An Easier Way To Learn The Language Of Birds

Posted January 7, 2019

I wouldn’t stop talking about one of my favourite apps, so the editor of The Osprey asked me to write about it. I use it myself, but also bring it to Nature NL events and other workshops so that other people can play too. This isn’t sponsored or encouraged by the company or anything like that, I just really enjoy it (arguably, it’s marginally more useful than all the time I spend scrolling through bird pictures on Instagram) – and thought other naturalists might too – Laura King, Nature NL VP

Larkwire is just an app. But like any good app, it has the potential to make life better – in this case, for the bird nerds.

You might be familiar with the repetitive “chicka-dee-dee-dee” of the forest – that’s the Black-capped Chickadee. But what about the hundreds of other bird species you might hear and see in Newfoundland and Labrador? Bird vocalizations (songs, calls, grunts, contact calls, chip notes, etc) are hard to learn. But once they are learned, they allow a birder to detect vastly more species. In one study, 90% of all birds in a certain forest could only be detected by ear, so if you are only birding with your eyes you could certainly detect more birds if you added in their sounds. Setting aside the birding aspect, I find that knowing bird sounds makes any old hike with friends more interesting and varied, as you can know, appreciate, and anticipate what’s around you without dragging around heavy binoculars all the time. Like an undercover bird nerd…

In other words, birding with your ears and eyes (let’s call it multisensorial birding to be fancy) can open up a world of biodiversity all around us.

Larkwire is a game. The game is that a sound is played, and the player identifies or guesses the species (or admits they don’t know it yet) – sounds simple. But the app is ‘gamified’ – as you guess the species over and over, you level up through a variety of colours for each bird. This keeps the player interested because you can actually see your progress, as you improve by playing.

Four levels (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert) allow anyone to jump right in to the app at the appropriate challenge. But more importantly, the app was developed by an ornithologist and a cognitive psychologist, so the app ‘understands’ which species and sounds you are having trouble with, and which one you already know.

This means you’ll maximize your time on the app actually working on species or sounds you’re trying to learn, instead of going over the basics again and again.

The other neat feature is the ability to set up lots of custom ‘playlists’ in the app, as above. This lets you focus on certain geographical areas (such as for an upcoming trip) or seasons (for example, just the birds that are around in winter). In many other ways as well, the app is customizable; you can play within certain families and groups.

Birders and learners have always been able to listen to recordings to learn their birds. But the visuals, game, and customizations in Larkwire make it a lot more fun and easy to use. Hopefully this will allow for a whole new group of people to become interested in vocalizations, while allowing expert birders to practice their skills – especially during our long winters. Try it for yourself!