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Merlin for Australia

By Nancy Auerbach March 18, 2017

The more than 70,000 images of Australian birds already submitted to eBird, such as this Rufous Treecreeper by Derek Stokes / Macaulay Library, will help Merlin, and you, learn to identify Australian birds.

Merlin – bird or legendary wizard? In this story Merlin is a free app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which helps identify birds. Right now, Merlin Bird ID is only available for North America, but the eBird Australia team is keen to have this exciting tool available in Australia in the future.

We have begun laying the groundwork for expanding Merlin to Australia, and we need your help in providing content.

How does Merlin work?

Merlin offers two approaches to help you identify a bird.

  1. Merlin asks a few simple questions about the bird – location, size, colours and activity – and responds with a list of suggestions, complete with extra information including images, sounds, range maps and ID text.
  2. Merlin can identify a bird from a photograph taken on a phone, or uploaded into the app.

To identify birds from photographs, Merlin uses an algorithm that can learn specific patterns based on features of birds in a large number of different photos.

Merlin was originally trained to identify 400 species in the US and Canada, but has since expanded to cover 750 species and covers USA, Canada, and parts of Mexico. Advances in computer vision software have allowed the Merlin team to create small, downloadable models that require just milliseconds of processing power to correctly identify a bird as the number one result close to 90% of the time. Coupled with eBird sightings data, this accuracy is even higher, eliminating birds that are not likely in the area the photograph was taken.

How eBirders can help

To start preparing Merlin for Australia, it needs a lot more photos of all Australian birds—particularly those on the list of most wanted photos for Australia. For Merlin to be successful, it needs around 500 images per species in the Macaulay Library, so please keep adding your bird photos to your eBird checklists!

Not every photo needs to be an award-winning image to be useful. Images from different angles and a range of postures, are all very helpful for Merlin to help learn. So remember to add that awkward picture, such as a bird flying away or showing you its back; while these may not look great to the human eye, they are all helpful.

Merlin learns best when trained on a variety of views


Uploading photos to your lists is as easy as ‘drag and drop’—the guide to Adding Photos and Audio to eBird Checklists provides more information on eBird photo upload best practices, image resolution and size, cropping, and rating your images.

To keep track of your photographic achievements, you can access a count of the number of species you have photographed on your Profile page. You can also obtain a list of species you have reported, but not yet uploaded a photo for, on your Target Species page which is accessed via the Explore Data tab. Just select your region, and check the ‘with photos’ option.

After photos are uploaded with lists, we need help in rating photos according to the Photo Quality Rating Guidelines. eBird photo quality evaluations are ‘crowd-sourced’—that means we ask a large group of users like you to help us bring the highest quality media to the surface, from a large and rapidly growing collection. You can start participating now, based on the photos we already have. Go to the Search Photos and Sounds page in eBird and set the Location filter to ‘Australia’. Click on a photo to expand it to full size, and select a rating. Keep in mind that the eBird photo rating is meant to evaluate the quality of the image, not the quality of the bird in the image—a great photo of a common bird should be four or five stars, just as a low-quality image of a rare or interesting bird should be one or two stars. It’s quick and easy to do, and goes a long way towards helping Merlin learn correctly. If you have the time, check back on occasion and keep rating new photos as they appear.

The final and crucial step in helping Merlin learn Australian species is to participate in helping Merlin recognize where in a photo the bird is located. We are a little way off that stage for Australia, but you can contribute to Merlin’s roll-out elsewhere in the world by helping train Merlin to identify birds. We’ll post another article when we are able to start a similar Merlin training process for Australian bird photos. In the meantime, keep those eBird photos coming!