Sharpen Your Skills and Help Train Merlin™

January 23, 2012

We’re in the midst of creating a free, online bird ID tool that can answer everyone’s first birding question, “What is that bird I saw?”—and we need your help to train the system.

The project, called Merlin™, combines artificial intelligence with input from everyday birders and bird occurrence data from eBird. By using observations from birders like you, Merlin will be able to account for the many different ways that people interpret the size, color, and patterns of birds. That’s why it’s so important to get your input. To do that we’re creating online activities that let you practice your observation skills, enjoy beautiful bird photos, and train Merlin at the same time.

Our latest activity, launched this week, is Mark My Bird—a set of 18 questions about what a bird looks like. Play once or play a hundred times—every answer you give us gets Merlin closer to completion. You’ll be guided to estimate the size and shape of each bird, along with describing the size, colors, and patterns of each of its parts.

We’ve already tested Mark My Bird with a small group of volunteers. They liked how they needed to pay attention to specific parts of the bird that they might otherwise have overlooked.  One remarked, “It’s a fun way to develop the habit of looking carefully.” By spending more time with the bird, you’ll notice things you’ve never seen before and are more likely to remember when you see it in the field.

We also include questions that ask you to pick out the parts of a bird. This may seem pretty basic to you, but Merlin isn’t yet as good as you are at dividing a bird into its various parts. Just imagine being able to upload a mystery bird photo and have a computer help you identify it. This is a feature the birding community has only dreamed of, but it’s not far down the road. We just need your input to get us there.

You may think one person’s contributions don’t amount to much, but together you can have a huge effect. Do you remember our first activity, the Bird Color Challenge? It launched in August, and in less than six months we’ve received 170,000 submissions from more than 13,000 players! In fact, we’ve gotten so much data that we’ve had to add a whole new crop of photographs for you to work through!

We hope you’ll try out Mark My Bird now and that you find it just as much fun. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this exciting project.

(Merlin is funded by the National Science Foundation. Image: Mark My Bird screenshot, Prairie Warbler photo by Andy Johnson.)





  • Judy Lascelles

    I’d love to use the new Mark My Bird tool but am unable to answer any questions. Nothing happens when I click my answer. I can see the additional information for each answer but not actually select the box. Are other people having this problem?