Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review: Larkwire

Birdsong doesn't come easily to me. At all. Between the two of us, Maureen is usually the first one to associate a song or a call with this or that species, and I end up learning the ID, eventually, from her.

We've bought a Peterson cd for Eastern and Central North America, but the rapid cycling through of entire groupings quickly overwhelms me. I did find this method helpful for owls and gulls, where the juxtaposition of differently-sounding species is readily apparent, but for some of the other families, it's going to take an insane amount of repetition before the songs seem even vaguely familiar.

We also have iPhone apps that play birdsong, like iBird, Audubon, and BirdsEye. I haven't found these to be great tools for learning songs cold, although they do have their uses in their field. For instance, if I hear a call, and have an idea who might have made it, I'll play the song back to myself check whether I was right. And if I was, then the association will be even stronger from then on.

So, since I was still on the lookout for an effective tool for learning birdsong, I happily accepted when we were approached to review Larkwire in early December. In many ways, Larkwire is exactly what I've been hoping to find: it's interactive, it's immersive, and it never gets dull. I will state upfront, however, that I found there to be certain performance issues, which prevent me from giving this the full-throated endorsement that I so want to give, but I'll discuss these in more detail toward the end of the review, and hopefully these will be addressed by the developers.

So what is Larkwire? Larkwire is an internet app that groups together similar sounding-species, giving you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the songs and calls of each. But the real fun and novelty lies in the games. Once a user feels she's ready to to be tested, she can choose between one of the two games that are available: The Gallery or The Field. Of the two, The Field requires more comprehensive knowledge, because the user hears songs and from a greater variety of species. It's designed to be a simulation of the sounds you hear in the field, when you never know what you might hear next.

As a novice, The Gallery is where I spent my of my time, since this is where you learn to sort out similar-sounding birds from one another. After selecting a group, songs are played in a random sequence, requiring the user to indicate which species was heard after each one. The goal is to score five correct answers for each species, and Larkwire keeps track of which species and which groups the user has completed. This information is saved to your account, so that it's available every time you sign in, and the user is able to keep track of which birds she's already mastered, and where they could use more practice.

But wait, you're not alone! "Larkwire tracks every single learning event in your history and uses adaptive algorithms to adjust to your learning pace and style. Because it is based on the way your mind works, the longer you use it, the better it adapts to you." That's pretty damn cool. In other words, Larkwire isn't just a passive, encyclopedic receptacle of birdsong, it's actively trying to help you learn.

The way to begin using Larkwire is to select a group that you want to test yourself on. For instance, say I want to try my hand at buzzy-sounding warblers. Larkwire will select four of the species and display their pictures. You can spend as much time as you want clicking on each picture and familiarizing yourself with the characteristics of their songs.

When you click the info button, the pictures change into descriptions of each birds' song. This might give you something like "Three-parted buzzy song, fastest in the middle and rising at the end" (Cerulean Warbler), or "Simple bubbling gurgle, then very high whistle" (Brown-headed Cowbird). As somebody who lacks the vocabulary for even attempting to describe birdsong, I found this incredibly helpful. Having the words to accompany strange, often foreign or otherworldly patterns of sounds is almost certainly the easiest and best way to ensure that you'll know it better the next time you hear it. This is particularly true of the pneumonic devices that are sometimes given: See you see you see you early-in-the-spring (Louisiana Waterthrush), or Oh oh, my my, it's-such-a-beautiful day (Vesper Sparrow). Knowing how birdsong might be described, it's easy enough take this skill outside of the game, to try giving your own descriptions to songs you hear in the field.

Another great feature is the way the user can choose to listen to the songs that are more likely to be close to home. There are separate songpacks that can be purchased for either the Western or the Eastern/Central Regions. If you own both, you can select either one, or choose to include the entire North American collection in your experience. And when you click on a group name from the menu bar,   you have the option to play regional variants of each species' song. 

But as much as I might want to rave about Larkwire, the experience for me was a bit uneven. Every time I began a session, I wanted to nothing more than to jump in headfirst and explore uninterruptedly for hours at a time. The problem was that the playback stalled much too often. Every several plays, in fact, I would experience one of two problems: either I would get a buffering signal, or the progress bar would move forward without playing any sound. On average, I would estimate that these problems occurred as often as 1 out of every 10 songs, and it really takes your head out of the game.

I can't completely rule out the possibility that the problem was somewhere on my end (although I doubt it). Assuming this is truly a streaming issue, the obvious solution would be to turn Larkwire into a downloadable app, rather than just an online one. The site's FAQ explains that they don't "yet" have a native app, so it's possible that one is forthcoming. For now, the best way to determine whether this could also be a problem for you is to try it yourself. With no signup at all, Larkwire offers a free trial including 7 songs. Or for $3.95 you can access 25 birds from your state or province. 

Despite the issues I had, I do strongly recommend that you look into this product and decide for yourself. It's a truly novel product for learning birdsong, and, as I've mentioned above, it was just what I've been hoping to find. It just might be the product you've been looking for, too. 

Have you tried Larkwire? Let us know what your thoughts are in the comments. I'd be particularly interested to know whether other people have been experiencing the same issues that I had. 


  1. Sounds like a pretty nifty tool. This was a really good and thorough review too, thanks for taking to time to do it and share.
    I struggle a lot with the calls and really need to work on it. I read a while back on the ABA blog that some university is developing a device/database to which you can play recorded bird songs and it will identify them for you. That seems like cheating a bit to me, but it's still pretty darn cool.

    1. Thanks, Laurence! I've heard about that, too... like Shazaam for birdsong. I'm also ambivalent about it, but hopefully people will use it to help them learn, rather than to artificially grow their lists. Can't wait to try it, though!

  2. Nick, Thanks so much for taking the time to do such a thorough and thoughtful review! It's always great to feel that someone really gets our product, as you clearly do.

    Now about those performance issues! Audio over the internet is still surprisingly tricky. Although most users have no problems, some do. I think that you were mostly using Safari on OS X. The first thing I would suggest is to try playing in Chrome or Firefox.

    I know it's far from ideal to have to switch browsers--that's clearly a temporary solution. As browsers improve, audio will become more robust. And as you mentioned, we are working on a native version of the app which will avoid this issue.

    In any case, thanks again for the wonderful review ... I hope you are anticipating the songs of spring in a new way this year!

    1. Thanks for explaining the audio issue, Phil -- I have been using Safari. I'm glad to hear that most people will be able to experience Larkwire problem-free, because it's really a fantastic product otherwise. Thanks again for bringing it to our attention, and best of luck taking it in new directions!

  3. A very nice review. I've never used an audio aid for learning bird songs but I think I will check out Larkwire. After years of bird watching, I do a lot of birding by ear. It seems I learn a few new songs each year and forget a few each year.
    I enjoy your site. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Thanks, Gene! I also forget songs about as fast as I learn them, so I'll be interested to see how well Larkwire helps me to retain them. I'm glad I could point you toward a tool that might be helpful to you.

  5. I am worried that after I invest in this it my go away. Who is Larkwire and how will the company fare as far stability. Are there other ways to learn bird songs that are not so fleeting?

    1. Thanks for the comment, tweet tweet. I can't speak to the stability of the company, but, perhaps in anticipation of your concerns, Larkwire has recently released a native version for the iPad/iPhone. We'll be reviewing this on the blog shortly, but if I can give you the headline version now, I do recommend downloading the native version if you have concerns about online-only availability of the birdsong-learning programs. I hope you'll check back with us for our further comments on the new app after we complete our review!