What color is this bird? (Help make bird ID smarter)

By Jessie Barry
August 23, 2011
Yellow-headed Blackbird Yellow-headed Blackbird, Photo by Christopher L. Wood

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, we’re building a dynamic new online tool to help people identify birds—and we need your help. You might even have fun doing it. Just visit Merlin’s Bird Color Challenge, look at some photos of birds, and tell us their main colors. Your responses will help a computer learn what birds look like.

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Why are we doing this? When people notice an unfamiliar bird, the first question they often ask is, “What bird did I see?” They may turn to the Internet for help, but typing a description into a search box (for example, “dark bird with yellow on head”) rarely turns up a reliable answer. We’re trying to make this better.

We’re developing Merlin™, which will be a new kind of bird identification tool—one that combines artificial intelligence programming with input from real-life birders and bird occurrence data from eBird. When it’s finished, we’ll make this free online wizard available on the All About Birds website. People will be able to identify many birds quickly by answering questions about the bird they saw.

One of the biggest challenges is that different people see, remember, and describe the same bird species in different ways. Merlin needs to be able to account for all that variability and still present a likely answer. By playing Merlin’s Bird Color Challenge, you’ll help us make Merlin smarter.

Your responses are invaluable to us as we build Merlin—and we hope you’ll find the experience rewarding, too. When you see a bird in the field, first impressions of the bird’s main colors are one of the most important steps in identification. Playing Merlin’s Bird Color Challenge will train you to think quickly about this aspect. It’s OK if you don’t get a chance to see all the details—that’s often what happens in real life.

Our computer scientist collaborators are hard at work on the artificial intelligence programming that will power Merlin, and they’re ready for your data. The more you play, the more you’ll help Merlin become a true bird ID wizard. You’ve got the answers, so give it a try! Play now.

You can also visit us on Facebook where we’re brainstorming a jazzier name for this game than the “Bird Color Challenge.”

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