How Merlin Bird ID Helped Me Discover the ‘Elevator Music of Birding’

After the seemingly magical song identification app helped me discover the Warbling Vireo's song, I now hear it everywhere I go.
A plain, light-colored bird sings while perched on a mossy branch dappled in sunlight.

I have a secret: I’m a mediocre birder.

I write about birds for a living, so people tend to assume I must be a skilled, hardcore birder as well. But the truth is my birding style could generously be described as casual. I don’t keep lists or chase rarities, and frankly I’m pretty bad at identifying birds by sound.

Or at least I was until this spring, when I decided to try out a new smartphone app designed to make birding by ear accessible to the inexperienced. This tool, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app, made me aware of birdsong around me in a way that years of birding with skilled experts never did. The app not only reinvigorated my interest in my favorite hobby, but also introduced me to my new favorite bird, the Warbling Vireo—a species that’s been all around me for years but had until now managed to fly under my radar.

I met the vireo in a rather nondescript place. Migration was just starting to pick up, and I was squeezing in a quick bird walk at my local patch before starting work. The Fort Walla Walla Natural Area in southeastern Washington isn’t really anything special—50 acres of blackberry bramble and cottonwoods sandwiched between a hospital and a Home Depot. But it’s the closest spot near my house where I might find any interesting migrants.

On this particular morning, I was once again feeling mildly frustrated about my inability to ID some of the songs I was hearing, and about the birds I was inevitably missing as a result. Then I remembered that Merlin Bird ID app had at some point added a “sound ID” feature that I’d been meaning to try out. It takes advantage of Cornell Lab’s vast library of more than 1.5 million birdsong recordings to capture live audio in the field and identify species in real time using machine learning. I fished my phone out of my pocket, opened the app, and gave it permission to use the microphone.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that moment changed my birding life. Within an hour, the app had alerted me to the presence of Western Wood-Pewees and Olive-sided Flycatchers, helped me remember how to distinguish the songs of Black-headed Grosbeaks from those of the ubiquitous robins, and led me to the first MacGillivray’s Warbler I’d seen in years. I felt like a goober as I walked the trails with my phone held out in front of me to pick up all the songs and calls. But being awakened to the presence of many amazing birds that I'd never realized were so common near my home was a humbling experience.

My favorite discovery was the Warbling Vireo. Perhaps you’re familiar with this bird. I wasn’t—in fact I had a blind spot when it came to vireos. I had a weird habit of forgetting they existed at all, and couldn’t even have told you which species were common where I live. So when the app insisted that it was hearing first a Cassin’s Vireo, and then a Warbling Vireo, I was gobsmacked. Oh right! Vireos! They had been with me all along. And while the Cassin’s Vireos moved on to other habitats in subsequent weeks, the Warbling Vireos stuck around all summer long.

Even among this often subtly-colored bird family, Warbling Vireos are especially unremarkable in both appearance and sound. They are mostly gray with a slight yellow wash, and a Twitter acquaintance of mine recently described their song as the elevator music of birding. It’s a generic, never-ending, up-and-down warble (hence their name) that, if you’re a bad ear-birder like I am, is easy to write off as, “maybe a finch?” And then ignore.

But to me, now that I know they’re a thing, that’s a big part of the species’ charm. It turns out Warbling Vireos, and their warble, are everywhere. Watching my kid on the playground at the local park? Warbling Vireos singing. Shopping for plants at the nursery down the street? Warbling Vireos singing. Streaming an old episode of M*A*S*H while I fold laundry? Uh, yeah, pretty sure that's a Warbling Vireo singing in the background. 

I had thought I already knew all of the truly common birds here. Discovering the existence of the Warbling Vireo via its song was like receiving a secret message only I could hear, everywhere I went.

I’m still learning to bird by ear. I’ve found, though, that having an app hear and identify bird songs around me in real time has supercharged my learning. After some practice with Merlin, for example, I no longer need to reach for my phone to tell the song of a Wilson’s Warbler apart from a Yellow Warbler, or identify the sproing! of a Spotted Towhee.

And after years as an enthusiastic but casual birder, finding myself back in “beginner’s mind” again has been a delight. Learning (or re-learning) the sounds of my local birds has added a new dimension, a new texture, to my appreciation of the natural world around me. And while catching a flash of orange (Bullock’s Oriole!) or turquoise (Lazuli Bunting!) or yellow (Western Tanager!) will always make my heart skip a beat, I’ll still make time to listen to the Warbling Vireos that seem to haunt every tree in my adopted hometown, now that I can hear them.