Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An Engaging and Effective Way to Learn Birdsong

I’ve recently discovered a fantastic tool for learning and reviewing birdsong.  Larkwire is an online, browser based learning tool developed by three birders working out of Seattle.
Larkwire Home Screen, showing my progress in Beginner mode after just a couple of sessions
The format of the software is straightforward with two "game" modes.  For learning new songs, Gallery mode presents four birds and then plays a random recording of one species – the software has several different recordings for each species.  Clicking on the correct bird rewards you with a green bird symbol and five correct identifications of each species will complete your “lesson”.
Gallery Mode - clearly you aren't going to be identifying these birds by their looks alone
There are a couple of ways to access more information about the birds.  In Gallery mode you can change the view to give a quick summary of the birds you are learning.   Additionally, you can select one of the groups of birds on the side and the same information is available along with clickable links to the songs of all the species in that group.  Lastly you can simply search the entire database for specific birds.
A sample information screen - the boxes with the state/province codes are the song samples  and you can select species
The second game mode, used for review, is Field.  This game presents you with a blank screen and plays a song.  You tell the program if you know it and are then shown the bird.  Honesty is required, as you must tell the computer whether or not you were correct.  The game seems to adapt as you learn, playing missed birds more frequently until you have mastered them and throwing in the occasional known or new bird to keep you on your toes.

The really clever part about Larkwire is the personalization.  The program remembers previous sessions and progress so every time you start up it reviews previously learned species in Field mode, initially in small groups then in progressively larger groupings.  Your identification skills for each species are represented by the colour of that bird’s icon on the right side of the screen.  The colour progresses from green to blue to gold as you improve but also fades when you haven’t used the program or reviewed that species.  Overall progress bars on the homescreen track each colour level within the overall categories of Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Master.

A screen capture from Gallery mode when I first started using Larkwire - green birds are ones I had learned in Gallery mode, blue are ones that I had mastered to a certain degree of proficiency in Field Mode. 
I don’t have the birding experience or expertise to comment in detail on the bird song provided here, although based on the biographies of the programmers I would assume it is accurate and carefully selected.  What I can vouch for, as a teacher, is the solid learning theory behind the software – this program is sure to improve the speed and accuracy with which you identify birds by ear, whatever your general birding experience may be.  Walking to school the other day I heard a House Finch singing and immediately recognized it as such.  I realize that example will seem kind of pathetic to many birders but my birding by ear really is that bad and my recent progress is entirely due to this software.

That last great thing about Larkwire is that it’s a great deal!  For $25 you get 344 species and your account.  That’s less money than my set of Stokes Bird Song CDs cost me and, while there are far fewer species, there really isn’t a straightforward way to actively learn from CDs  - they are fundamentally a passive media.

Areas for improvement?  Wiser birders than I may quibble about regional variations, song selections, and intraspecies variability but, in my ignorance, I would only long for a stand alone version for Apple iOS and OS X.  An "offline" version might also include more intuitive and prominent personalization lists as well - the ability to create and save my own review lists would be handy.  In the meantime, I can spend a little time every day getting ready for those spring sparrows and warblers that are winging their way to Alberta as I conclude this post.


  1. David, thanks so much for this very thoughtful review!

    I wanted to let you know that a native (offline) version for both iOS and Android is in the works.


    Phil Mitchell

  2. That's really cool. I was looking for something like that the other day and didn't find anything. Thanks for sharing!