Wondering what bird woke you up from your nap? There's an app for that! Ok, we'll admit, not everyone feels the need to ID all the bird sounds around them ... but what if a bit of avian investigation on your smartphone could help conservationists? That's the idea behind Warblr, a new app that identifies bird calls much like 'Shazam' helps us ID mystery tunes on the radio. 

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Image: Wilkinson/Stowell

"I came up with the idea for Warblr because I wanted to use technology to bring people closer to the natural world," says chief executive Florence Wilkinson. "The UK alone has between 400 and 500 different species of bird. Telling them apart can be a tricky business, even for the experts ... I'm a firm believer that when people get a better understanding about the biodiversity around them, they are more likely to want to protect it."

The app was designed by Dr Dan Stowell, a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London's (QMUL) School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. An avid 'tinker-thinker', Stowell had been studying natural sounds and new ways to analyse them using computers when the opportunity to work with Wilkinson arose. 

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The Warblr prototype is easy to use: when you hear a bird singing, you simply get out the app and tap the record button. Image: Wilkinson/Stowell.

The Warblr prototype is easy to use: when you hear a bird singing, you simply get out the app and tap the record button. Once the recording is finished, it is sent to the data servers and returns a list of the birds you are most likely hearing. 

"We’ve trained [the system] with a lot of recordings of individual birds songs," explains Stowell. "It puts your audio together like a jigsaw puzzle to find the best match." The app's puzzle-piecing ability is particularly impressive, given the complexity of bird calls – which (unlike music) sound subtly different every time.

The team hopes to launch Warblr for public use in the spring ... but the 2015 roll-out date hinges on donations to their Kickstarter, which has raised just over $10,000 of the $80,000 goal. "We want to improve the system and technology by putting more data into it, and by creating a version not just for the UK but for other countries such as the US, which requires training [the system] to recognise more species of birds."

A wider variety of learned calls will give Warblr (and its users) the ability to be part of something that Wilkinson considers the most important application of the app: global bird conservation. Each time a bird is tagged by a user, GPS coordinates will be saved to the Warblr database. Researchers will have free access to this information, which can be used to track bird migrations and population growth or decline! 

"We want Warblr to become a citizen science project," says Wilkinson. "With an ever-growing urban population, the gap between people's day-to-day lives and our natural world is widening. We want to get people outdoors, learning about the wildlife on their doorsteps, because we believe that this will make them want to protect it for future generations." 

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Top header image: Mark Kilner, Flickr