
By Susan Mulvihill For The Spokesman-Review

Our garden is filled with birdsong every single day. When we moved into our home over 30 years ago, Bill and I set out to create a landscape that would be appealing to birds because we’re both avid birdwatchers and know they play an important role in the environment.

The first thing we did was to plant a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees as a way to enclose our wide-open piece of property. Many songbirds feel more at ease if they aren’t out in the open.

Next, we added native trees and shrubs to give birds a place to hide from predators, shelter from the weather or build a nest. Some of the shrubs, such as snowberries and American cranberry bush, produce berries that they enjoy eating. Bird feeders filled with black-oil sunflower seeds and suet cakes provide additional nourishment. Our ponds and birdbaths provide them with water for drinking and bathing.

The result has been well worth the effort because we get to watch birds feeding, drinking, going through courtship rituals and raising their young. Just a sampling of our resident bird friends includes hummingbirds, catbirds, cedar and Bohemian waxwings, crossbills, nuthatches, chickadees, hairy and downy woodpeckers, towhees and Northern flickers.

Occasionally, we’ll spot a new visitor that we want to identify or hear a bird call and be curious to know which species it came from. While there are some wonderful bird guides that will help with this, our new favorite tool is the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Bill and I recently read an article about this free phone app and quickly loaded it onto our phones. The app contains three different programs that allow you to identify a bird.

The Bird ID Wizard asks three questions about a bird’s size, its coloration and what it was doing when you spotted it, then lists the possibilities. Sound ID provides the option of recording a bird’s call and suggests which bird is singing, all in real time. With Photo ID, you can take a photo of the mystery bird and receive a short list of potential matches.

The first time I used Sound ID, I was astounded at the number of different calls the app identified. One day, while I recorded a 30-second audio clip, it correctly listed a pygmy nuthatch, black-capped chickadee, song sparrow, house finch, red crossbill and American robin as the sources of different songs. Each time one of those birds sang, the app highlighted the name in the list to make it easy to associate the song with the correct bird.

The other cool aspect of Sound ID is that those recordings also visually display as a spectrogram of each bird’s call. It is pretty fascinating technology. To learn more about the Merlin Bird ID app, go to merlin.allaboutbirds.org.

In addition to this app, the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website (allaboutbirds.org) is a fantastic resource. Visitors can type in the name of the bird they want to know more about and discover its range, the type of habitat it frequents, what they eat, where they nest, information about their behavior, how to attract them to your garden, watch videos of the bird and listen to their calls.

It is so enjoyable to attract birds to your garden and even more rewarding when you have a better understanding of the birds living in and around it.

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