Does technology make birders lazy?

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.


10 thoughts on “Does technology make birders lazy?”

  1. The argument goes back to Plato, who allegedly complained that the introduction of writing would make people lazy, since they wouldn’t have to remember everything important any more.

  2. Well said David. Just the fact that people will be focusing on bird sounds will increase their ability to listen to and recognize them. Nice calculator analogy.

  3. I think you have a good point. But I think there’s at least some validity to the ‘negative’ perspective. For instance, in my experience, the bird sounds that I know best and that I’ll never mistake fall into one of two categories. The first category is sounds that I hear very very regularly. The second category are the ones that i’ve really had to work for. For example, I’ll hear an unfamiliar sound and track it for 45 minutes (perhaps getting muddy feet and scratches on my arms in the process as I chase the bird through bushes, etc). Then finally I’ll catch a glimpse of the bird making the sound. That final ‘reveal’ is the moment that solidifies the song permanently in my mind.

    I think an app like this will help to increase the number of songs learned via the first category (because fewer sounds will go unidentified so you’ll have more opportunities to burn the song into your mind via repetition). However, it could significantly reduce the songs that are in the second category.

    So, I think that an app like this could have a fairly significant impact on how we learn bird songs and on which ones we learn well. Whether you see it as an improvment or not is a personal decision, I guess. I’d personally love to have an app like this, but I’d try to use it infrequently so as not to miss out on too many of those moments of personal discovery. But I would never presume to suggest that other people should avoid using it.

    1. I have had the same experiences, and my suspicion is that the thing that makes the “hard work” bird songs so memorable is not the mud and scratches and bug bites, but the fact that we are focused and listening, over and over, tracking the sound and thinking about what might be at the source. I think this app can also do that, just by providing the incentive to linger over one bird, listening and wondering about a song. Also, this app will leave a lot of work for the observer. It won’t make the “Indiana Jones” style of birding obsolete. You’ll still have to follow a bird to get good clear recordings so that the app can do its job, and you’ll still have to make the final identification based on the suggested matches.

  4. So what if some birders are “lazy”? Is a birder “lazy” for taking a guided tour? For taking a field guide out into the woods instead of drawing sketches? For only watching a feeder instead of doing a big year? Birding is a hobby, a pass-time, for some even a profession, but I think the most unifying aspect of birding in any of its many forms is the appreciation for nature, for the beauty and the mystery that we encounter when venture into the outdoors. The only possible result of such technology will be that it will make people who only have a casual or practically non-existent interest in birds perhaps learn a bird song or two, and who knows, maybe a few of those people will move on from the novelty of identifying a backyard bird into becoming a bona fide birder. At the end of the day, birding, like any hobby, is a way for people to relax, enjoy themselves and learn new things. Any tool that helps people do that is a good thing. I have been impressed with the number of decidedly non-birder friends I have that have surprised me over the last couple of years by downloading iBird Pro or a similar app onto their phones and then gone on to actually use it to ID birds.
    At the end of the day, the magical moment here is not the conclusive ID of a bird through a computer program, but the beautiful song that makes people stop and listen and wonder in the first place.

    1. You said “At the end of the day, the magical moment here is not the conclusive ID of a bird through a computer program, but the beautiful song that makes people stop and listen and wonder in the first place.”
      Thank you, an excellent point well-stated.

  5. My unease with this issue is unrelated to whether or not it encourages laziness, so I apologize if it seems off-topic.

    However, I do find disturbing the deluge of devices that is flooding all aspects of our lives these days. I’m far from a Luddite, and am typing this on my beloved iPad, but I sure won’t be bringing it with me into the field anytime soon.

    How often have we seen people clustered around something wonderful or significant, snapping photos with their “smart” phones? Invariably, they seem to spend more time staring down at their devices, or showing others the pix they’ve just snapped, and ignoring the sight they’d come to see.

    Personally, having a device in the field violates a spiritual component that is one of the attractions of getting out and enjoying nature.

    Also, ALL of these devices have batteries which drain our energy coffers and entrench our dependence on dwindling resources. This, again, is at odds with what I go out into Nature to get closer to.

    Making birding “easier?” I’m all for it. The more people who bird, the more people there’ll be to care about and protect our natural surroundings. And the incoming tide of these devices is impossible to stem; I know I have mine. But I can’t help but feel that something is being lost.

    One man’s opinion…

  6. I agree with David Sibley that these gadgets~apps are very helpful for beginners and advanced birders.

    I personally don’t think anything is lost. I think things are gained. I see my family and friends who are backyard birders, learning more about birds because of the apps and apps with bird calls in particular.

    Everyone has different ways of *getting into* things. Some may choose just to photograph a bird, others to stare at bird for hours on end with Bins or a scope. Some are satisfied with shorter looks. Some choose to make sketches in the field and take notes. Others write down the all birds they are seeing. Some focus on bird calls. Others get into the whole scene..not just the bird.Some love watching birds from their armchair. We all get into birding different ways..and no way is the *right* way.

    If an app that is easy to use helps someone tune into nature and ID a bird…that’s a good thing. That’s an eye opening thing.

    IDing a bird call with an app will not make an inquisitive person lazy. It just gives them another vehicle in which to learn.

    Nothing wrong with that.

  7. What a wonderful discussion, original post and comments alike! I was going to say the OP reminded me of the kerfuffle in astronomy when electronic means of sky object finding made actually locating a certain feature TONS easier than it had been (albeit, much more expensive). But Paul predated my example by a few years. 😉

    jmj, I agree with you as well, but one of the first thoughts I had was, “what about all the times you follow something and never end up with a good view?” Or maybe that only happens to me. (But then, I feel robbed by song-only ID’s, anyway, unless they’re part of some scientific census or such.)

    Jason, I’m with you. Ideally I’d be encumbered with nothing more than my bins in the field. Plus I’m enough of a fogey to feel quite adverse to the learning curve that every new gizmo comes with. (OTOH, these birding apps are really starting to make me covet a smart phone.) The energy cost is a valid concern, obviously. I guess I would hope that it might in some way be offset by encouraging more people to have some nature experience, perhaps resulting in a greater awareness of conservation issues in general. (Though in truth I’m too cynical to have much faith in that…)

    In the end, as someone who’s always felt positively, uh, dys-audic (?) when it comes to call recognition, these programs look like something that can really enhance my birding, and probably improve my ability with song recognition; anything’s better than feeling defeated before you start.

  8. I’m new to birding as of this past summer. I became interested in birding through my interest in photography and my attempts to photograph birds in flight. I managed my first ‘real’ ID through my photos — a northern rough-winged swallow.

    Since then, I have established a ‘lazy’ approach to bird ID using technology.

    When I see an unknown bird, I usually don’t whip out the binocs or study it for hours on end. Instead, I make every attempt I can to get as many decent photos of the bird as possible before it flies away or dives into a bush.

    Later, I import the photos into LightRoom, pull out my Sibley field guide, and that’s when the ‘real’ birding begins! I zoom in and out, study all the photos, make comparisons with the guide, and then conclude what the bird is.

    Often, in the field, I will snap a photo of a bird then zoom in on the camera’s LCD and get a good look at the bird. I find this very effective, arguably as effective as using binoculars. If the bird is still there, I can take more photos of it, pull out the binoculars for some observation, or just simply stand there and watch for awhile. Meanwhile, I’m slowly gaining knowledge of bird song, bird shape, bird habits, habitat, etc. I believe the use of digital imaging for making IDs, both in the field and at home, is helping me along the path to becoming a better birder.

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