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.”


  • I believe that color is the worst possible way to learn to identify birds. Sure, it may be what people see first, but except for certain obvious male birds in breeding plumage, it doesn’t aid learning bird identification.

    If I may promote it, the new Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2010) gets it right by using SHAPE as the first, and most important, field mark.

    Females and juveniles and, often, non-breeding plumaged males are frequently differently colored than breeding plumaged males. Yet all are the same shape and rather easily identifiable in a black-and-white photo–because of shape.

    Small birds backlit in the forest canopy above. Ducks flying against an overcast winter sky. Often, when birding, we see primarily silhouettes.

    Use the power of the computer to match the patterns of bird shape–that’s what we SEE and often can’t articulate.

  • Hugh

    Hi Greg. You’re right that shape is extremely important for bird ID—it’s the first of four keys to bird ID that we highlight in our All About Birds species guide. Color can be misleading if people fixate on it, but you have to agree that it’s still pretty important. (As a rather basic example, consider how you tell an American Goldfinch from an Indigo Bunting.) This color picker game is not part of the identification process itself—it’s a way for us to assemble a database that will help Merlin understand the way people describe the colors of the birds they see. We’re already working on a similar game that will do the same thing with bird shapes, as you suggested. Thanks for the comment and I hope you’ll continue to follow the development of this tool.

  • Amy

    I wonder how results will be influenced by what we “know” about a bird’s color vs. what the color looks like in the picture. It’s hard not to think “that’s a whatever warbler; they’re yellow, grey, and black” even though people have asked me “what’s that lime green little bird in my backyard?” But I guess that’s what you’re studying!

    Similarly: I CAN’T think of verdin heads as yellow, no matter what the field guide says . . .

    Very interesting project; I look forward to seeing how it turns out!

  • carrie


  • gayle dean

    I’ve been cropping the birds, and have problems with the same picture – even on different days … many times. If i do the green arrow each time, i STILL got some repeats, and it took forever… I did SOMETHING to empty chache / anyway, i email and got response from someone, who said that further problems to the web team working on MERLIN .. but .. I don’t know how to contact them… HELP ? :)

  • Hugh

    Hi Gayle – sorry for the trouble you’re having. I’ll pass this along to one of our Merlin team. Thanks for playing! – Hugh