Technology extends our senses, giving us tools to experience the world through new lenses —  and on a recent sunny Cape morning, I did exactly that. Right on my back deck.
The trees shone with that just-budded spring green patina and a perfect Cape light filtered through the leaves. Tiny breezes danced through the air while birdsong provided the morning with a peaceful audio background.
“What was that?” asked the birder-friend with whom I was sipping coffee.
“A bird?” I ventured.
She looked at me … then whipped out her iPhone.
“Ah, I thought it was a goldfinch,” she said triumphantly.
I look around … at green leaves.
She pointed to the app running on her phone. With a click, it recorded the surrounding tweets — the real-world tweets and twitters and chirps and clicks and chip-chips and cheeps and awks and squawks.
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“There, listen” she whispered, pointing to the list of bird names appearing in the app’s scroll list.
“Goldfinch,” the app told us. “Goldfinch!” my friend said quietly, with a pleased nod that confirmed her initial observation.
Just then a tiny flick of yellow caught the edge of my eye. And then another. Two near-invisible goldfinches hopped branch to branch, carrying on an avian duet about 15 feet away in a plum tree.
“American goldfinch” confirmed The Cornell Lab’s Merlin Sound ID app again, highlighting the bird’s name in real time with each call.
With the tap of a screen, curtains parted and suddenly I experienced a whole other level of a world that sat in front of my ears the whole time — just invisible until the lens of a sensing app pulled up the curtain to show me what was really there.
The Merlin Bird ID app comes from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, aka the academic home of birds + science. It wants to “interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.”
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Years ago I’d explored an earlier version of the app, which was a sort of mobile digital guidebook that prompted you with questions to help you ID the birds you saw around you. It offered a nice database, except for the small fact that I never actually saw many different birds. Here’s what I typically see: Robins. Gulls. Crows. Little brown birds that must be some type of sparrow – although my visual skills lack the ability to get much more granular than that. I could hear birds of course – a beautiful cacophony of sound – but never saw the actual birds attached to it.
Turns out my experience mirrors that of many others. Birds seem to have mastered both sound communication and the visual art of blending into their environment. They “talk” over each other, creating a pastiche of calls that mere mortals have a bit of a challenge interpreting.
Enter the Sound ID feature. According to Cornell, the AI-driven sound identification tool within the Merlin Bird ID app recognizes 458 North American species. It “learned” to identify sound based on more than 750,000 bird recordings, many gathered by the lab’s network of citizen scientist birders.
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It also ties the sound ID into that aforementioned database, which over the years has grown to more than 80,000 images in the lab’s Macaulay Library. Translation: you can hear that goldfinch and then with another click learn more about it. Oh, and you can also confirm the goldfinch sounding/sighting with Merlin, adding another citizen scientist datapoint into the ever-growing knowledgebase, helping to create a really cool global cycle of learning and sharing.
The best part though – super easy! Really, you just open the app, click on Sound ID, and Merlin does the rest. Sit back, breathe in the moment, and listen to the calling birds around you – while the tech augments your knowledge with what you can’t bring yourself.
I liked it so much … I tried it again. And again. Just today, I sat quietly for three minutes, listening. Merlin listened too. I watched in wonder as bird names popped into Merlin’s result column, highlighting as each call filled the air.
I had no idea! In just three minutes my little corner of the world heard from the American robin, song sparrow, American goldfinch, house wren, house finch, Northern cardinal, Baltimore oriole, Carolina wren, common grackle, and yellow warbler.
Robins, to my great surprise, never seem to be quiet. I can actually see and ID robins, but it turns out the near-constant chip-chips come from their beaks … all day long. I didn’t know orioles can carry on so, or that grackles make all kinds of sounds beyond a squawk. I had no idea how beautiful song sparrows sound, or that the vegetation around me hosts multiple types of wrens, let alone a warbler.
Next time you think of tech as some mechanical intrusive force, stop and listen to the birds. And remember that tech can also bring a lens for knowing and loving the world around us just a little bit better.
Teresa Martin of Eastham lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity. You can reach her at teresa@capeeyes.com.


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