Cornell’s All About Birds Lab: Merlin

Since 2012, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology first reported the development of Merlin™, an online bird identification tool, Cornell’s All About Birds Labs has been hard at work adding bells and whistles to Merlin’s know-how. Through collaboration with Visipedia, this summer The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the debut of their new computer vision technology app, Merlin Bird Photo ID. And wouldn’t you know it, the app does exactly what its name suggests – identifies birds in photographs.

Using the online Merlin Bird Photo ID tool is simple. Just drag and drop an image of any one of 400 North American bird species, identify when and where the photo was taken, drag a box identifying the bird from any background noise, and then click on the bill tip, eye, and tail tip to give Merlin a hint.

Digging through some crummy bird photos I have taken over the years, I decided to put Merlin (and my photography) to the test to see how well it performed.

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Photo #1
Location: Concord, CA
Date: 7, March, 2015

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Discussion: Having seen these fellows in my yard all spring, I knew beforehand that this neighborhood regular was a western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), but because I maxed out the zoom feature on my old cell phone, the photo was left with a watercolor-esque dappling that I thought might confuse the computer vision algorithm’s at work here.

I was right.

Merlin’s best matches led with a male hooded merganser (breeding male) and an adult American robin. Hopefully, anyone with any sense would know enough to dismiss those outright and click through to “More Results.” Still, even after fiddling with the settings several times (knowing that the first time I attempted to identify this bird a week ago, I remember western bluebird falling within the first ten suggestions, this time around western bluebird was Merlin’se 23rd choice.

Clearly, the caveat that “high quality images of birds in typical poses work best” holds true here.

Photo #2
Location: Bakersfield, CA
Date: 4 November, 2011

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Discussion: When I first caught a glimpse of this bird in flight at a distance in the Wind Wolves Preserve north of the Grapevine, for a moment I thought I might have seen something a little more exotic like a prairie or peregrine falcon; but deep down, I’ve always known this was an American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Merlin confirms it.

Buzzkill.

Photo #3
Location: Clearlake, CA
Date: 20 June, 2010

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Discussion: If you look closely, you’ll see this photo isn’t exactly fair – there aren’t one, but two birds awkwardly posed against the tree in this pine-oak woodland. When I first saw this pair of woodpeckers, what was most remarkable about them – second only to the outlandish ruckus they and their fledglings were raising at the time – was their remarkable size. Seeing as how pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) are the largest woodpecker in the United States (second only to the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker), their size is one of the primary traits that makes them so easy to identify in the field.

But, Merlin doesn’t know how big the bird in my photo was. Nevertheless, pileated woodpecker is Merlin’s first and only suggestion.

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So despite my clumsy attempts at wildlife photography, Merlin Bird Photo ID pulls through in a pinch, even if it needs hand-holding when tricky photographs are at issue. In truth, that’s no different than catching a fleeting glimpse of a hooded sparrow and trying to narrow down your choices between a dark-eyed junco and a spotted towhee. Whether you are flipping between bird IDs suggested by Merlin or flipping between pages in your field guide, in the end it comes down to the birder to make the final call.

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