Don’t Give a Hoot About Birdwatching? Here’s Why You Will Now

The birdsong-identifying Song Sleuth app makes birdwatching cool even for the hardest of hardcore forest trekkers


Look, I’m just as surprised about this as you, but a damn bird song app is now the second-coolest app on my phone (the Gaia GPS app will always be #1 in my phone and in my heart) and I just can’t go hiking without using it anymore. This really screws with my “only-take-phone-out-of-pocket-when-absolutely-necessary backcountry philosophy.” But the Song Sleuth app is incredibly cool, even to somebody like me, who’s largely indifferent to birdwatching. Or at least was.

Basically, Song Sleuth is like Shazam for bird songs. Which is way more addictive than it sounds.

Hear a cool bird song while you’re strolling through a forest? Whip out the phone, tap the screen, and it begins recording the song and comparing it to a database. Instantly, you get three of the likeliest matches of bird right there on your phone, with a few song samples from each for comparison’s sake. The app is loaded with songs from the 200 birds you’re most likely to find in North America.

Also, and somewhat incredibly, you get illustrations for each bird from David Sibley, the world’s greatest birdwatcher and illustrator. Sibley also contributed range information to help you decide if the bird you’re hearing is likely to be in your area, plus intricate descriptions so you can geek out on your new bird find.

And if you want to get super deep into the rabbit hole, which apparently plenty of birdwatchers do, you can also pull up a spectogram (a visible depiction of acoustic wavelengths) of the bird song you recorded, to compare the song to examples in the database to be sure you’re listening to the bird you think you are.

I’ve been using it a bunch over the last few weeks, and it works very well. The most common birds I’ve heard in hikes and trail runs near my San Francisco home: Great horned owl (cartoonish Halloween owl-hooting), European starling (chattering squeaks), dark-eyed junco (insistent whistling), and the lesser goldfinch (very sweet chirps).

There can be hiccups though. Most importantly, as of now, it’s available for iOS only. If there are lots of different birds all singing at once, the app get confused. And it doesn’t identify random chirps and squawks and complaints. You’re looking for a single bird singing a song to get the benefits from the app. Plus, it eats up a huge amount of storage space on your phone—I’m at about 385 megs, with few saved recordings. But it’s worth it.

The app works offline too, so when you’re way out in the backcountry and hear the hauntingly beautiful trilling of a…[checks app]…red-breasted sapsucker singing away in a branch above your hammock, you’ll be able to immerse yourself just that much more in the natural world.

$9.99 – BUY

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