Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Audubon Birds: competition for iBird?

with 9 comments

Audubon Birds

I have covered the development of the iBird apps pretty extensively, and if you have read the reviews you know that they are, in my opinion, among the best examples of what the iPhone does best…not to mention perhaps the most comprehensive birding guide ever published in any form. iBird provides quick easy access to a what amounts to a whole library of birding resouces, right in the palm of your hand, as well as a complete set of audio recordings, and more images, including both detailed paintings and photographs, than you could look at in several years. I am not alone in my opinion of the apps. Apple has featured iBird in two different ad campaigns already.

There is a new version of iBird just out, with additional features and content: 1.8.3. I will be reviewing that in a companion piece.

This is a review of the competition.

While iBird is essentially the creation of one man with a vision, who pretty much single handedly assembled the materials from sources around the world,  the Audubon Nature Guides series has the backing of the largest conservation organization in the US…and its developers had access to the materials already gathered for the printed Audubon Guide series. That is enough to raise a certain high level of expectation.


And  Audubon Birds  does not stand alone. There are already Audubon Guides to Wildflowers, Mammels, and Trees in the App Store, with guides to Insects and Spiders, Butterflies, Fish, Reptiles, and Seashore Creatures in development. Multi-subject and Regional/Habitat guides are also planned. Essentially the developers intend to reproduce the printed Audubon series in app form.

Audubon Birds is a good introduction to the series.

There are three ways to access the information on a given species (see screen shots above). You can start with the Quick Guide which groups the birds into sets based on a typical bird or a salient characteristic. You have chicken-like birds, duck-like birds, hawk-like birds, long-legged waders, tree-clinging birds, etc. You can also browse by family: Barn Owls, Typical Owls, Blackbirds and Orioles, New World Sparrows, etc.

Then, you can browse the whole indexed list of common names, either by first or last name.

Quick sets and Families, and the species themselves, are arranged in alphabetical order…something which purists among birders will undoubtedly object to on the grounds that it hides the relationships between birds and families which taxonomic order displays. Alphabetical does, however, make it easier for the beginner to find birds. There is no direct way to find a bird by its scientific name, and, more disappointingly, there is no text entry search to allow you to go directly to a species by common name.

Finally there is a search engine, with (compared to iBird) a very limited set of search criteria. Here you do have text (word) search, as well as zip code search, a selector for shape, and check lists for color, region, and size. You can make multiple selections on the check lists, though over selecting will result in no matches pretty quickly.

Once you get to a particular species, you have, for each: one or more photographs (mostly more), a range map, a brief description (brief in relative terms…the text seems to have come directly from the printed guides, though it has been updated where necessary), a list of similar species, and, most important of all for this app, an extensive set of recordings. Most species have both songs and calls, and often several of each, clearly labeled as to where they were recorded.

The audio is far and away the strongest feature of Audubon Birds. I know of no other easily accessible source of such a wealth of recorded songs and calls.

There is also a Life List button on the species view, and a Sighting button. The Sighting button works as you might expect, opening a little dialog view where you can either specify the location and date, or let the iPhone do it, enter a brief note, etc. Unfortunately the Life List button is not as intuitive. It does not pick up the species name from the view you have open, and it does not automatically pick up the species name when you record a sighting. You have to manually type in the name, and there is not even a type-ahead-look-up function. Since we are dealing with an iPhone here, a computer by any other name, one has to ask “why not?”

I should also mention that on the browse views and accessible on Species views by touching the Dashboard button, there is a Camera icon, which, as you would expect, allows you to take a picture using the iPhone’s built in camera. There is, unfortunately no provision to include a picture from the library that you have already taken. There is also a file folder icon called My Content, which gives you access to your saved photos, life list, and sightings.

Life list, photos, and sightings can be synced with the website, once you establish a free account there. Beware. Choosing sync all species, even when on wifi, can tie up your iPhone for a long time.

And that, as they say, is it for features.

The user experience is, in my opinion, fair. It takes a long time to find a particular species, and the search functions are, as mentioned, limited. Photos are excellent, but somewhat limited. You can only enlarge most them about 3 times and there are no indicators of important details. They are just photos. The life list function is pretty useless as implemented, and there are not enough fields to make the sightings feature really useful either. The text, while good, is not extensive.

In my opinion, iBird gives you a considerably better chance of actually IDing a bird you are not familiar with in a reasonable time in the field, as well as providing a depth of resource for further study that is simply not there in Audubon Birds.

On the other hand, the sound library is fantastic! I don’t know how to say it more forcefully. Fantastic! Astounding. Wonderful. Just about everything any bird song- and call-ophile could ask for.

I expect, I hope, to see improvements in the Audubon Guide series as they mature: especially since, while Birds might have heavy competition from iBird, Wildflowers, Mammals, Trees, and the planned future guides have none! We need the Audubon series to get good…and to get good fast!

So, if you are considering a bird guide for the iPhone, my honest recommendation is still iBird Plus or Pro. Audubon Birds may mature over the next releases. I would love to see it give iBird a real run for the money. The winners in the end, will be all the iPhone toting birders of the world (or at least North America).

Oh, and if you are really into bird songs and calls, you might consider Audubon Birds worth the purchase price for the audio alone! Just consider all the other features as a bonus.


Written by singraham

December 2, 2009 at 4:19 am

9 Responses

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  1. Nice review. There are a few things about Audubon I find infuriating – the buttons are too small, the search is really weak and requires too many clicks, has hardly any characteristics to help me ID. I prefer iBird because it’s search engine teaches me to think like an advanced birder. I also find the Audubon photos insufficient for IDing and wonder why so few per bird. But the songs are very good and you point that out. What I miss is there is no explaination of the various dialects of each bird. I see version 1.8 of iBird has that feature and hope they continue to expand on it. I haven’t updated to the new iBird – I’m waiting for your review. Can you tell me now – is it worth updating?

    Otis Ryder

    December 5, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  2. I totally agree with your assessment. The Audubon series is a complete let down and has probably done more to hurt them than help them. At least that was the case with me. I have a review in the iTunes store documenting my experience on their tree app under the same name I used here.

    I bought the tree, wildflower, and bird apps and have had the same disappointment with all three. I started with the wildflower app on the recommendation of another app I bought: Botany Buddy. They are my iBird of trees and shrubs and currently don’t have a perennial app. I have been following them on Twitter where they often recommend other apps and I have come to trust their opinion as I rate their app up their with my iBird. They recommended the wildflower app as the best perennial app out there which it is even with its problems.

    After buying the Wildflower app I went back to Botany Buddy’s page to find a direct email and thank them for the recommendation. I was most impressed that they recommended a product by someone that also sold a tree app (very iBird kind of classy). Once there, I found a scathing review of Botany Buddy outright plugging Audubon in the first sentence. Long story short I searched the reviewer’s name and found the same person reviewing his own apps (Audubon’s) and bragging about building them on Twitter while trashing iBird and other apps in the store under the same name.

    Obviously this is a case where Audubon picked the wrong person to represent them in many ways. Not only does their developer not have the ethics of Audubon, but they managed to do a disservice to the representation of their written work. Instead of making the guide better with technology, the developer obviously just tried to use Audubon to make themselves look better and ended up hurting them both.

    Just this week I deleted the Audubon App to make room for more iBird. IBird, Botany Buddy, Star Walk, and many others are doing this technology justice and actually using it to communicate and educate, not just make a buck. The one thing I have found is all of these are driven by individuals who actually have a vision and a web presence beyond the app store and are obviously building real brands. They are not just app builders trying to make a buck off someone else’s brand.

    Without support and recognition like you have given iBird here, even when they were little guys, they probably wouldn’t have had the success they have had. I hope you keep up this coverage and look beyond birds to some of these other nature apps. And yes…quit waiting and load the update.


    December 5, 2009 at 4:52 pm

  3. For the past 22 years I have worked on the creation of the Audubon Guides in book form, as well as the Sibley guides and the National Wildlife Federation books. This has been a huge effort, and the books have been a great success. And for a long time I have planned to create digital field guides to make the Audubon content interactive and fun to use, and to enlarge it with many more photographs, up-to-date range maps, bird sounds. The iPhone and iPod Touch finally provided a way to do that. As Stephen says, the iPhone is a great platform for a field guide.

    The Audubon apps are not the work of some impersonal organization. We are a small group of very dedicated people in Woodstock, Vermont. This is an entirely new market and everything must be invented from scratch. This work is very important to us, and Stephen’s and other reviews and customer feedback are very important to us as well.

    It will take time to build this program in all the ways we want to. Stephen’s review of our first effort is not as generous as I think it should have been. We believe we compare very favorably to other bird apps that have been in the market longer. The species descriptions are the full descriptions from the Audubon Guides (about 1,000 pages of text) completely updated and follow the AOU’s most recent August 2009 checklist. Stephen doesn’t mention the considerable reference content in the app, including bird family descriptions and many reference resources for beginning birders. There are 2,300 terrific bird sounds and more than 3,000 photos (an average of more than 4 per species.) Using the iPhone’s tap and enlarge feature, it is possible to zoom to see incredible detail of each bird. The ability to Synchronize Species Content with our web data base is unique to Audubon “Birds.”

    We recognize that there is plenty more for us to do, and Stephen points out several improvements to be made, all of which, and many more, we have been planning and are in the works. All of these will be part of the upgrades that users can download free. It’s part of the magic of this technology that we receive customer feedback, make improvements, update species descriptions, and release updates that are timely and frequent.

    In addition to a constant effort here in Woodstock and with many naturalists throughout the country, our plan is to enlist the help of users with their content and support. We are at work on building a community of birdwatchers.

    The same thing goes for the trees, wildflowers, mammals, and regional bird apps that are already launched, as well as for fishes, reptiles & amphibians, insects & spiders, butterflies, regional guides to all of nature in every part of the US and Canada now in the works.
    Stephen, stay with us, and I am sure you will be happy with what you see.


    December 7, 2009 at 8:47 am

  4. As a reviewer, one who’s reviews may (or may not) help people to decide on app and hardware purchases, being generous is not part of the job description. As a human being, who happens to have an interest in birding and technology, generosity is pretty much required (in my world-view). I do my best to balance the two requirements. That is to say, I tell like I see it, let the chips fall where they may, make allowances where it won’t hurt potential customers, and try to be as generously supportive of any genuine effort as is humanly possible.

    The fact is, as of this moment, in my humble opinion, you do not “compare favorably” (with iBird in particular)…you compare…pertty much as I said in the review, and in all the ways, both negative and positive that I outlined. The potential is there for Audubon Birds to equal the competition and even surpass it, as I also indicated, but, come on guys, you are not there yet. To say otherwise would be disservice to potential customers, but more importantly, it would be a disservice to you!

    I do appreciate you efforts, and recognize the genuine efforts of your team. Great start. I look forward to seeing the app mature.


    December 7, 2009 at 9:28 am

  5. Thanks for the reviews. Just the fact that the Audubon rep responded to these posts shows their dedication to this app. Not only did he respond but it was a thoughtful, professional response of the like we rarely see any more. Of course he has bias toward his own program, as he should. I have not purchased any birding app yet but am looking. I think I am drawn to Audubon simply because they are a great organization, I have some of their print guides and as he said – improvements are coming and will be free. I think I would rather purchase the Audubon app and grow with them than to purchase iBird then repurchase another version. Twenty bucks may go further with Audubon. We’ll see. Either way, thanks all.


    December 30, 2009 at 10:12 am

  6. Thank you for your review of pros & cons. As a librarian, I know that we often need more than one tool for complete coverage of a field. Because I like to bird by ear, I’m going to plunk down my $$ for Audubon and use it and IBird according to their strengths as listed in your reviews here.
    I’m not quite sure whether Plantophile uses/likes well enough the Audubon perennial ap but will check it out as spring comes early here in NorCal and wildflowers are just a few weeks away.


    January 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

  7. Thank you for the reviews. It is clear that the Audubon rep who took the time to responded to the review is thoughtful, devoted and passionate. He or she was proud yes, but also objective and honest about the fact that they can improve their app over coming months. The sincere self reflection and desire to produce an excellent product expressed in the response will, I think, lead to an unbeatable app, even if this first version leaves some work undone. The fact that the improvements will be free is the hook for me. I have been trying to decide between the two (ibird Pro and Audubon) for some time now and settled on Audubon after reading Audubon’s response above. I’ll let you know what I think, (its downloading now).


    January 30, 2010 at 11:41 am

  8. Well, I think I should have bought a different app. I like this app, when it works. After I bought it, I was pleased with the content and capabilities, but it crashed a lot. Now, I just downloaded version 1.3.1 and it won’t even load. When I try to open it the “loading” screen is displayed, then it crashes. I need this app this weekend. $20.00 is pricey for this kind of frustration. While I think they are building a good app, their failure to use solid development and implementation methods leads me to recommend others. I need dependability. This app does not deliver.


    February 12, 2010 at 9:16 am

  9. I love the Audubon bird app, but for the last several weeks it will not load. Is there any fix or help available?

    Patricia Gladden

    November 13, 2010 at 10:50 am

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