free bird

Scientists have developed Guitar Hero for bird-watchers

June 9, 2014
Obsession
Design
June 9, 2014

Since it debuted in 2005, Guitar Hero has lured tens of millions of videogamers with rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. But let’s say your daydreams are less Flying V and more flying veery—you’d rather look through the binoculars of Peter Winter, once ranked the world’s top birder by the American Birding Association, than feel the weight of Tony Iommi’s or Carrie Brownstein’s guitar strap. Then Bird Song Hero, a new interactive site from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is the game for you.

Bird Song Hero helps train birders to recognize bird songs through spectrograms—visualizations of the audio frequencies of a bird’s call. Since bird songs are distinct, bird-watchers can use them to identify a species that’s out of sight. But the warbles and trills of, say, a Canyon Wren and a Field Sparrow sound awfully similar to an amateur. Spectrograms make it easier to commit them to memory by enlisting the visual side of your brain.

Bird Song Hero plays a short audio clip of a bird call and then asks you to select the corresponding spectrogram from three choices. The birdsongs start out straightforwardly enough but eventually devolve into atonal patterns that would make Schoenberg proud. Occasionally, a bit of misdirection is introduced by the inclusion of human whistling or even toy sounds.

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Screenshot courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Mya Thompson, who developed the game, points to studies showing the benefits of “multiple modes of learning that reinforce each other rather than overwhelm.” Pairing sounds with visualizations helps them sink in faster. But she told Quartz, “We’re mostly doing this because it’s fun.”

With only two levels and 50 different calls, you do go through the game pretty quickly. But maybe that’s the point—learn the basics, grab your Audubon guide, and get out there in the field.

The game’s introductory video and more screenshots are below.

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Bird Song Hero also works on tablets (left) and mobile phones. Screenshot courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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