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Birding with Technology: Q&A with David Sibley

Birding with Technology: Q&A with David Sibley

Ornithologist David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds and illustrator for our Song Sleuth app, is widely considered to be one of the foremost authorities on North American birds.

While he collaborated with us, providing the beautiful artwork featured in our app, we decided to ask him about what he thought of technical birding tools, the future of birding, and whether or not he thinks he could outperform Song Sleuth (of course he can). 

Q: As a kid, what was the most meaningful piece of gear for you as a birder?

David Sibley: The most meaningful, for me, was my sketchbook. Sketching is how i really engage with birds. Just going out searching and watching is rewarding and fun, but my most memorable and satisfying experiences involve drawing.

Q: What were the most meaningful “technical” tools for birders, in general, when the original Sibley Guide came out in 2000?

DS: That was still the early days of the internet, and there were some cell phones but no smart phones, no digital cameras. We used books, paper and pencil, and the only really technical tool was binoculars. But the actual experience of birding was not very different from today.

Q: Do you think technology can help grow birding, in addition to simply helping individual birders become better at identification?

DS: Yes, definitely. If technology can help remove some barriers and make “entry” into the hobby easier, I think that allows a lot more people to get started. Using an app like Song Sleuth for birding is sort of like using a calculator in math class. It’s technology that helps you get past the awkward beginner phase. There is research on calculators in school that shows that they actually help with math learning, by allowing kids to bypass the distraction and stress of arithmetic it helps them to understand the larger patterns and concepts of math. I believe that Song Sleuth will have the same effect. Instead of being faced with a sea of unknown sounds, a beginning birder with Song Sleuth can put a name on a couple of sounds, and that might be all that’s needed to boost confidence and spark an interest. In the “old days” that would have been accomplished by having a mentor who could point out the song of the American Robin or confirm that a certain sound was a Song Sparrow. Now Song Sleuth will be able to do that, anytime and anywhere, for an unlimited number of people.

Q: How much (or how little) do you think the average day of an average birder will change in the next 50 years due to technology?

DS: I don’t see technology making any fundamental difference in the experience of birding. The technical aids that birders use, and the way that we use them, are simply to help us connect with birds. Better communication technology allows us to learn about bird sightings more accurately and more quickly, so we can get to more birds. Better identification aids in apps (including Song Sleuth) and the wealth of information on the internet, allow us to identify more birds, more quickly and more accurately, and to learn more about them on the spot. And better cameras and binoculars allow us to see and appreciate more details. But the ultimate goal - finding birds in nature and learning about them through observation - is the same no matter what tools we use to help us. We still get up early and go outside, scanning the sky and the foliage, hoping our paths will be crossed by some interesting species.

Q: How many songs do you think you can identify by ear?

DS: Well, there are 800 species of birds seen regularly in North America, and each one has multiple different vocalizations, some have distinctive regional variations, and there is lots of individual variation, so the total number of different bird vocalizations that I recognize is well into the thousands. There’s lots more to learn, and it’s not too unusual for me to encounter sounds that I don’t know, but those are rare enough that I always try to locate the bird and see what it is.

Q: Do you think you can outperform the Song Sleuth?

DS: In a word, yes, and that's not a criticism of the app, I think all experienced birders can. Song Sleuth is dealing with all of the same issues that voice recognition software struggles with. Our brains are very good at isolating one source of sound and focusing on that, even in a room full of voices or a noisy city street. It helps that we have stereo hearing so we can tell what direction a sound is coming from, but we also understand a lot of conversations through context - just knowing what phrases are likely to be used next. We talk about the “flow” of conversation, and we can miss long stretches of conversation and pick it right back up again. An experienced birder can do similar things with bird sounds - ignoring wind noise, other birds, etc to follow the “flow” of one bird’s performance, listening for what is expected next. The app needs a nice clear recording of one bird to make an identification, and will struggle with more distant or jumbled sounds. Still, I think even intermediate and advanced birders will find Song Sleuth helpful and enlightening, and the challenge for beginning birders is to reach a point when they, too, can outperform Song Sleuth.

Download the Song Sleuth app for iPhone here or for Android here and visit David Sibley's website for more information about him and his work.