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See Inside January 2012

Your Birdsong Stays on My Mind

A new app may help birders identify species just by sound



Stephen Schwartz/iStockphoto

Birdsong—or, more technically, vocalization— is one way that die-hard bird-watchers identify different kinds of birds in the field, along with the more traditional visual markers. Yet how do you take written notes on the sounds that birds make? You could use conventional musical notation, but many bird-watchers aren’t musicians. Field guides often resort to vague phrases such as “far-carrying melancholic song” or the mysterious “tee-do-do-eet.” Also, how can birders identify strains of birdsong they may hear in the field?

Enter two enterprising Ecuadorian researchers who think they may have a solution to both problems. Hugo Jácome Andrade and David Parra Puente have developed software that “transforms sound into a sequence of numbers that can be readily converted and printed in a QR (Quick Response) bar code.” They debuted a prototype version of the software last November at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, where attendees were able to see firsthand how the system imports recorded sounds and transposes them into a QR bar code and then “decodes” it using a conventional bar code scanner.

The next step for Jácome Andrade and Parra Puente is to adapt their software into an app for smartphones, a kind of mobile catalogue in a searchable e-book format. That would be the ultimate pocket field guide for bird-watchers, wouldn’t it? Instead of lugging around lots of pricey and heavy equipment, enthusiasts could happily go about their bird-watching business armed with just a mobile phone with a built-in camera. If they heard a bit of birdsong, they could look it up on the smartphone app. Their phone, in turn, would display a picture of the bird (for visual identification) and a bar code that could be played so that watchers could verify the birdsong matches that they just heard. “No more confusing tweeting sound descriptions!” Jácome Andrade and Parra Puente declared in their lay-language summary.

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