How AI is helping scientists protect birds

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Over the past decade, several apps have popped up that tap into the power of artificial intelligence to identify different avian sounds, which are used by scientists and birders alike. (Learn how the pandemic boosted citizen science.)

These tools have their faults: They can sometimes misidentify species, for instance. But more research is showing that AI can identify bird behaviors and distribution, which is critical for conservation.

How does it work?

In 2016, Cornell approached Stefan Kahl, a computer scientist at Chemnitz University of Technology, to help create an algorithm that processes bird sounds recorded in the wild.

Two years later, the team launched the official BirdNET app, which allows people across the world to upload their own recordings from a variety of devices, including laptops and smartphones. Since then, BirdNET has amassed roughly 150 million high-quality bird sounds.

The BirdNET app (pictured, a user in Ithaca, New York) can identify 3,000 bird species by their vocalizations. 

Photograph By Stefan Kahl, K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, The Cornell Lab

Adding to this trove of data, Cornell’s other AI-powered avian acoustic app, Merlin, has more than three million active users feeding acoustic data into the system. But how do these seemingly magical tools work?

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