In a recent post at the ABA blog, a new smartphone app is described that promises to help identify bird songs in the field. Bird song identification software has been around for a long time, mostly running on desktop computers and used for research, and the idea of having that capability in a smart phone has been a very popular future dream of many. This app would send your recording of a bird to a server (where the heavy analysis would happen) and then return the answer to your phone.
An app like this could begin to put bird song identification within reach of novices, and that’s exciting. As the developer Mark Berres said “You’ll learn more about the world around you, and there’s nothing but good in that”.
So I was surprised to read the comments on the ABA blog and find that five of the first nine are negative. Commenters are concerned that people would be interacting more with their phones than with nature, that birders won’t even have to listen to birds, won’t bother to learn the songs, etc. The common thread is that this will create a new generation of lazy birders.
The same principle has been debated for years regarding the use of calculators in schools. A good overview of that debate is here. It’s worth noting that there is no evidence that calculator use does any harm to math learning. Some of the arguments in favor of calculator use can be applied directly to this bird song app debate. For example: Calculators allow students to spend less time on tedious calculations, so those who would normally be turned off by frustration or boredom can still learn the overarching concepts of math.
If an app can help relieve some of the initial frustration that beginners experience when they try to identify a sound in the forest, that might be the difference between a good experience and a bad one. Someone who feels like they succeeded in identifying a bird will be more likely to try to identify more.
Sometime in the distant future there might be a device that will simply identify sounds as we walk, and one that we can trust enough that we simply accept its identifications. I think the fear is that birding will become just a transect through the habitat while looking at the smartphone screen and reviewing the collected data. If that happens I may change my mind about this topic, but really, I don’t think technology can ever take away the central birding experience of exploring and discovering.
For now, these early apps are going to be a bit cumbersome – you record the sound, send it to the server, wait for a response, read the list of likely answers, listen to the included reference recordings, reject all the suggestions, try to get a better recording to resend, repeat. Anyone who goes to all that trouble is actually going to learn a lot about bird songs, and will quickly graduate to leaving the phone in their pocket and identifying birds much more quickly and happily by ear. That’s not lazy. I think that sounds like a great way to learn.