by Sarah Toner
NOTE: This app offers a variety of versions with different song packs available for Apple devices, mainly iPhone and iPod. The computer version has the same song packs but is played on the internet, so you can play it on anything that has an internet connection. This review is for the iPhone Master Birder version.
Learning birdsong used to be a challenging endeavor. Before the days of recordings and field guides, the only way to learn bird songs was to track down the bird and ID it. Field guides brought written descriptions of bird songs, but these are poor substitutes for the real song. Once recordings came along, people could hear and learn bird calls without having to find the bird. CDs such as Peterson’s Birding by Ear and the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs are still some of the most popular ways to study songs and calls. In addition, MP3 players can store hundreds of bird songs and calls, and most smart phone field guide apps also integrate songs. However, many of these recordings are sorted taxonomically, like field guides, rather than being sorted by how the birds sound. Winter Wren may be next to Sedge Wren on the CD, but the two birds sound radically different. Baltimore Orioles, American Robins, and Scarlet Tanagers sound similar, but they are in three different families, scattered throughout the song pack. With the taxonomic method, comparing the songs of any species is difficult unless you sort all 700 ABA area bird species into their own song groups.
Finally, with Larkwire, a new bird song learning app, Michael O’Brien, Phil Mitchell, and Mark Johnston have done that sorting for you.
Part trivia game, part serious learning, Larkwire teaches users by narrowing bird songs into groups that slowly expand to include every species. As the introduction to the app notes, learning these songs is still a matter of weeks and months, but Larkwire makes it efficient, logical, and fun. The game seems to be endlessly customizable: you can vary which and how many groups you play, which level of difficulty you play, whether to choose field vs. gallery mode, and whether to review groups or learn new ones. Groups such as “Robin-like” and “Warblers 2: Squeaky Wheels,” range from two to sixteen or more birds in each group. You can select your own groups or let the program select them for you.
Once you’ve selected groups, there are two ways you can play. The gallery allows you to learn the songs by narrowing them down to four species at a time. The field mode is more like birding in the field; it plays you a song and you have to come up with the name yourself. You can choose gallery or field mode in the settings, or let Larkwire decide for you. Larkwire automatically gives you gallery mode to learn a group, and switches to field mode to review that group.
In the gallery mode, Larkwire lets you review the songs of the four species and then plays a song for you to match to the correct species. Incorrect answers dock points from both your answer and the correct one. Once you have five points for all of the birds, you’ve completed the gallery and can replay it, start on a new group, or refill the gallery with more birds from that group.
The field mode has a twist: it relies on your honesty to gauge your progress. It plays you a song from the selected group(s), and you have to answer whether you know it. It then shows you the correct answer, and you indicate whether you were correct. Larkwire then uses your answers to determine which species you need to study more.
The level of difficulty is one of my favorite features of Larkwire. In four steps, from beginner to master, Larkwire increases the number of groups and species you have to study. As you increase your skill level, Larkwire presents you with more challenging comparisons and more species to learn and choose from.
Phew! You’ve finally worked your way through all twenty-eight groups in the Intermediate level. But what’s this? Larkwire suggests that you review Robin-like songs?? Hopefully, you’ve learned, in school and life, that you can’t just cram a hundred songs into your head in one setting and expect to remember all of them. When you haven’t studied a group for a while, Larkwire recommends that you review it. Even if you‘ve got the “Warblers 2: Squeaky Wheels” down pat, if you learned them in July, you’ll probably have forgotten them by the time Black-and-white Warblers arrive next April. The reviewing section of Larkwire supports constant maintenance of your memory’s birdsong library.
This app is excellent, with only a few limitations. Because Larkwire tracks an individual’s progress, anyone else who wants to use it has to buy it separately. My mother wants to learn the bird songs using Larkwire, but she’s at the Beginner level and I’m at the Advanced, and if she used my app, she’d skew my progress. Therefore, the ability to have separate accounts within the app would help. Also, as you might have noticed, there are 700+ breeding species in the ABA area but only 344 species in the Master birder app. Obviously, gulls and other species that don’t sing are excluded, but the app is missing a few birds that sing, such American Bittern. Least Bittern is included because it sounds like Black-billed Cuckoo; Wilson’s Snipe is the only shorebird included, because it sounds similar to Boreal Owl. Finally, the app is exclusively for learning songs and important calls. It won’t help you learn warbler and sparrow chip notes, thrush calls, or night flight calls. However, the Larkwire process could be applied to these calls once they were grouped and recordings were obtained. I smell a sequel...
If you want it downloaded onto your iPhone, Larkwire offers different song packs, from backyard birder (25 species based on your state/province) to Master Birder, with 344 species. Backyard birder is $3.25, Birder Core (with the essential land birds for East or West versions) is $8.95, Birder Pro is $16.95 for either the Eastern or Western version, and Master birder is $24.95 for all the songs.
If all of these customizations and modes seem complicated, you can experience the app for yourself on Larkwire’s website, using the free trial of the computer version. Try out the glossary, research the text, and play around with gallery and field modes. Larkwire’s website also has articles about how to get the most out of Larkwire and extra information explaining Larkwire on their website. You can purchase the app from the iTunes store.
Overall, Larkwire is a great app that can be used to learn bird songs and continue year-round to refresh your memory of birdsongs. I’d highly recommend it.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 15, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.