Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: National Geographic Birds App

I am delighted to review the newest birding field guide app available, National Geographic Birds: Field Guide to North America. Many of us really like the 6th edition of National Geographic's paper copy field guide. Now we get those same great illustrations and descriptions we have come to know and love plus additional cool features only available in digital formats.

NatGeo Birds is the first birding app I've seen that incorporates video. This is a very exciting development that I have been hoping for for some time. Granted, there are clips of only 18 species, but the video is of very high quality. These brief videos give birders a "real life" glimpse of the appearance, sounds, and behavior of birds. I expect that NatGeo plans to add more videos to this app over time with the goal being to have video for every species. Unfortunately, the videos are currently buried under the "Tool Kit" in the main menu and are not connected to the individuals profiles of the species. That is something I would hope will be corrected in future updates.

Birds Sounds (calls, song, etc)
List of Similar Species
Quick search by typing in name
Submit sightings to eBird
Compare two species on same screen
Taxonomic List
I.D. help by entering characteristics
Maintain Sightings Lists in App
Range Maps
The "News" feature is also pretty cool concept and I hope that it will be used regularly and not just become a "dead" button within the app. The "Quizzes" are fun and test users by both sight and sounds, along with other trivia type facts.

NatGeo Birds includes seven of the top ten birding app features that birders find most important as per the survey results. (see table on right)

This app does contain a filtered search tool intended to help people identify birds based on characteristics. I have found that searching for a bird species with "filters" is so tough that it is almost useless, more especially for beginners. Here's why: If a user suggests one field mark different than what the app developer has determined, the correct bird may not show up on the filtered list. Search filters need to be probability based, not filter based. Cornell Lab of Ornithology is doing just that with the Merlin program. I've been suggesting for a couple of years now that bird identification search tools should be built similar to the Q20 electronic game (Twenty Questions), and Cornell suggested precisely the same thing in a recent presentation.

In my opinion there is an over emphasis on personal record keeping in this app and many others. As an eBirder, I just want to record my sightings one time and have it go to eBird where my personal records are superbly maintained and organized and my sightings contribute to science. Now, if I were not an eBirder, and was one of the old-school birders who simply kept track of my life birds by writing in the margins of my field guide, than the personal recording keeping functionality of the app would be of very high importance to me. I hope that all birding apps will team up with eBird and find ways for their uses to submit sightings directly to is wonderful and important that they all go that direction!

Though I have my personal preferences about birding apps and have made some suggestions for improvement above, I find National Geographic Birds to be an excellent birding field guide app and strongly recommend it to North American birders. The beauty of apps is that you can have several of them with you in the field to compare and study from rather than lugging a ton of heavy books.

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