Boucher’s Birding Blog: Apps for the Smart Birder — Which One Should You Use?

Apps

Timothy Boucher (@tmboucher)  is senior geographer at The Nature Conservancy and a long-time birder. Follow him on Twitter.

Need an app that helps you identify birds in the field? Don’t bother searching for “birds” in any app store. Unless that thrush happens to be angry, those dozens of Angry Bird apps that pop up won’t be of any use to you.

So here is my expert take on 5 iPhone birding apps — Audubon Birds, iBird Pro, National Geographic Birds, Peterson Birds, and Sibley eGuide to Birds (all also available on Android) — that are focused on the things that birders need for identifying birds in the field:

+ Ease of use in finding a bird via image or search text function, for all from novice birders to advance birders;

+ The type (photo or painting) and number of images the app provides; 

+ How easy is it to listen to a song/call through the app (and how many songs it makes available); and

+ Whether the app allows you to compare similar birds and in which ways.

All 5 of these apps offer some bonus features — but generally, I am comparing basic features that all share. Of course, some things are a matter of personal preference, such as illustrations versus photos.

Identifying a Bird

A novice birder spots a bird in the backyard and would like to identify it. First, following Boucher’s Rules of Beginner Birding, narrow it down — big, small, hawk, warbler, woodpecker, whatever — you need to know a little to get started.

But wait! Audubon Birds is already helping you do that. You can browse by shape (duck-like, hawk-like, perching, etc.). That’s pretty nice for the novice. Hidden in National Geographic Birds is a way to something similar — filtering the search by color, size, habitat, etc. — that should help narrow your choices down. iBird has the same filter-type list, although a little more hidden under its search function, and Sibley eGuide to Birds also has a similar function under its Smart Search — though not as clever as Audubon’s! Peterson Birds has already fallen behind the pack — it only has a family list that I have to scroll through, with icons. Hmmm…that Grey Catbird that the other apps quickly pointed to is not so easy to find with Peterson.

So for a true novice trying to find a bird, I think Audubon and National Geographic lead the pack, with iBird and Sibley following closely behind and Peterson bringing up the rear.

Confirming the Bird

Next, assuming you think you might know what the bird is, how quickly can you find it to confirm? And what type of images are they, how many and (lastly, and the most subjective) how’s the quality?

Let’s graduate from the catbird to something more challenging — a Wood Thrush. It can be confused with a few other similar thrush species and has a song that can be similar to others too (that is the toughest test). And remember — in all of this testing, time is of the essence. The quicker you can get to a bird, the better!

Audubon Birds

Audubon starts up quickly and has a nifty little search box as the top of the screen. Typing in “wood t” quickly gave me Wood Thrush, and one tap took me to the bird (took about 3 seconds). Nice! I could also browse by family to get there (3 taps and some scrolling) — but quite a bit more slowly.

Once at the Wood Thrush entry, Audubon presents me with four good photos (NOT paintings), with a range of options at the top: map; voice (more on that later); description; similar (more on that later); share and sightings. Voice is VERY important to both the novice and advanced user. Audubon offers 5 recordings for this species! Excellent! Birds don’t sing or call the same everywhere or even seasonally.

Audubon also compares the species to 11 others — a good range of choices, in mostly the same habitats — which is good. You don’t want to be misled by a grassland bird when you are in the woods. Audubon does NOT give birds with similar songs. Bonus feature? Audubon is the only app that partners with Cornell to give eBird sightings — even using your GPS location!

iBird Pro

Next up — iBird Pro — the first birding app on the market! No muss, no fuss; either type in “wood t” or scroll alphabetically or taxonomically. Bingo, quickly to the bird in question — Wood Thrush. It’s a single (but decent) painting along with a range map, photos, sounds, similar species, field marks and other identification tips (bird specs), facts (notes), your notes, ecology, links to Flickr (more photos!), Birdpedia, etc.

There are only two vocalization choices for this species (one song and one call/chip notes, so adequate), but very importantly, iBird serves up two similar sounding birds. Very nice! And iBird also gives the spectrogram for geeky birders who like to visualize the song. 13 similar-looking birds are listed, including some very unlikely European species.

National Geographic Birds

National Geographic opens quickly and an extra tap brings up the text search box, where typing “wood t” brings up Wood Thrush. The layout is neat, uncluttered, with the paintings from the paper field guide. Though small, the illustrations can be enlarged with pinch-zoom. A map and sounds icon appear below the illustrations.

Sounds are adequate, with one song and one call for this species, including the spectrogram. Comparisons with the songs of three other species are available. Under visual comparison, only one species is given, and it is an odd choice — the Brown Thrasher. It is brown, but much larger than the thrushes and a different shape, whereas the other thrushes are much closer in appearance to the Wood Thrush and much more easily confused when seen in typical thrush habitat of dark wooded understory. So points off there.

Peterson Birds

Peterson also needs only two taps to get to text search, and typing “wood” gave Wood Thrush as the top choice. A large painting, as found in the paper guide, is offered, above icons for sounds (only one song), map, nest, ecology and family notes. The very simple similar species section shows only the American Robin — which is nothing like the Wood Thrush. You can also browse species by family icons, where it is easy to compare birds and calls by just tapping on the images, or a plain text list. This is a bare-bones app, and the price reflects it (see below for price comparisons).

Sibley eGuide to Birds

Lastly — Sibley. Two taps (either taxonomic or alphabetic; no fussy scrolling!) to the text search and typing “wood” gets Wood Thrush and an impressive array of large Sibley illustrations for each species to scroll through. On the right are two small, neat icons for voice and a distribution map. The song/call section has six recordings, the most of all the apps. No sonograms, but most people don’t use them anyway. Downside — Sibley doesn’t have listed similar species for each species, either visual or aural. In the initial search area, the “comp.” button will bring up both visual and aural comparisons. Sibley  has the most illustrations, and for many people — especially those who prefer Sibley’s artwork over photos — this is a popular choice.

Cost and an Important Reminder

All these apps are fairly low-cost, so price is really not an issue. As I noted, Peterson is bare-bones in features and the cheapest at $2. Audubon, given all its features (notwithstanding the use of photos), is the best value at $4. National Geographic, with great illustrations and neat layout, is the middle ground at $10, with Sibley and iBird Pro the most expensive at $20. Sometimes these apps get discounted to just a few dollars, so keep an eye out for those opportunities.

Important! On the front page of Sibley, there is a little reminder for all app users: “Please consider the birds and other birders before playing audio recordings in the field.” This is to remind you that playing the recording of a bird’s call, especially in breeding season, may be harmful if done near the bird in question. And may be illegal in some National Parks. And is always illegal for endangered species. And it will annoy other birders. So just don’t do it, ok?

Posted In: Birds, Citizen Science

Timothy Boucheris a senior conservation geographer at The Nature Conservancy, where his work ranges from complex spatial analyses to extensive field studies, focusing on ecosystem services and linkages between human well-being and conservation. He has worked on global to local issues, done fieldwork spanning six continents, assessed land use and habitat conditions, and participated in numerous field expeditions. He is also an avid birder and amateur photographer as well as a regular cycling commuter.




Comments: Boucher’s Birding Blog: Apps for the Smart Birder — Which One Should You Use?

  •  Comment from WRSI

    A comparison of these could probably at least allude to differences in their listing features. Sibley, which I use, isn’t the strongest option for someone who finds that catbird and wants to be able to add it to their list with a single click.

    At some point it’s almost too integrated, of course. Having clicked the button, do you want your data shared with other birders, distributed to avid twitchers who might chase your pin on that map? But we may as well contrast those approaches, too.

    Man, apps. I used to pack a special bag to have my big Sibley book along.

  •  Comment from Jeff

    Hi Timothy,

    Some great recommendations. I’ve been using BirdJam for a while but I see they haven’t gone to an all app format. I think it’s time to re-evaluate my birding app because BJ requires more work and is much more expensive.

    I’d be interested to know if any of your readers can cite the advantages of using BJ. I know it loads the Stokes’ data from CD but does that really matter?

    Jeff

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    Listing: the only app that I think is worthwhile in the listing department is one I did NOT do a review on: Birdlog! Why? Primarily because it feeds your data directly into Cornell’s eBird citizen science effort (personally, I want my sightings to be of use to others). You can get both a North America and Global version, it can use your GPS to finds local hotspots, sets up lists, etc. And by entering date into eBird, you also get the ability to see your data using the eBird.org website, look up other sightings, see maps, seasonality abundance, etc. I know, its another app, but until one my “top 5″ goes that route (Audubon comes close, but still has its own listing feature), I will not use them for that purpose.

    BirdJam: I should review it! But… another App… maybe I need to do another blog post on “How to learn bird calls…?” I used to learn bird songs using the old-school tape-player method, which was tedious to say the least. The advent of CD’s made finding songs easier, and when the iPod arrived, I basically loaded up them (“ripped”) into iTunes, and all of them sorted by bird name in my song library. This is basically what BirdJam does for you (for Northern America) – just with many more options (including comparing species, multiple species per bird, etc). The website is pretty comprehensive, and for learning a group (such as warblers) it is probably quite useful. And no, I don’t think is matters that they use Stoke’s data.

    •  Comment from Deborah Jamison

      Birdwatcher’s Diary app for iOS also directly uploads your sightings data to eBird from the field. It adheres to and keeps up with all eBird protocols and preferences. It’s also a much more fully featured specialized database with lots of customizable options like creating a map for every sighting (or just the first of a species), backing up your archived lists to Dropbox ™, incorporating your own (or other’s) photos, using bird names in local languages, creating any subset of your life list that you want, instantly downloading state, country or your own created master lists, sending your list to Facebook, Twitter (w/map), your birding list serve, or to an email address. The basic functions of selecting a location, loading a master list, and ticking off species is really fast. Tim, as a reviewer I can offer you a promo code so you can see for yourself all that BWD can do. We’ve been supporting and updating it for over 3 years. Full info including a video and manual are available on the Stevens Creek Software web site: http://www.stevenscreek.com/birdwatchersdiary.htm I should mention that 50% of the proceeds go to bird education and conservation organizations.

  •  Comment from Edie

    I actually use iBird Pro and I’m pretty happy with it. As a novice birder, I can put in minimal search features (size and prominent color as well as area) and I pretty much can find my bird. I love that there are a lot of pictures and the songs as well. The only downfall is that it is a very large file so it takes forever to load. The bonus to this is that you don’t need a signal to use the app– which is a GREAT! bonus!
    I got the app on sale at a pretty decent price too — I want to say it was under $10.
    Thank you for the break down — I might actually add Audubon as well!

  •  Comment from Hugh

    I’ve used Sibley and Audubon, but Ibird remains my favorite. I’m in favor of using calls in the right circumstances, but I agree we should be mindful.
    Caveat: IBird crashes my Android from time to time, and several attempts to fix it have failed.

  •  Comment from Sonia

    I’ve been happy with iBird Pro. And yes, watch out for discount promotions – I was able to get the app for less than $5 instead of $20. I like Peterson Field Guides, but their app doesn’t offer enough. As for the other apps, they are adequate enough for most beginners.

  •  Comment from David

    I have Sibley and Peterson on my iphone and over the winter got an android tablet. Decided to get iBird on that for a 3rd option, but I really don’t like it so added Sibley to the tablet. Other friends who started with ibird have been switching to Sibley.

    My primary use for any of the apps is sounds and Sibley is so much better on the various calls that I don’t really use the other two at all. And not much of a lister so the listing features don’t matter.

  •  Comment from Bob Keener

    Do all of these apps keep your life list? I presently have an outdated AVISYS.

    •  Comment from Otis Ryder

      Someone asked if any of the reviewed apps let you keep a life list. This was an important feature to me and I found than none of the app did an adequate job of letting me keep my sightings. iBird was the most flexible cause it let me have multiple lists, but it only saved favorites and notes about each bird which isn’t enough for a serious birder. Recently I found a new app called iBird Journal which is the answer to me dreams. Its the first listing app I have found that is truly easy to use and powerful. Check it out. (its on sales) http://ibird.com/products/iphone-ipod-touch/journal/

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    Lifelist… while all of these apps have some sort of listing ability, I suggest getting Birdlog (World or North America edition) – which directly connects to Cornell’s eBird program. This allows you can keep a global life list – edit/see it on eBird too – not having to worry about splits and taxonomic updates – and feeds into eBirds citizen science project. There is another called myBirdList, but I have not tried it yet.

    •  Comment from TimBoucher

      More: also found another called Birdwatcher’s Diary – also not tested…

  •  Comment from Glissade

    I recently got BirdTunes (www.birdtunesapp.com/) which is very useful for identifying and learning bird language. You might want to use this app with your headphones to minimize disturbance to the birds. You also might want to use your iPhone microphone and voice memo app to record any bird song you hear to ID later.

    •  Comment from Deborah Jamison

      I haven’t gotten around to buying it yet, but Larkwire has a unique method of step-by-step improving your ability to recognize songs and calls based on performance in “quizzes.” Anyone have it and what do you think?

      •  Comment from Carol Evans

        I have Larkwire and really like it. I haven’t used the learning feature a lot since I know many songs already, but it seems useful. I like using it to confirm or correct a song I think I’m hearing in the field. The bird songs are grouped usefully so you can compare and find the correct one among similar songs.

  •  Comment from Ellen

    I have Bird Jam, iBird Plus, Audubon, Waite’s, Bird Log, Songbirds and iBird Journal.
    For learning the songs, Bird Jam has been the best. The advantage to BJ is the ability to quickly compare different species. When I hear a Warbler in the field and need to figure out which one it is, (I might get confused between a Black Throated Blue, Parula and Prairie Warbler) this is the only app that is efficient at quickly clicking through them to listen to the songs. I find every app out there except this one to be slow and takes too many clicks to listen to the three species quickly. The only drawback to BJ is the lack of having multiple calls for each bird. It doesn’t seem like it would require that much for them to add a few to each. Being able to sort them into groups like Warblers, Sparrows, etc. is extremely helpful.

    Audubon is my favorite all around app. It has lots of songs for each species, but you can’t quickly compare 2 bird songs. I think it’s user interface is great, logical, easy. However, it’s having eBird built into that makes it amazing. When I visit a different region, I love that I can let it GPS my location and show me which species have recently been reported in the area. It’s a great way to help you narrow down a bird you’re trying to identify, because you’ll know what’s around you. I use this feature all the time.

    iBird is a good app but it’s user interface drives me crazy. I always search for birds by last name (warbler, woodpecker) but every time I try to search I have to again tell it to sort by last name. Why it doesn’t let you select this as a preference, I’ll never understand. Mitch Waite does this application as well as the Waite’s Birds. They both have this annoying lack of preferences. They don’t seem to have any way to filter out by region. I don’t want to have to search through the entire North American species, I want to be able show only Eastern. I find these two apps to be very robust and informative, but have too much info to be efficient. I don’t see a huge difference between them, but I only recently got the MWB app, so I might need more time.

    BirdLog is fantastic for quickly recording your bird lists. I use Cornell’s eBird so it’s very helpful. It could use a few user interface tweaks as well, but it’s fine.

    Bird Journal I just started using, it seems good for managing multiple lists. I don’t have enough experience with it yet to decide how much I like it.

    Songbirds I also only recently downloaded. It looks promising. The song quiz is silly and not really helpful, but I guess kinda fun. However, if you click on a bird, it brings up several different calls and also several similar sounding species. It also will show similar looking species. It doesn’t seem to have a search feature which is confounding to me- or maybe it does and I can’t find it, because it also doesn’t seem to have any instructions. You have to click on an image in their gallery and double tap to get the part with the similar species and range to come up. I think it’s new, so with a couple of updates, it has the potential to be a really good app.

  •  Comment from Bill

    Thanks for a helpful article….I’m a rookie, so wanted to install the National Geographic app….it does not seem to be available for Android….bummer!

  •  Comment from David Hampton

    I’ve just returned from a holiday in California, Nevada and Arizona and unable to find a bird book in any bookshop in LA decided to download an app. I looked at what was available and decided on Sibley. I had no experience of any American birds, other than the odd vagrant, and found Sibley to be a fantastic app for an American novice like me. I was able to quickly identify species and found the ability to filter states etc to be very useful, although finding a Zone-Tailed Hawk in the Grand Canyon was a surprise and according to the filter shouldn’t have been there. The Condor warden who I pointed it out to got very excited and confirmed my identification.

    My only slight disappointment was that you have to add the place where you had your sighting in the listing facility. A GPS facility for this might be good for those of us who don’t readily know where they are in your great country, but apart from that I would thoroughly recommend Sibley.

  •  Comment from Donald Wyllie

    Hi: I used Sibley on my Playbook and was well pleased. But the Playbook is a bit of a disaster so changed to a Nexus 7. Installed Sibley Birds of North America. Looked the same until I wanted to see the Latin names and they removed them! Talk about dumbing down. It certainly influences my decision about a bird id app.

  •  Comment from Goofy

    Nice reviews, with few mistakes. I like the use of the same species for each app.

    One error you might want to correct..you say Nat Geo has a spectrogram. From what I have seen only iBird offers a spectrogram display (also called a sonogram). Almost all others have the minimum amplitude display for the song.

    I also think you may have missed the depth of the iBird search engine…it has far more characteristics you can search on. I didn’t find the search as hidden as you did. I found this comparison table which is more exhaustive than your blog but more for geeks:

    http://ibird.com/compare/

  •  Comment from steve julian

    What about an app that tells the bird by way of the song it is singing? If you hear a bird singing and record it to the app? there is an app that identifies songs on the radio, but would that kind of app be realistic?

  •  Comment from Robin

    I have a Windows Smartphone 7.5. I can’t seem to find good apps other than Sibley for my phone. Any ideas? Help?

  •  Comment from Karen

    Very informative – both reviews and comments. I have been birding for (too many) years, and really don’t have any problems with visual identification, if I can set eyes on the little critters. I just take my bird book with me, either in my pack or in the car, and anyone I don’t immediately recognize I look up using field marks.
    My problem is identification by song. I lead a Christmas bird count group every year through a wooded state park, and we rarely see the birds. They are all up in the tree tops taunting us. Is there any consensus about the best phone (Android) app for songs? Also, I see an app called Thayer. Any comments on this one?

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    Hi all – thanks for all your comments and suggestions. Much appreciated.
    For learning bird songs (the toughest part of birding for me – I think its like learning a new language) there are a number of birding apps that can help. One thing to remember though – there is no substitute for hard work here, no shortcuts, no app to do the id for you (not yet anyway!) – you have to work at it, over and over again. Also, what helps immensely is drawing up a list of birds you expect to see – and learn the most common ones. Then you will have a leg up on them, and be more attune to new or unusual birds.
    Ok – other than the birding apps in the blog piece, here are a few devoted to bird songs and calls:
    1 – BirdTunes (there is a paid and free version to try first) is a simple program that has lots of bird call and songs for each bird.
    2 – Chirp! Seems to have a lot more utilities – sorting by common birds etc. But fewer birds than BirdTunes.
    3 – BirdJam – get downloads of bird calls onto your iphone or ipod.A more traditional way of using bird calls (like ripping a CD of bird calls and loading it onto your ipod). Intuitive design and very comprehensive.
    There are also a number of different options for a desktop or PC too… you can see the full list here: http://birdingwashington.info/software/

    Good luck and have fun birding!
    Tim Boucher

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    For those totally new to birding, a new app from Cornell has arrived – Merlin Bird ID (http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/). It gives you a few questions and access to 285 of the more common species. And its free!

  •  Comment from Brownie Bayes

    So here’s my dilemma… I am a novice birder and the other day made the mistake of showing my boyfriend The Big Year. Now me, his brother, my mother (very competitive, that woman) and he are in a contest to see the most birds in one year. Now I have a super beautiful makes-my-life-sublime brand new Galaxy 4. I want to know: is there a way for us to keep track of all our birds and post each other about our sightings? What do you guys suggest? I was thinking of a private facebook page, but was wondering if any of the apps make it easy for me to share on FB about what I’ve seen… I’m lost here. Any suggestions?

    I hope that if you read this post you will go by my blog: brownbirddiaries.blogspot.com and watch as the competition unfolds. The dialog, trust me, is worth it. For example: the boyfriend (twenty three years in between dates–yeah, it’s all Jean and Lionel around here, folks) and my mom are at odds with the Ivory Bill debate. (We’re in Mississippi, close enough for it to be extremely personal!) So when she submitted her first list yesterday, she listed her species and then, lastly, “Ivory Billed Woodpecker.” Now the brother totally bought this, but Chris knew she was pulling his leg. He’s a believer, she isn’t. I explained to him that yes, she had seen the bird because it was perched on Sasquatch’s shoulder. He said this could not be true because we are out of Sasquatch’s range here in Gulfport, MS. He stated that it was more than likely a pilated woodpecker on a black bear.

    And so it goes.

    So any suggestions how I can establish the competition where we’re not texting all four people constantly would be nice! Plus, The Man (as I call him) has been birding for 30 years and I feel like I’m sitting down to street chess with Bobby Fischer. (I AM JACK BLACK). I work from home and I live 15 miles from the Gulf whereas he lives 100 miles inland, so I have an advantage.

    Any suggestions as to how I can best keep up with my own list on my phone would be great. I’m a media manager and am never without it.

    Thanks for your participation, and any comments or suggestions as to I can beat the tar out of those whom I love best is greatly appreciated.

    •  Comment from TimBoucher

      Hi Brownie

      Although there are a few options for listing – with some of the apps I reviewed having listing options – I think there is really only one way to go – the eBird direction (ebird.org). Why? and how?

      Why? This is the easy part – you can keep your lists, summarize for the year(!), can see what others are finding birds in your area, explore all the data in many different ways, share lists with friends (not quite facebook, but maybe one day), and not just around the USA, but the whole world. And you can do all of this from your laptop OR your droid (or iPhone). And lastly, a bonus, you are contributing to citizen science. And eBird has just given us Merlin – there own birding app for the beginner!

      Ok – the how? Listing apps, unfortunately, are IMO a little further behind than the birding apps, so a little patience is needed when using them. Part of the problem is that the market no doubt is a lot smaller, but they are improving. With ebird, you can input data from your laptop, or better yet, you can buy an app for logging your lists – Birdseye Birdlog (http://www.birdseyebirding.com/) is the one to get.

  •  Comment from Chris

    What about the apps Birds PRO and myBirdList?? They’re both contain great services and tools for birding and birdwatching, with identification’s guides, the possibility to create observation’s lists… Quite a pity that you didn’t quote them…All information hier : http://lc.cx/pHM for Birds PRO and http://lc.cx/pHg for myBirdList

  •  Comment from Cunitia

    Thank you very much! This was very helpful! I’m sure we’ll very much enjoy one of those apps!
    Kind regards from Germany

  •  Comment from Jerry

    I am looking into getting a tablet to use for birding and want to know if all major birding apps can be run offline. I don’t want to be connected to the internet to operate the app in the field. I see nothing mentioned in the description of any of these apps about this, so the answer may be obvious to everyone but me.

    I assume you download a database to the tablet via internet and then run the app offline, but would like to confirm.

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    Hi Jerry

    All of these apps can be used offline on a tablet. All of them need a fair bit of space (from 450Mb to 800Mb+) to run, but once it has downloaded, they run very nicely offline.

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