Birds in the Landscape

As a gardener, one of my main goals is to develop a landscape that provides a safe habitat for birds (and other wildlife). I have added plants to provide food and shelter and have been gratified by the amount of birdsong I hear in my garden. However, much of this birdsong remains a mystery since I have somewhat of a “tin ear.” I would like to be able to decipher this unintelligible mixture of sounds. I recently stumbled on a free App that has helped me with this goal, and I am totally hooked. The Merlin App is produced by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology which is at the forefront of bird research. Merlin has enabled me to begin to understand the songs and calls around me. As a result, I have significantly broadened my life list beyond common feeder birds.

A chickadee and cardinal at the birdfeeder.

A chickadee and cardinal at the birdfeeder.
Barbara Smith, ©2022, HGIC, Clemson Extension

On its main menu, the Merlin App has three options “Start Bird ID, which asks several simple questions to suggest a possible identification (location, time of day, size, main colors, and behavior). “Get Photo ID” is the second option. You can either take a photo with the App or upload a photo you have already taken. You are then given photos of the closest matches. The third feature is the “Sound ID”, and I have found this option the most fascinating, educational, fun, and very addictive.

This sound feature is beneficial to me as a listening-challenged birder. Merlin shows the birds’ sounds in real-time! As each bird is heard multiple times, the notation for it lights up. This allows me to focus on the variety of calls, songs, and chips made by each bird and begin to discern who is talking! Once you have finished recording, you have a list of the birds the App has found. You can listen to your bird’s pre-recorded songs, learn more about it, report it to eBird and add it to a life list.

The Merlin app has helped me make massive progress with practicing listening to birds and, most importantly, knowing who I was hearing. I was thrilled to discover that my hometown’s skies are filled with chimney swifts on the wing all day. I learned my house is surrounded by chipping sparrows and that the catbird has returned from its overwintering grounds. I discovered a blue-gray gnatcatcher and a great crested fly catcher were hanging out in my back garden. One morning at work (at the South Carolina Botanical Garden), I used the App as I watched cardinals and chickadees fly into and out of a large red cedar. I was thrilled to see a northern parula and a Cape May warbler show up on the recording, both new birds to me! As I concentrated on the activity in the tree, I was able to identify both birds by the pictures the App provided. I am hooked! Try it; you might be too.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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