Computer science professor builds web app for bird identification

May 14, 2014 by Georgette Jasen
Computer science professor builds web app for bird identification
Birdsnap is an online guide for identifying 500 common birds in North America. Credit: Van Vechten Trust.

( —Digital technology is about to add big data to the bird enthusiast's traditional tools of binoculars and a field guide.

Peter Belhumeur, a Columbia computer science professor whose app for recognizing leaves was launched in 2011, has now created Birdsnap, an electronic guide for identifying birds. Birdsnap uses the that can recognize human faces to identify 500 common birds in North America.

"It's all part of the same thing, using this technology to recognize the things around you," says Belhumeur. While state-of-the-art facial recognition algorithms identify similarities between parts of the human face—the nose, chin or eye, for instance—Birdsnap homes in on parts of a bird—the beak, eye, wing, neck or feet—and finds visual similarities to other birds. "It's all automatic," he says.

An expert in , Belhumeur built Birdsnap with David Jacobs, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, Thomas Berg.

Birdsnap not only identifies birds, it can also show users how to make an identification. "The parts of the bird that the computer looks at are often the same as the parts a person would look at to distinguish between birds," says Berg. "So by displaying these key parts of the bird, we can teach someone to better identify birds by themselves, even when they don't have Birdsnap with them."

Demonstrating the website in his office, Belhumeur pulls up a side-by-side comparison of the snowy egret and the great egret. The differences show up on the screen with circles around distinguishing characteristics. The snowy egret has a black beak while the great egret has a yellow one, as well as a longer neck.

Although Belhumeur says he and his colleagues were "building a ," Birdsnap is much more than the kind of dog-eared manual that serious birders might keep in their knapsacks.

Users can search for birds throughout the United States, in a particular region or locally. They can sort the birds from most to least frequently seen or organize the birds according to evolutionary history in a "tree of life." Icons indicate which birds are arriving, departing or migrating through the area on the date of the search. Click on a specific bird and you get photos, a description, maps, sound recordings and information such as the scientific names for the order, family, subfamily, genus and species. Upload a photo of a bird you've seen, and the software will attempt to identify it.

Belhumeur says he enjoys working across disciplines—in this case, with biologists. "It's fun to come in as a computer scientist to say, 'Here's something we can do with your data,'" he says. "I get to take this technology and move it into a space that I am very interested in."

Leafsnap, the tree-recognition app that Belhumeur developed with Jacobs in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, took nearly 10 years to develop, in large part because of the time-consuming and expensive process of collecting and photographing leaves. It now has more than a million users. Birdsnap, which was developed using resources already available online, was up and running in about six months, with an iPhone app coming in early June.

Bird photos were taken mostly from Flickr images already tagged with a scientific name; parts were labeled by workers found through an online labor market; and descriptions were sourced through Wikipedia and then verified. The maps were based on data from eBird, a joint venture of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and BirdLife, an international network of conservation groups.

"I love doing this," says Belhumeur, who enjoys taking photographs and walking outdoors at his family farm in Connecticut. "It's a lot of fun and I get to look at pictures of all day."

Explore further: Researchers launch first iPhone field guide using visual search

Related Stories

Professor develops mobile app to identify plant species

June 8, 2011

( -- Not every child can dream up a smartphone application and see it come to life. But that’s what happened when 8-year-old William Belhumeur suggested his father make an app that identifies plants using ...

What's that bird? Check your smart phone

January 15, 2014

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has released a free iPhone app to help people identify 285 birds in North America. Created with support from the National Science Foundation, the app asks just five questions, then displays ...

Snowy owls invade US 'south' as cold has effect

February 18, 2014

Reports from tens of thousands of bird-counting volunteers show a southern invasion of Arctic-dwelling snowy owls has spread to 25 U.S. states, and frigid cold is causing unusual movements of waterfowl.

Study reveals shock-absorbing ability of woodpecker beaks

May 7, 2014

( —A team of researchers at Mississippi State University has found that the beaks of woodpeckers are constructed in such a way as to help dissipate energy. In their paper published in Journal of the Royal Society ...

Recommended for you

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...

How cells 'climb' to build fruit fly tracheas

November 25, 2015

Fruit fly windpipes are much more like human blood vessels than the entryway to human lungs. To create that intricate network, fly embryonic cells must sprout "fingers" and crawl into place. Now researchers at The Johns Hopkins ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.