'Voice Recognition' System for Birds Can Tell Two Chirps Apart

Researchers are decoding birdsong recordings to figure out which birds are making the sounds. (Image credit: Dmitriy Aronov, MIT)

A new method of decoding birdsongs from large sets of recordings may help both expert and amateur bird watchers identify which birds are present, researchers say.

Scientists developed an automated analysis technique and classification algorithm for the birdsongs, and tested it using recordings from the British Library Sound Archive and other online audio collections.

The analysis, described Thursday (July 17) in the journal PeerJ, classifies the kinds of birds producing the songs, and helps identify which birds are "talking" to each other. [10 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Animals]

"Automatic classification of bird sounds is useful when trying to understand how many, and what type, of birds you might have in one location," study researcher Dan Stowell, a computer scientist at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement.

Bird song shares similarities with human language, even though they evolved independently, Stowell said. Like humans, young songbirds engage in vocal learning, he added.

By studying birdsong, scientists hope to understand how human language evolved. The automated system makes it easier to build up a large set of evidence to support these studies, Stowell said.

In a public contest with thousands of recordings of more than 500 bird species from Brazil, the new classification system performed the best compared to other audio-only classifiers, and placed second overall out of 10 entries.

Now, the researchers are working on developing ways to transcribe all bird sounds from a recording — "not just who is talking, but when, in response to whom, and what relationships are reflected in the sound, for example who is dominating the conversation," Stowell said.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.