Until we have a Shazam for birdsong (the birding world holds its breath, WeBIRD), the task of identifying birds by song alone remains inconvenient at best. Experts recognize birds more quickly and more often by song than by field markings, but without a good audio field guide at hand, we're left like Jack Black in The Big Year: endlessly replaying birdsong recordings until committed to memory. Mobile apps like iBird aim to improve our condition by ensuring that a good field guide with high-quality audio recordings is always in our pocket.
On a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, we took an afternoon hike to Cattail Falls—at the time little more than a trickling water feature on the backside of Chisos Basin. There, in cool canyon shadows at the base of the waterfall, we heard a most striking birdsong. Pure and penetrating, it flowed through the canyon on a series of liquid, descending notes, like water bubbling through a high-pressure valve. It was mesmerizing. "What is that bird?"
iBird's integrated birdsong recordings don't require a network connection—a necessity when deep in the field and far off the grid. So my task was merely to isolate the proper recording from iBird's library of hundreds, and to do that required narrowing the possibilities by applying as many of iBird's non-visual search criteria as possible:
- Location: Texas.
iBird offers the option to specify whether the location is "common" or "uncommon" for the bird. Take a guess.
- Habitat: Deserts + Mountains.
- Observed state/month: Texas + March.
- Song: Melodic-Musical.
Other criteria in this category include buzz-reverberate, prattle-chatter, shriek-scream, tweet-chirp, and more.
- Song pattern: Falling.
Other criteria: flat, rising, and sing-song.
- None of these criteria were applied: Shape, size, color primary, color secondary, breast color, backyard feeder, family, conservation status. length range, weight range, wing shape, flight pattern, tail shape, wingspan, leg color, head pattern, breast pattern, belly pattern, back pattern, crown color, forehead color, cere color, throat color, nape color, eye color, bill shape, bill length, ear tufts, game bird, and order.
Only 15 birds matched all selected criteria, and it took less than a minute to play each song until the correct bird was found. To hear the Canyon Wren for yourself, check out iBird on your favorite mobile device or visit the Canyon Wren page on birdnote.org.