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The future is iBird

June 19, 2009

I’m not usually the one who gets in on new technology on the ground floor. I didn’t even have my own cell phone until I had graduated from college. And even though I’m an avid music lover, I didn’t have an iPod until just last year, an example of extreme social retardation practically unheard of these days. In my fast forward into modernity, I’ve been increasingly distressed at the number of small electronic devices I’m forced to carry around in my pockets. That’s part of what’s so appealing about Apple’s iPhone, because I wasn’t interested in duct taping my cell phone to my iPod and tying them all to my GPS unit.

But not only all that, the iPhone’s capacity for third party applications makes it an enticing product, and for the birder there’s one for which I had a serious yen to try out. Thanks to Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and my colleague at the NBN and Mitch Waite, the creator of the program, I was able to get my hands on a copy if iBird’s signature App, iBird PRO, soon after I picked up an iPhone for myself.

IBird is essentially a field guide program that you can carry in your pocket. It’s a brilliant concept. Like many birders, I very rarely carry a field guide when I go out in the field. I’m fairly familiar with the birds I’m most likely to see on any given day, and if I do come across something really unusual, I’m able to take notes and compare to a guide in the car or back at home. Besides, my favorite guide, the big Sibley, is a real pain to carry around. IBird offers a convenient alternative, a field guide that’s simply a part of my regular routine. Who among us, after all, goes anywhere without a cell phone anymore?

In the week or so I’ve had iBird in my possession I’ve been pretty impressed by its functionality. There are a lot of things I like about it, comprehensive list of North American birds, including every vagrant species, however likely, and all those in Hawaii. The interface is easy to navigate, listing birds alphabetically by first name, last name, or family. I’m partial to family, as it’s how I’ve always expected birds to be ordered and I think it shows interspecies relationships more clearly. However, once within families, alphabetical is the order of the day. Birds can be easily searched and favorites marked for future reference, a 21st century means of bookmarking the field guide to reference target species easily. It works well in the field.

Most notable is the song database. The weakness of paper field guides are their lack of real auditory references, accomplished in different ways over the years from the spectrograms in the Chandler Robbins Golden Guide to Sibley’s mnemonics to the CD included in the new Ted Floyd Smithsonian Guide. The marriage of illustrations and sound has always been just out of reach, but the smartphone revolution blows that door wide open. This feature alone makes iBird the holy grail of bird identification tools.

I worry, though, with such easy access to bird songs will we run the risk of over-taping birds in the breeding season. I don’t have a problem with doing so occasionally, but with songs at our fingertips it’s tempting to go too far. The iPhone’s speakers aren’t really of a quality that allows one to use this feature beyond that which it is intended, but after market speakers could. That said, the incredible usefulness of having those vocalizations available cannot go understated. When you consider the cost of a set of CDs for even half of North America’s birds, iBird pays for itself.

That’s not to say iBird doesn’t have some problems, and for me those are primarily aesthetic. I hate the illustrations. Hate them. For me the vast majority of them are unusable. Mitch Waite is clear that in order to keep the cost reasonable, he decided to go overseas to find artists who could fulfill the need to have illustrations, and in many cases multiple ones, for every bird in North America. I certainly can’t fault him for that, if you aren’t an illustrator or a photographer by trade, it’s very difficult, not to mention expensive, to fill a field guide.

For example, the illustrations of the Empidonax flycatchers are completely worthless because they all look like the same bird as interpreted by different artists. The subtle differences between the species are lost because of the far greater differences in the style of each artist. For closely related species, especially those for whom field identification is a difficult exercise, not only Empids, but peeps, gulls, and sparrows and others, I think it would have been more useful to stick with one artist. It’s a difficult thing to get around, but for iBird in many cases it’s clear that the lack of real world experience with the birds in question cause some problems.

Empids are only the most pressing error, but hardly the only one. Cackling and Canada Goose look identical instead of keying in on the differences in head shape. Seaside Sparrow is illustrated at an angle than nullifies it’s most prominent field mark, the enormous bill. There are some odd habitat choices among some species, an example being Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow illustrated perched on what bizarrely appears to be an Elm. I could go on, but it’s equally important to note that iBird does not fail because of these illustrations and many others are quite good. Fortunately, for nearly every bird, there are photographs to accompany the illustrations, and in many cases these are adequate by themselves for identification. Without the photos, I would have trouble justifying some of the illustrative choices, but with them, poor illustrations become a much smaller matter. But your mileage may vary.

Larger, though, are some other taxonomic issues I noted. For instance, Old World Flycatchers of the family Muscicapidae (Asian Brown, Dark-sided, Narcissus, et al) are listed within New World Flycatchers of the family Tyrannidae. That’s kind of a big problem, one you certainly wouldn’t find in a print field guide.

But though there are some mistakes in iBird, they deserve qualification. The best thing about iBird, even better than the vocalization sound files (and those are really cool), is that all of this is easy to fix. And when I wrote Mitch Waite with a couple of my concerns he pointed out that they will be fixed in the next update, so that’s promising. After all, software updates are expected, heck, with the speed in which bird taxonomy is being re-written these days they’re practically required. And instead of rushing off to purchase yet another field guide, for one price you get all of those updates right to your device in days rather than the years it takes to put out an updated print guide. That’s another truly great feature of iBird.

IBird isn’t perfect, but it’s novelty outweighs its current problems. It’s not going to replace the bound field guide by any means, but it’s groundbreaking in the sense that it’s the first of it’s type to use the platform of the smartphone in a way that’s useful to birders. And it is a phenomenally useful tool to add to the stable. The gauntlet has been definitively laid down. Mitch Waite has done a really nice job with the program both in terms of information and ease of use, and any potential bird App looking to get a piece of this pie undoubtedly has their work cut out for them. I look forward to seeing where he takes iBird into the future.

But I won’t be doing it on my iPhone. Turns out AT&T has horrible reception at my house so sadly I have to pass on the iPhone for the time being. It’s a sad turn of events for lots of reasons, but not least of which is that I won’t have iBird in my pocket.

Thanks to Mitchell Waite for a free review copy

  1. Ali Iyoob permalink
    June 19, 2009 5:58 pm

    I don't have one of those, but I know a birder who does. It seems we are always using it for reference in the field.

  2. Jochen permalink
    June 22, 2009 7:52 am

    I suppose even iBird will have to go through the ordinary process of field guides: constant refining over many years and many generations, wait: make that "updates", until it is really as good as we want it to be.
    But I'd say you are right: that is the future.

  3. OpposableChums permalink
    June 23, 2009 12:52 pm

    OK, I'll step into the line of fire:

    I'm uncomfortable with the trend of carrying electronic devices into the field when birding. I find it not only aesthetically displeasing, but ecologically so as well when one considers the tsunami of caustic batteries "needed" for today's lifestyle.

    You say: "I very rarely carry a field guide when I go out in the field. I'm fairly familiar with the birds I'm most likely to see on any given day, and if I do come across something really unusual, I'm able to take notes and compare to a guide in the car or back at home."

    So how does iBird PRO change things? Not the crappy illustrations, evidently. The presence of the bird calls? These, too, will be recognized as familiar of referenced later after careful note-taking, and will hone your ear for the future, making you a better birder.

    Staring down at a tiny screen and fumbling with the dials looking for quick answers is not my idea of birding. Instead, it represents much of what I enjoy leaving behind as I step into the woods; to commune, not commute.

    Others mileages will certainly vary.

  4. Nate permalink
    June 23, 2009 1:56 pm

    @OpposableChums – I think your points are definitely fair and I too, have a hard time reconciling my interest in devices like the iPhone with my knowledge of their ecological footprint. There's really no justification for that except to think that a superphone like the iPhone negates the need for two or three devices when one will do. Now you could argue whether any of those devices are really necessary…

    Leaving that aside, I, personally, find the vocalizations worth the price of admission alone. I have a better memory for feathers than I do for sounds, and I think the individual's desire to leave that part of themselves behind when communing with nature obviously varies from person to person.

    But whether or not experienced birders take to iBird ultimately may be irrelevant. Even with all the bells and whistles it just becomes another reference material, albeit one that will probably never have the weight (metaphorically, not to mention literally) of a traditional field guide. But if having a handy guide to birds in your pocket because of the flashy platform brings out an interest in bird identification among those who wouldn't ordinarily get outside, I have to see that as a net positive.

    It's definitely not fair, but birders have always held a reputation of being behind the curve, iBird pushes us into the mainstream in a way that could end up being good for us, and for the birds we all care about.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Mike permalink
    June 25, 2009 10:10 am

    I'm going to have to agree with you and disagree with Opposable Chums about the utility of having real vocalizations at your fingertips. I've become pretty good at identifying a range of birds by sight. However, my ear birding is still wretched. Reading an author's interpretation of a song in a field guide is almost worthless for me (blackbirds don't really sing "konkaree" in my neighborhood) so I'd appreciate an auditory reference. While many such resources exist, I like iBird's functionality best.

    Great review. Too bad about having to drop the iPhone, Nate. AT&T is the reason I don't have one myself.

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