Shazam for Birding – When is it coming to iBird?

We got this review for iBird North in the app store today:

Wonderful (v4.0)
5 stars on Jul 12, 2011
I have been using this app for for over two years now and couldn’t be happier! My friends are so impressed how I can ID so many birds just by their calls! My recognition ability has improved ten fold! One suggestion though that would improve this app to the point of astonishment would be audio recognition. Simply point the phone in the direction of a call and the app would ID the bird based on the call (just like “sound hound”). That would be amazing! Thanks for everything!!

Even with all the exclamation points its an awesome review. But the part about audio recognition got me to wondering how many other birders would like such a feature? And do you think it would be hard to program into an iPhone?

12 thoughts on “Shazam for Birding – When is it coming to iBird?

  1. I can’t think of anything that would be more exciting to bird enthusiasts than to be able to “hear” and “identify.” And, would it really be so difficult to code it with all the bird sounds that you’ve amassed into iBird?

    Maybe someday there would be a way to “hear” and match against a list of possibilities, but then I’m probably thinking out of my league. It would be sort of like combining what you already have with the Song and Song Pattern but have the app come up with a list of possibilities of birds.

    • Pam read my response to Stephen for why this would be so difficult. I am not saying you couldn’t tell a quack from a screech or a buzz from a squawk, but that would not really help you very much.

  2. When asked about this, as i am sometimes, I point out that bird song is way more various than human music. All we hear, in fact, of the complex sound pattern, is the part that actually conforms to our expectation of music…having a predictable pattern and following a known set of rules, intervals, time signatures, keys, scales, etc. An attempt was made and a machine built, but it could only correctly identify a small set of bird songs…and did not score very high for accuracy. A very complex programming problem, I would think.

    • Excellent way to put it Stephen…if I understand your point is that a bird call has all the qualities of music and therefore given products like Shazam and Sound Hound which can identify music it should be easy to do the same with bird calls. But what people don’t understand is how much more complex bird calls are then any music. I assembled a group of scientists and computer programers and spent some time investigating the feasibility of a program that could interpret a bird song on the iPhone and tell you the species. Here are my conclusions:

      The Shazam program takes advantage of a large digital library of music that can be compared to the sounds received by the iPhone microphone. And since digital music is like a finger print the comparison process can be very accurate.

      Bird calls and songs on the other hand are more complex than human speech. Not only does every species have a repertory of sounds – no two birds sound alike – indeed the same species of bird in the same area can have different dialects. The sounds of most song birds are also delivered by two voice boxes, which means the frequency spectrum is extremely complex – you can see this in some of the spectrograms in iBird (check the American Crow for a good example). And even if similar birds did sound alike the frequencies of a bird call are difficult to categorize.

      Then there is the problem of the iPhone microphone, its just not up to the job of isolating a bird song from background noise. For that you need a special parabolic mic and a high gain amplifier with filters to remove noise. There are other reasons that make this extremely difficult that are fairly technical.

      Here is a metaphor: Imagine a computer program that can recognize human speech in English and convert it to text. Now consider it has to also recognize and convert speech in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, etc. Sound like fun?

      So while we expect someday Sound Hound for bird calls will be feasible for now its remains on the wish list for great ideas. If it ever does happen it will take a super computer. Of course in technology they say “never say never” so I leave the door open that someone may invent a clever way around these issues. I’m just not holding my breath.

      In fact what is interesting is how regularly people who have purchased iBird and downloaded and used Shazam suggest this idea.

  3. I can see how this would be an attractive feature, but I have been able to identify birds whose calls I did not recognize just by using the Search by Song and Song Pattern attributes in iBird Pro. I am not 100% successful, but I’m getting better at it. (In fact, I accidentally called a sparrow to my iPhone on the 4th of July!) I wonder if this feature needs more documentation, etc.

  4. I can’t begin to describe how much I enjoy ibirdpro. It is the only app I have ever paid for and I paid full price. Worth twice that to me as I now know. A bird song recognition feature has long been on my wish list, but seemed a long shot given how difficult out would likely be to isolate the sound to identify.

    • Whatzaname thanks for the encouraging comments on this new blog. Tons of people have similar wishes for a Shazam for birding in fact recently I debated with a fellow who said even a crude version of such a feature would be useful. I had to disagree because if you are going to try this it can’t just “work a little bit”. If it did kind of work but fail on most song birds people would consider it a Sham for birding not a Shazam 🙂 And the last thing I want associated with iBird is a feature that is funky and only works on rare occasions.

  5. Yes definitely, I was just searching for an app that would ID birds simply from their calls, just like shazam, as there is a bird near my house which calls a lot at night and I’m really wondering what it is and can’t actually find it! I think people would love an app that would ID birds simply from their call because sometimes it can be really hard to actually find the bird that’s calling. Anyway, if something like this exists pls let me know!

Leave a Reply