“Alexa, ask Audubon to play a Hermit Thrush.”
With those eight words, Amazon’s voice-activated assistant gives you one of the sweetest songs on the planet.
“Alexa, ask Audubon to play a Snowy Plover.”
With that, you're whisked away to a beach in Monterrey, where plovers scurry between dune and wave.
That’s the kind of effect Ed Norris wanted when he designed the Audubon Bird Songs Alexa skill. The software architect, who splits his time between Ohio and Kentucky, loves to study birds on his fishing and camping trips. Hearing the species’ voices, he says, helps pull him back to those places.
Which is where Alexa comes in. At first, Norris used the technology to fetch sounds from Google searches—but the results weren’t always accurate. So, he decided to cut out the middleman by “teaching” Alexa to link common species names back to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds. The National Audubon Society went all in on the offer, granting him access to thousands of clips recorded by Lang Elliott and his crew. It took Norris about a week to program the commands; refining them, however, took months.
Here’s how the call-and-response system works. Norris recreated the Audubon song library within the Alexa universe and built a custom skill to read any “ask Audubon" request. The software then accesses Amazon’s Cloud-based services, pulling the correct audio for Alexa to broadcast through an Echo or Dot device.
Of course, this all happens in a fraction of a second, so the user experience is simple and streamlined. All a bird enthusiast has to do is say, “Alexa, ask Audubon to play [insert common species name]“ or “Alexa, ask Audubon what a [insert common species name] sounds like.” If there are multiple calls and songs, Alexa will rotate through when told to “play the next one.”
The rate of success is high, Norris says, but there are some variables. To start, Alexa needs to get accustomed to the owner’s voice and dialect (this can be done by reading off a standard list of phrases during setup). Norris also taught the software to pick up 69 different utterances, which means there’s some leeway in how the commands can be given. Finally, there are a few bird names that are hard to translate: Northern Saw-whet Owl, Pyrruhloxia, and even Snowy Plover may be met with an awkward Alexa silence. To tackle those species, dictate each word slowly (even robots have a slight learning curve).
For his part, Norris is tracking every delivery from the Audubon library to log any errors and misses. And when he’s not improving the skill, he reaps its rewards by having Alexa recreate the chatter from the three feeders in his yard. “I hope people can use this tool to learn that communication in the bird world is a lot larger than they realize,” Norris says. Alexa, can we get an amen?
Freebie Alert! Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App to start learning 821 North American species and their songs today.