I don’t do paid reviews of books nor other products, and I think bloggers who do are unethical — whether they disclose that the review is paid or not. I say this because I’m about to rant about how amazingly cool iBird Explorer Plus is, to the point where people might start to wonder. In fact, I didn’t even get a review copy: I paid full retail.
I used to fantasize about having a field guide that took advantage of high tech data storage and retrieval wizardry. Imagine: a hand-held, interactive and searchable database field guide, with range maps, identifying information, sound, and sharp images both drawn and photographed. (When I used to daydream about such a thing it generally weighed five pounds and was about the size of a standard box of Kleenex.)
I have that field guide now.
iBird Explorer Plus, an application for the Apple iPhone, is a database of 891 North American bird species. (There’s a Windows Mobile version, Winged Explorer, which I haven’t seen, and a handful of smaller regional versions for the iPhone.) You fire up the application and — after a splash screen displayed while the app loads — you find yourself at the browse window. You can select any of the 891 species, scrolling through the long alphabetical list, or you can hit the “search” button at the bottom and bring up the interactive key.
If you know that the bird in question is a swallow, say, or a wren, and you’re just not sure which one, you can enter some of the word in that text field at the top to narrow down your choices. You can then select known information from the fields below, which include location by state, general shape of the bird (is it hawk-shaped or duck-shaped or wren-shaped, and so forth), size, habitat (coast, desert, etc.), whether or not the bird frequents feeders, patterns and coloration of the suspect’s plumage, bill shape and size, and family. With each selection, the app narrows down the list of possibilities. Given the size of the database and the number of entries, the app processes your selections relatively quickly.
The individual species accounts are well-designed if, for obvious reasons of data conservation, a bit cursory. Each individual page has links to succinct and well-organized species information, a more extensive treatment of the species on the web, range maps, a photo to complement the drawing, a list of similar species and — coolest of all for people like me who tend to bird by ear — recordings of each bird’s voice. These recordings are clear enough, and loud enough, that you could use them to attract birds of the appropriate species — and the software provides a reminder about the ethical implications of doing just that. The sound page also features a list of similar-sounding birds, if appropriate, and you can hear each similar recording without leaving the page.
The guide has been compiled by the committed birders at whatbird.com, and they show their experience in the birding community by assuming they’re going to get flak for inaccuracies, die-hard ornithophiles picking nits of varying size over rangemaps and descriptions, descriptions of behavior, and the like. They’ve already heard from birders that the app doesn’t provide enough detail on seasonal variations in plumage, for instance. This is where the concept of the app really shines: the purchase price includes a lifetime subscription to updates, and the developers promise to incorporate users’ criticisms to make the app more and more useful with each iteration. Personally, I’d like to see the developers make use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality and calendar, so that one could rule out goshawks and cardinals when one’s phone happens to be in the Mojave and Scott’s orioles if it’s winter in the Mojave. Even better, the app could use those functions and flag species as “uncommon,” “occasional vagrant,” and “hurry up and call the Audubon Society hotline.”
This app is brilliant, and it’ll get better. It’s a clever use of the iPhone’s technology that will actually increase people’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, the planet they’re on. How often does that happen? I suspect that there will be people who’ll buy the iPhone (or iPod touch) solely to use this app, and I have trouble saying that’s a completely bad idea.
Available through the iTunes store, the full version of iBird Explorer costs $19.99.