For the 45 million birders in North America who use classic field
guides - such as Peterson, Sibley or National Geographic - things
are about to change. A small company in South Dakota has developed a
product that some believe will make the classic paper field guide go
the way of the buggy whip. While it might not
yet be time to toss your field guide away you need to take a serious
look at the world's first mobile interactive digital field guide - Handheld
This remarkable software turns a Palm PDA into an electronic
consiglere to the birds of North America. It combines audio
recordings, images, and text descriptions in an innovative
searchable application that offers identification guidance like
never before. Identification is facilitated by progressively
narrowing the search based on state, time of year, and additional
characteristics. While pricy the software represents a real break
though for bird enthusiasts by not only eliminating the need for
carrying large books in to the field but by providing a must faster
way to identify birds than turning pages.
In this review I'll show you why you want to own this product,
reveal some of the issues such a new technology presents, and give
you the real world experiences I had in the field using it to
But before I get going I need to make a full disclosure; the area of
electronic field guides is one I have been fascinated with for
years. I have developed my own web-based search engine for
identifying birds called WhatBird. It uses visual icons in a
parametric step by step configuration to help you find any of over
1000 birds and has become quite popular (http://www.whatbird.com). Its
beauty is that it always finds an answer - you never get a screen
that says "sorry no birds found". I have even created a version that
runs on a Pocket PC and a cell phone, but I have not pursued either
of these commercially. I only mention this so if you find my
perspective a bit more demanding than the average birder you'll know
Overview of Features
National Geographic Handheld Birds includes more than 1,600 bird
images and 650-plus range maps, plus other detailed bird information
such as family, features, plumage, similar species, habitat and
more. Birders can search through 867 North American birds by
location, size and color, and swiftly transition from one bird to
the next to easily compare and contrast unique characteristics. In
addition to assist with rapid identification in the field, National
Geographic Handheld Birds includes nearly four hours of actual
birdsong and calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birding
enthusiasts can contribute directly to scientific progress by using
the device’s eBird checklist to record observations and upload them
to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
A Little History
The inspiration for Handheld Birds came from Dr. Paula Mabee, a professor
of biology at the University of South Dakota with a keen interest in
birding. Dr. Mabee explained she was frustrated by not being able to
identify birds she could hear but not see. Or she would find a bird
in her field guide that, according to the range map, should not be
in the area where she heard it. Shortly after that USD adopted the
Palm handheld and Dr. Mabee had an epiphany this device might solve
her problems. She worked with the university to apply for an NSF
grant and started developing the product. The real breakthrough came
when she hooked up with PullUIn Software, located in Vermillion
South Dakota. I spoke with PullUIn's CEO Mary Derby who told me that
the idea of a handheld device for identifying birds was not brand
new but at that time none of the ideas had made it out of the
prototype stage. Ms. Derby said the National Geographic Society, who
publishes one of the best field guides on the planet, provided the
illustrations and range maps for Handheld Birds, while Cornell’s
well respected and authoritative Laboratory of Ornithology provided
the bird recordings as well as a great deal of guidance, support,
and content. To Mary Derby Cornell was a critical element in the
process. Indeed this idea had been presented to Cornell several
times in the past but PullUIn was the first really experienced technology
company to come forward and since they had forged a relationship
with National Geographic Cornell felt that this was finally the
right combination to make such a product a success. PullUIn
made great use of focus groups to help define the features and hone
the overall working of the design. It's
clear a great deal of thought and planning went into the design of
Handheld Birds. Other collaborators include the American Birding
Association, and the Sioux Falls-based Breukelman Kubista Group, BKG.
TapBirds. The closest product I could find in the same genre as Handheld
Birds is called TapBirds which runs on a Pocket PC. While Handheld
Birds is designed to replace your field guide, TapBirds is an
inexpensive gallery of bird photos organized by bird shape. It
contains 300 photos, summer and winter distribution maps and the
ability to search by color, bird type and name. The company's claim
that this is a field guide is a real stretch and I would not
recommend this product. The photos are not that great in quality and
the interface is not well conceived. You can find out more about it and download
a demo at http://www.tapguides.com.
birdPod Maker. This is not really an interactive field
guide but the popularity of Apple's iPod makes it worth mentioning.
Basically birdPod Maker (http://www.ibirdpod.com)
is software and data that enables the iPod to play back bird songs.
Based on the Stocks Field Guide to Bird Songs which contains
650 songs, it organizes these songs into playlists that lets your
search for birds by name or family. The product seems mainly
geared towards people that wish to attract birds by
broadcasting their songs. Photographs of warblers are also included
if you have an iPod that can display color. The software with
eastern and western birds sells for $99 and if you by it with the CD
and an iPod its $374.99. I am a bit skeptical of this product.
Its not that hard to convert a CD of bird songs to the iPod using
the iTunes software so I see this mainly as a convenience issue.
There are other CDs you can purchase with bird songs, including
those from Audubon.
National Wildlife Foundation Handheld Guide to Birds.
Several years ago while visiting the offices of eNature.com I was
shown a product that was similar to Handheld Birds. eNature.com had
taken a similar track as Handheld Birds, except they where working
with Sibley for the illustrations. However there product lacked any
kind of search feature, did not have sounds, and was pretty limited.
For a very short time the product was offered for sale by the
National Wildlife Federation as the "Handheld Guide to Birds" but
then for some reason it was pulled off the market. While I had a
copy of the software I did not use it much since it lacked a way to
look up birds based on criteria such as location, color, etc. Thus
you can imagine how pleased I was to discover that PullUIn's product
had none of these shortcomings.
What's in the Box?
CD ROM - contains Product Activation, eBird Data Transfer Tool,
Quick Start Guide, User Manual, Demo Video, and Instructional Video.
Small fold out manual
128MB SD Card
Before I get down to the cool features of Handheld Birds I need to
get this off my chest - I was a pretty annoyed at the installation
process for this product. The Handheld Birds installer seems like it
was made by the Department of Homeland Security. To install the
software you must enter two 16 character alphanumeric strings you
get from the Palm on to a web page after the SD Card is inserted and
started, a 16 character key code found on the CD envelope that comes
with the package, and your email address. But wait there's more!
After you enter this information at the handheld birds' web site a
32 character alphanumeric code is returned to you. Now you must
enter these 32 characters into your Palm device using graffiti or a
keyboard if you are lucky enough to have one. The string is case
sensitive and took me about a half hour to enter correctly because
with the Palm keyboard you have to press a special blue function key
to discern numbers from letters and then another key to specify
capitals. To add insult to injury just as I finished entering my
code I hit the backspace key by mistake and it appeared that the
entire code was erased! I had to enter it in all over again. Then I
found out it was actually on the second row and the first part was
still there, just hidden from view. Who ever designed this unwieldy
scheme needs to be tortured like I was. It's certainly a poor way to
get started with a new product. Hint: One way to make this
installation easier is to copy the returned 32 character key code
from the web site to a Notepad document and then put spaces between
every 4 characters so they are easier to read off.
Once the painful installation was out of the way I took a breather
then jumped in fresh to the product review. Things got much better.
Essentially Handheld Birds is used to look up birds you see in the
field on your Palm device instead of a book. Rather than turning
pages you use its tabbed based interface and your stylus - content
is in the middle portion of the screen and horizontal tabs run
across the top of bottom of the screen - to select the function you
wish: search, listen, read, etc.
The content in the center area
varies depending on the function being performed. For example when
you are in the search mode it shows a scrolling list of all the
birds in the database, when you are viewing a particular bird it
shows the species information about the bird including a drawing,
Latin name, and a button for playing the birds call.
When in the
species view the upper area contains the tabs: search, species,
eBird and Help. The bottom area contains the tabs: home, appearance,
range, sounds, and behavior. The tabs perform double duty as pop up
menus, which while non standard, works very well.
For example when
viewing a species the range tab popup displays the items: Range Map,
Range, Habitat and Conservation.
The search feature allows sorting by first name, last name, or
taxonomically. So you can sort a bird as American Robin, or Robin,
American. Clicking on the bird's name brings up the species page.
You can also enter the name of a bird in the text box and it will
scroll the list as you type, predicting the bird you are looking for
at the top of the list. The taxonomic sort is particularly useful
because it allows you to view all the species for a particular
family at one time.
The three tabs at the bottom of the search display (color, size,
location) are used to select specific characteristics for a
bird. The software uses a "narrowing" algorithm, such that each
characteristic you specify reduces the
number of birds in the scrolling list. When you click on a tab, for
example location, a small popup menu appears with more choices. In
the case of location you can select Region, Month or Habitat. Here
is how those work.
You might start your search by selecting the state or province that you are
looking for your bird. Clicking on the location tab pops up the menu
with three items and if you click on the menu item called Region you
will get the screen which lists the states and provinces of North
America (Mexico, Baja and Hawaii are missing).
It seemed strange to me that the program does not allow you to
select multiple states or provinces, because if you're on the border
between two states you may have to repeat your search twice. But
this might not be as bad as it sounds since you can vary one aspect
of the search without affecting the others.
One thing that I found a bit unusual was that there is no OK or
Cancel buttons on these selection screens. I am used to finding an
OK or Cancel in all the operating systems I have used (Windows,
Macintosh, Linux as well as the mobile devices from Microsoft called
the Pocket PC. And the Palm itself uses these buttons in various
places. In Handheld Birds you "accept" your selection by clicking on
the tab that popped up the menu, in this case location. Or you can
click anywhere outside the popup, such as another other tab. This
took me a little while to get used to, but once I adapted it was
second nature, and I can see how the designers saved room by using
this approach since it eliminated the extra space of the buttons.
After you chose a search item, such as the region, color, etc you
must view the results of your search on a different screen accessed
by summary tab. The number of birds matched is not displayed
anywhere except on this screen. You would
think the number of birds matched would appear at the top of the
scrolling list of birds since the goal is to make that number as
small as possible. I learned to get an idea of the effectiveness of
my choices by looking at the scroll bar on the search list - as the
search list got smaller the thumb got longer.
When we selected the state of Texas the software
narrowed our search from 867 species down to 459 birds that are only
found in Texas. The clear button lets you remove the search item. I
would have preferred that instead of eliminating it, it took me back
to the mode I was in when I made the selection so I could alter it
or if I wanted clear it there.
One of the best search features of Handheld Birds is the Month menu
item. I assume it's been put on the location menu because the state
and the month are intimately intertwined. All 12 months of the year
are displayed on this screen. I could not determine where this
data came from, but I assume eBird.com, since that site allows you
to see a birds population in a particular state at a particular time
of month. For our search we selected the month of
After selecting the month we clicked the summary tab to see how our
list had been narrowed.
The summary screen shows that when we viewed birds in Texas in November
the number of matched birds went from 459 to 394.
While this is still a large number of birds, Handheld Birds lets you
narrow it down further by habitat, color or size.
Note also that the Handheld
Birds summary screen always shows the state of all five other attributes,
displaying No habitats selected for example.
Another nice feature of Handheld Birds is that you can select any of
12 different habitats you have seen your bird in. The habitats cover
open ocean, coast, lakes, rivers and ponds, wetlands and marshes,
artic and tundra, grasslands, hedges and shrublands, riparian and
woodlands, mounts, urban and residential, and finally feeders. I
found these good choices however I was somewhat confused by hedges
and shrublands which are not really a habitat but more of a location
within a habitat. I also wondered if birders would be able to
differentiate riparian from woodlands. Wikipedia defines the
Riparian zone as the interface between land and a flowing surface
water body. It would seem hard to me to be able to say that a bird
spent its time in a riparian zone or a coast.
I selected Coasts
for my Habitat which narrowed our list down to 321 birds, not much of a reduction -
clearly many birds can be found wintering on the coast of Texas.
For a birds color the software allows multiple choices. From what I can
tell the colors you select are ANDed, meaning a bird must have ALL
the colors you chose to qualify as a match. Therefore if you select
a color combination that does not exist; the screen will display
nothing meets your criteria. The
WhatBird.com search engine
allows both AND as well as OR logic, with OR being the default. When
you OR the colors it means that any bird with one of the colors in
you selection will be selected. This way there are always a number
of birds that meet the criteria and you never get the dreaded "none
I found it interesting that the designers picked brown and chestnut
as colors. Our research has shown that people are not good at
differentiating shades of brown. Rust or Rufous is also missing from
the color set which most birders we have found are familiar with and
use when writing about birds. I did like that the color "iridescent"
was available. We selected green as a color and then clicked the
summary tab again.
Now we see that by combining the location, month, habitat and color
we have narrowed our list of matches to green birds on the coast of
Texas in November which results in 62 birds. Now things are getting
manageable. At this point we can either keep searching or just click
on each bird name in the summary screen to display its species page.
Continuing on our quest, the size tab popup presents
five different sizes available for narrowing the search. Size is
noted by a bird type, such as Smaller than a sparrow, Sparrow,
Robin, Crow and Goose-sized or larger. I missed that the length in
inches was not included. However using birds to define lengths of
birds does not seem like a design good
decision because many beginning birders may not know the difference
in the size of a
Crow or Robin and so might not really be able to select the correct
value. This screen does allow you to select two size values but that will mean the list
of found birds will not be reduced as much as picking one.
I selected Crow for size and finally my list was reduced to just 15
species, which is a manageable number.
The summary screen showed
all the characteristics I had selected so I could at anytime clear
one of the values and try a new one. Now I was ready to view the
birds I had narrowed my match list to and see if I could identify
the bird I saw.
When you click on a bird in the search list it is replaced with the
species page for that bird. This page is loaded with some new tabs
at the bottom as well as some from the search page. For example from
our previous list of 15 birds I clicked on the American Wigeon.
I found the species page easy to use. The menus at the bottom change
to attributes of the bird itself which include appearance, range, sounds and
behavior. You can move back and forth through your match list with
the next and previous buttons. I felt the image of the American Wigeon was way too small. While there is a large zoom button you can
click which enlarges the bird to a more viewable size, as with the
issue of the summary screen, this makes me have to click too often.
In computer parlance this issue is referred to as modality, meaning
you must change modes. The golden rule of design is to not force the
user to lose track of where they are and having to leave the main
species page just to get a better look at the picture seems wrong to
me. Too modal.
Clicking on the image or the Zoom button gives a large picture of
the bird. The images in Handheld Birds all come from National
Geographic who puts out one of the best field guides on the market.
My one complaint is that even when zoomed it is hard to see details
of the bird. This is because the resolution of the Palm screen is 72
pixels per inch compared to a image printed on paper which is more
like 300 to 600 dpi.
I suggested to the CEO of Handheld Birds that
they offer a "supersize it" version of the zoom mode where the image
could be made 4 times larger, extending beyond the edges of the
screen. You would pan the image in any direction to see more detail.
I like that additional ID information is provided next to the bird
image, but the font is pretty tiny, more for munchkins then humans.
The numbered buttons at the bottom of the screen provide additional
subspecies information, for example here you can see the Eclipse
male and female and the marks that make them different.
Each species has a tiny range map button in the lower right corner
that brings up a nice range map. While using many bird field guides I have
found range maps to differ with each other. Even National Geographic
and Cornell show different ranges for birds.
When viewing the map a "key" button brings up another screen, which
show how to interpret the colors of the maps.
Unless you are familiar with the colors that National Geographic
uses in its books, this can be daunting to memorize. I think it
would have been far better to slide the map to the left side of the
screen and provide a key that was scrolled and remained visible so
you could read it while studying the map. Some of the lines like
direction and extend of irregular breeding ranges are just too tiny
to be of any practical use.
The large X at the upper right of the screen is used to "close" the
species screen. It returns you to the original species page. This is
where the designers stuck with the more familiar interface elements
found in today's software. The mix of paradigms seemed troubling to
me, but then again this is the first incarnation of the product and
they got a lot more right the first time. I am sure the next version
will improve on some of these weaknesses. None are show stoppers.
The species page also provides a small sound player that lets you
hear the call or song of the bird. You can pause the sound at any
time, while its progress is displayed by a small thumb on a slider.
I found the volume for the sounds far too low, certainly not loud
enough for "phishing" a bird call (attracting birds by generating
there call). It was particularly difficult to hear outdoors and I
had to hold the Palm to my ear to make out the call when in the
field. Along with the player is a text description of the call in
mnemonic form. There is also a button to add this to your
observation list and eventually to eBirds. More on that later.
There are four tabs at the bottom of the species page: home, appear,
range, sounds and behave.
The Home tab has four items: Home, Intro, Family and Cool Facts.
Intro is where you find the general description of the screen. Words
that are red are glossary linked, you click on one and are taken to
the definition of the word.
This is an outstanding feature when
using Handheld Birds as a learning tool, and is one of the reasons
such products may do more than just supplement paper based books.
Thankfully the information in the Intro was not the same as the
cryptic text found in the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds
of North America. The writing is easier to understand and seems
written for a beginning birder rather then a professor of
The Family item explains the taxonomic family the bird belongs to,
in this case Ducks, Geese and Swans.
Finally Cool Facts is a nice extra, I found out things I did not
know about this bird, such as that the American Wigeon was
previously known as "Baldpate" because the white forehead strip
resembled a bald man's head. This same information can be found at
the Cornell All About Birds web site (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/)
The appear menu (which I assume stands for appearance) contains the
items Illustrations, Key Features, Plumage, Similar Species and
This menu area is packed with information, much more then you will
find in most book based field guides. The Illustration item takes
you to the same drawing we looked at before; I would have liked it
to say Photos and taken me to a gallery with photographs from
Similar Species is a great feature. They could have just given links
to similar birds, but instead this item tells you why the species is
different- a great way to learn the bird kingdom.
The Range Menu has the same Range Map we saw earlier, plus an
additional information in text about range, habitat and conservation
(how the species is surviving in North America).
The Range information is a good extra because it helps make more
sense of the earlier Range Map by explaining where the bird spends
its time in the major seasons.
The Sounds Menu has one of my favorite features of Handheld Birds
and, if nothing else, this makes the whole package shine like the
iridescence of a hummingbird throat.
Audio allows you to play the
birds call like the main one on the species page and Voice is the
same audio description on the species page (so why are these here I
wondered) but it is the feature called Similar Sounding that stands
The Similar Sounding feature goes a great way towards fulfilling the
prophecy Dr. Mabee's vision. It allows you to listen to the songs of
birds that sing or call much like the bird you have matched.
For example the Band-tailed Pigeon has three birds that sound like
it. Clicking on any name plays the song right there on the screen, so
you can alternate between them and get a good idea of the sound differences
bird. Plus the text further explains what makes them different.
eBird.com and Sightings Lists
A button on the species page called add initiates a process of
creating what is called a "sighting" list. A sighting is a record of
the location, time, date and other details of your bird observation.
When you use this feature in Handheld Birds the results of your
sightings are stored in the Palm's memory. When you sync the Palm
with your PC the information is uploaded into folders on your
desktop in both Excel and text formats. You then upload the text
lists to a private area you have previously set up at eBird.com You
can also user the Excel lists to keep track of you observations. At
least that is the theory. In practice I found the entire process
You start this process by performing a search and getting to a
species page. Then you click on the add button. If you have not done
a search then when you use this feature you will have to scroll
though a new list of birds and find the one you are looking for.
This list is not the same one you looked at when searching, it's
ordered by family and unless you know a lot about your bird it's
hard to find.
The process starts with a screen where you create a "location" which
lets you specify where you are doing your observations.
Clicking on New Location brings up a screen that allows you to enter
the name, which might be something like My Backyard or At the Beach,
I won't go into all the details of setting this up but eventually
you get to a screen where you select your bird
and the number of them you observed. Here we entered 3 for Wood
There are many more screens you will go though to record information
about your sighting. The thing that threw me off was that I expected
you would be building a "life list" with this feature. But that is
not its intended purpose. The goal seems to be to populate the
eBird.com web site with observations so that they can have a record
of a species life in North America and see how its population
varies. How they use this information was not made clear anywhere in
The thing I did not like about this feature is that while you can
continue to add sightings to a Location each sighting must be a new
list with a specific date and time (you can reuse a particular
location). When you sync Handheld Birds to your desktop all your
lists are deleted from the Palm.
Suffice it to say this is what I believe is the biggest weakness of
the Handheld Birds product. I don’t expect many people will use it
and would have preferred just a simple database that I could update
with my observations and optionally upload into Excel.
In the Field
So how does Handheld Birds perform in the field? Being lazy I used
it in my front yard where my feeders greet a good variety of
visitors each day. The most common are sparrows but I also see a lot
of nuthatches, finches, towhees, jays, and so on. During the month
of December a group of about 10 small birds appeared at the feeder.
They had a distinct yellow crown bordered by black on either side of
it, and made a high pitched song that sounded like "tsii tsii tsii".
Into Handheld Birds I entered Location = California, Month =
December, Color = Yellow, Size = Smaller than a sparrow, Habitat =
Urban and Residential and Feeders. The program narrowed the search
list to 2 birds: the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Verdin. Looking
at the Kinglet I saw what appeared to be an exact match. I listened
to the sound and it was definitely my bird. The entire process took
my less then 3 minutes.
I next tried another small visitor whose identity I knew, the
Black-capped Chickadee. I used the same search criteria as the
Kinglet except for color I selected black, white and gray. I ended
up with just four birds: Bushtit, Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds
and the Verdin again. Cleary there was something wrong with my
search parameters. I changed the settings to Size = Sparrow instead
of Size = Smaller than a Sparrow. That matched 36 birds and included
my Black-capped Chickadee. Handheld Birds says a House Sparrow is
6.3 inches in length while the Black-capped Chickadee is 5.3 inches.
So clearly my first size selection, Smaller than a Sparrow ,should have
worked. This shows the search is not perfect.
I had good luck with almost every other bird I tried to identify and
found that when there are distinguishing colors the program is more
I wished there where more attributes to search on, such being able
to specify the color of the crown, head, throat and breast as well
has head shape and pattern, bill shape and length and so on. But I
still found Handheld Birds very satisfying.
Besides helping to ID birds I found the product makes a terrific
educational tool. I carried it with me around town for a few weeks.
When I had any idle time I would bring out the Palm and just browse
the birds in the search lists. The information on each species was
extensive and when I couple it with the songs my knowledge of birds
defiantly got way better.
I would have liked a way to keep a history list of the birds I was
studying, so I could return to where I left off, but all in all I
think this product is a super deal and recommend it to anyone with a
serious interest in birding.
While Handheld Birds may not yet fully replace your field guide, it
does offer the first useful tool for supplementing paper based field
guides, and for that I give it four out of five stars. However when
you add the search features, the ability to hear the bird's call or
song, and to compare with the songs of other birds, I raise it to a
full five stars. While I believe there is more work to be done on
the user interface this product has a bright future as long as the
developers keep pushing the envelope. The eBirds feature was my
biggest a disappointment - instead of a simple and somewhat limited
reporting system I expected a history and life list storage system
and an integrated sharing of life lists over the internet along with
more of a social engineering bend to it. I was also somewhat
disappointed in the quality of the graphics, but the sound features
are outstanding, especially the ability to listen to similar
sounding birds with one click.
Recent News for Pocket PC and Smartphone
A new product called StyleTap emulates the Palm operating system on
any Windows Mobile device, Pocket PC or Smartphone. I tested
Handheld Birds on an older HP IPAQ Pocket PC running Windows Mobile
2003 and it ran like a champ. The only areas where I saw differences
was in the way the screen fonts on the bird images appeared broken
up, but then I don't think those labels are all that important. The
bird calls and sounds were much louder on my IPAQ. Other than the
blurry tiny fonts everything else worked exactly like it does on the
Palm. StyleTap is available at
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|Handheld Birds Pros and Cons
- Interface is intuitive
- Sorting works very well
- Keeps a sightings list on the device
- Allows transfer of sightings to eBird web site maintained by Cornell
- Location information includes valuable month of the year data
- Drawings and sounds are of excellent quality
- Range maps have more than
the usual information
- Ability to compare similar songs is incredible
- Once an attribute for a bird is selected you can
toggle though the list and see how each bird expresses
- Installation difficult
- Steep learning curve, scads of important information hidden by menu
- Drawings resolution and size are too small
- Interface paradigm is not consistent
- Search lacks attributes such as head pattern, bill
- Audio must be louder and there is no volume control
- Only one location can be selected at a time
- Photographs of the birds would have been helpful
- No educational games
- eBird feature is way to complicated and not that