In all our amateur adventures in birding, something my 6-year-old son and I had never done was enlist the help of bird apps. As a non-birder myself—at least, until the little guy became one—my info-gathering strategies were limited to Google searches, field guides, and, most effective of all, going on walks led by experts, where we’d bring nothing but our questions. That's the great thing about birding: There’s always someone in your town that’s happy to share their knowledge.
But sometimes there are no bird masters around. So, I decided to give mobile apps a try.
Apps are designed to get you and your young birder the answers you want before that bird flies away. They also make learning fun—my eager 6-year old thought so with the four different options we tried. I’m not sure how useful they’d be for tykes younger than 5, but for students just starting school, they can be a quick, intuitive resource.
Ultimately, apps and other guides should empower kids to be self-reliant, training them to use their eyes and ears to find answers and sate curiosity.
(The creator of this app is currently donating 10 percent of proceeds to the National Audubon Society.)
Designed for ages 4 and up, this app teaches kids to identify 500-plus birds through a thrilling flashcard game. The simple format feeds you a photo that you then have to label. The species’ name is revealed if you tap the screen; a swipe lets you move on to the next mystery.
We chose the “easy” level and felt a little disheartened after we misidentified a bunch of birds. But my son still loved it. Instead of being frustrated by what he didn’t know, he was proud of what he remembered. The app's purpose finally dawned on me. It wasn’t testing him; it was teaching him. It would have otherwise never occurred to me to drill my 6-year-old on birds, but this app tricked me into doing just that—with great results.
iOS and Android; free
I first gave the Audubon app a spin on a baby-bird walk in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park. We didn’t see any unfamiliar species at the time, but it made me think of another head-spinning spring day in Prospect Park, when my son and I saw many baffling migrants. I would have loved to have had the app’s list of "wood warblers" open for reference, instead of having to fumble through clumsy descriptions on Google.
Post baby-bird walk, my son was excited to fill out the "My Sightings" page in the app. We also listened to the bird calls of local species and glanced at the easy-to-use hotspot map to prepare for future outings. A great package of features, all told.
iOS and desktop; $18
This expensive app took up every last bit of space on my old iPad. Venturing into it, I quickly became exasperated. The app makes you listen to the calls of four similar-sounding species and then drills you on them, group by group. It’s a difficult experience for a beginner, yet somehow, the app is hard to put down. More than any other tool I’d used, I felt it was improving my ability to identify birds by ear. My son was surprisingly engrossed as well; it was amazing to watch him start pick out the small nuances in the different calls.
After giving Larkwire a few whirls, we tested it out in the field while vacationing in Maine, where we heard way more birds than we saw. On one hike in particular, we heard a clear, repeated song that sounded real familiar. We used field-guide apps to check the calls of all the species that we thought it might be, but couldn't find the right one. Later that day, though, while playing on Larkwire, we heard it again. It was a Common Yellowthroat, a warbler we’d seen and heard multiple times in our local park. High fives all around.
iOS and Android; free
A classic from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this smart guide has come in handy as my son and I tackle the “little brown birds.” For instance, we recently came across a tricky specimen in New York and decided to consult Merlin. We entered our location, the bird's size and color, and where we saw it (on the ground). The app quickly narrowed it down: a spirited Song Sparrow.
We also love the Merlin Photo ID feature, which identifies user-submitted photos with complex AI-based technology. I experimented with a photo I took of two Cedar Waxwings in Maine. I was impressed that it worked, even though the quality of the image was poor. If the little birder can pull off the shot, I can see it being a wonderfully practical resource.
While I don’t think any of these apps engaged my kid the way a human bird guide would, they did teach and inspire him in a way that will make his future as a birder brighter. I recommend trying them with your own demanding birding partners, especially when they expect you to be ready with the answers.