Reviewed by Grant McCreary on April 9th, 2013.
Anyone who’s been birding for longer than five minutes knows that sound is vital to finding and identifying birds. But for just about everyone, birding by ear is much more difficult than by sight. One of the reasons for that is that we have many more resources for identifying birds by appearance than we do by sound. Larkwire seeks to level this imbalance.
Larkwire is a web or iOS app that uses games to aid the learning of bird songs. It started out as a web-based app that worked in web browsers or on most mobile devices (see my initial review). But now it is also available as an iOS app. Make that two apps: Larkwire Land Birds and Larkwire Water Birds of North America (actually, it’s more than that, as I’ll describe below). I’m going to focus on the iOS apps in this review, but all of them work very similarly.
There are two types of games – Gallery and Field. In Gallery, you are shown four birds from a given grouping. The app will play a song for you, and you choose which bird you think it is. If you get it right, a green bird silhouette will appear next to the bird. Get it wrong and you’ll see a red icon and the correct species highlighted. You’ll also “lose” some of your green icons. The game is over when you get enough green icons for each bird. At any point you can hit Stop and then tap a bird to get a reminder of what it sounds like, or the i button to get a written description. You can also hit the Refill button to load new birds.
The Field game is used to simulate actual birding where, when you hear a sound, you don’t have a definite set of options to choose from. Larkwire will play a sound and your two options are Know it or Not sure. If you hit the former, you’re shown the answer and you can choose whether you were correct or not. Correct answers will fill up the progress bar in the upper-left corner, while incorrect ones will deplete it.
These games aren’t easy! The app includes a pretty wide selection of sounds, so you could hear an unfamiliar song variation from a bird you thought you were familiar with. And the games can go on for a good while since you’re penalized for wrong answers. But that’s actually a good thing since it forces you to repeat songs that you’ve misidentified.
One great thing about Larkwire is that it’s very customizable. Let’s say you want to work on “trillers” (Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, and the like). From the game screen, you would tap on the Groups button to show a list of groups. From there, you can select one or more groups to work on. You scroll down and find “Sparrow-like 4: Trillers” (I found that you have to be on the Advanced level or higher to see this group). To get an even finer level of control, tap on the bird icons for that group to bring up the included species. Here, you can select only the birds you want to work on. In my case, being in the South, I don’t need to include Common Redpoll or White-winged Crossbill so I’d go through and select all but them. Then, when you go back to the game, you will now get just the species you want to work on.
You can also browse through all the included species, or search for one in particular, and listen to songs and calls. Each species has a small thumbnail picture and description of the song. I’ve found these descriptions, written by Michael O’Brien, very helpful. Below that are some orange and gray buttons. Tap these to play a sound recording. The buttons are labeled with the state/province they were recorded in, along with the subspecies of the bird if known. The orange buttons are the most common, representative samples. Those in gray are other variations. Altogether, these sounds are the ones that will be used in the games (the gray ones only at the master level).
Browsing through the sounds this way is best done when studying before playing one of the games. You could use Larkwire for playback in the field, but the interface is not as conducive for that, so I’d recommend sticking with one of the field guide apps for that.
The advantage of Larkwire is that it effectively deals with the main problems associated with learning bird songs.
Problem: Learning bird vocalizations is intimidating. It’s hard to know where to begin and how to do it.
Larkwire handles this by breaking birds down into manageable (and carefully chosen) groups. And then when you’re done with one, it gives recommendations on how to proceed (whether to refill with more birds from the current group or to move on to another).
Problem: It’s hard to study bird songs effectively.
If you want to learn a single, fairly distinctive song you can simply play it over and over. That works. But I’ve found it much harder to compare and learn to differentiate similar-sounding songs using that method. Larkwire handles that easily. And it also includes a good amount of variation; more than the one or two samples that you get from most other commercially available sources.
Problem: It’s hard to test yourself.
It’s not easy to test your knowledge of bird songs using readily available recordings, especially since many tracks announce the bird’s name at the beginning! There are ways to get around that, but it’s tedious and time consuming. Larkwire is the best and easiest way I’ve seen to test yourself.
I haven’t found any bugs or outright issues with the app, but here are a few “wishlist” items:
- Most of the songbirds have just the song included, not any calls. Granted, you could get into some pretty advanced stuff with calls, but just something like a comparison between cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Eastern Phoebe chip notes would be very useful and relevant to beginning birders.
- While you can customize your groups however you want, you can’t save them. That makes it more difficult to switch back and forth between a standard and customized grouping.
The web-based version at Larkwire.com and the iOS apps are totally separate. If you purchase one you do not automatically have access to the other. So if you think you’ll use Larkwire on more than just your Apple device, go with the web-based version (here’s a list of supported devices). But even if you will just use your iPhone or iPad, you still have a choice. Both the native iOS app and the web-based app work remarkably similar on my iPhone. The main difference is that the native app installs all the sounds on your device so you can use it without a network connection. I suppose the dedicated app is the safest option, since it should still be usable if the worst happens and Larkwire closes up shop. There might also be a price difference. As of this review’s posting date, the Landbird apps are cheaper than their web counterparts.
Finally, there are different levels available which vary in the number of species included. And price, of course! All of the options available are listed below.
The Larkwire team believes that this system is “the easiest, fastest, most enjoyable way to learn bird songs”. I agree with them. If you want to learn bird songs, especially if you’ve tried other methods with limited success, I’d recommend Larkwire.
Here are all of the various options. Prices current as of 9/26/2013.
Land Birds of North America
Larkwire Birdsong Master Birder
343 species (essentially all North American land birds except border specialties)
iOS app: $14.99
Larkwire Birdsong Pro East and West
East: 233 species (essentially all land birds of Eastern/Central North America except border specialties)
West: 299 species (essentially all land birds of Western North America except border specialties)
iOS app: $9.99 each
web: $16.95 each
Larkwire Birdsong Core East and West
East: 95 of the most common and useful species in Eastern/Central North America
West: 101 of the most common and useful species in Western North America
iOS app: $2.99 each
web: $8.95 each
Larkwire Birdsong Backyard Birder
25 most common and useful backyard species, customized for your location
iOS app: $0.99
Larkwire Birdsong Basics
demo that includes 50 sounds
iOS app: Free
Water Birds of North America
Larkwire Birdsong Master Birder
135 species (essentially all North American water birds except border specialties)
iOS app: $19.99
Larkwire Birdsong Birder Core
73 of the most common and useful water bird species in North America
iOS app: $6.99
Disclosure: The item reviewed here was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher. But the opinion expressed here is my own, it has not been influenced in any way.