New apps encourage competition, get young birders involved

Birding is no longer just the retiree pastime it used to be. As birding makes use of new apps and encourages gamification, it is quickly being embraced by Millennials everywhere.

The major apps that are changing birding are Merlin Bird ID, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and eBird. Merlin is an identification app that allows users to keep extensive lists of all the birds in their area on their phone, instead of carrying around a physical field manual. The app also allows users to input the size, colour, and location of the birds they spot, and the app will generate a list of potential matches.

“You can download different packages for the region you are in … and it just keeps a list of all the birds on the phone,” said Catherine Jarjour, a master’s student in biology at the University of Ottawa who studies the social behaviour of black-capped chickadees. “It’s a list of all the species, and if you click on one you get some ID info, pictures of the different sexes and ages, you get the calls and the songs, and a range map, which is very convenient for people just starting out.”

The app eBird encourages the gamification and “see-them-all” nature of popular apps like Pokémon GO. The app allows users to keep personal lists of birds they have seen, which they can share with others to encourage competition.

“A lot of people, when they go out birding, they will now make a list of the birds they see,” Jarjour said. “You can now upload that onto eBird and that data becomes public, so everyone can see the birds, where they were, what they saw.”

According to Jarjour, eBird is great for amateur birders, but it also appeals to researchers, by allowing scientists to track population trends, or find the best location to release rehabilitated birds.  

“It acts as citizen science. You get to go out and collect data that gets put in a public database,” said Megan Thompson, who recently defended her master’s thesis at the U of O on black-capped chickadee behaviour in urban environments. “That’s kind of cool because you feel like you are giving to the scientific community or maybe helping protect our species of birds.”

Also, eBird keeps track of the top 100 birders in a region, which opens the gate for serious competition.

Why birding is taking off among millennials is a multi-faceted question, but these new apps are making birding easier and more competitive.

Thompson also believes birding is “a great way to get outdoors, rather than sitting on a computer all day like us Millennials are doing with our time. It’s a good way to get away from the screens and get back outside.”

Birding is also a hobby where one can measure their improvement—it becomes addictive when you can identify a bird just by its call, or when you look up and can identify one more bird than you could last week.

For U of O students, this new hobby can be made even easier, as a wide variety of bird species can be found right on campus.

“We get mallards, turkey vultures flying over, we have ravens nesting … we have gulls, pigeons, house sparrows, starlings … waxwings, chipping sparrows, song sparrows, cardinals,” Jarjour said.

While the university lacks an ornithology club, it’s very easy to get involved in birding in Ottawa, Thompson explained, with groups like the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, the Club des ornithologues de l’Outaouais, and the Innis Point Bird Observatory in Kanata always welcoming new members.

“It’s okay if you don’t know anything about birds,” Thompson said. “I guarantee people will show you and teach you all the different birds.”