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Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

New App Makes Identifying Bird Species Easy

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

Last October, I was petsitting for a friend and, while out for a walk with the pup, came across a strange looking bird (above). It was sitting, shell shocked, on the hood of a car in Brooklyn. When it was still there an hour later, I decided I would take it and release it in a nearby park—but how do you rescue a bird if you don't even know what kind it is?

No one on Twitter or Instagram could help; a friend who is a birder guessed that it might be a woodcock. So, after reading how to best rescue those birds, I gently wrapped the bird in a towel, slipped it into a paper bag, and walked it down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I let it out in some vegetation. It ran away from me, flying in short bursts, as fast as it could.

If only I'd had Birdsnap. This electronic field guide, created by computer scientists at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, can identify 500 common North American birds with nothing but a cell phone photo. The process is simple: Take a photo or choose one from your phone's album; click on the eye and the tail; and wait for the potential matches to show up.

After I'd set the bird loose in the park, my birder friend texted again: another birder believed the bird was a juvenile Virginia Rail, a freshwater marsh bird that mostly keeps to itself. Birdsnap identified the bird correctly on the first try. (How it got on the hood of a car in Brooklyn will forever remain a mystery.)

Columbia Computer Science Professor Peter Belhumeur and University of Maryland Computer Science Professor David Jacobs came up with the idea for the app when they realized that the software and techniques they'd developed for facial recognition could also be used to identify species. Facial recognition algorithms work by finding the resemblance between comparable parts of faces, comparing a nose to other noses and an eye to other eyes, according to Columbia's Engineering Department. In Birdsnap, each species has 17 parts marked; the app detects the parts of the bird so it can compare them with what's in its database and discover species that are visually similar to the animal in an uploaded photo.

"What's really exciting about Birdsnap is that not only does it do well at identifying species, but it can also identify which parts of the bird the algorithm uses to identify each species," said Thomas Berg, a Columbia Engineering computer science PhD candidate. "Birdsnap then automatically annotates images of the bird to show these distinctive parts—birders call them 'field marks'—so the user can learn what to look for.”

And the app, available for the iPhone, does more than just identify birds: It also provides descriptions of the animals and their calls, shows their family trees and similar species, and includes range and sightings maps.

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Animals
The Simple Way to Protect Your Dog From Dangerous Rock Salt
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iStock

Winter can be a tough time for dogs. The cold weather usually means there are fewer opportunities for walks and more embarrassing accessories for them to wear. But the biggest threat to canines this time of year is one pet owners may not notice: the dangerous rock salt coating the streets and sidewalks. If you live someplace where this is a problem, here are the steps you need to take to keep your pooch safe until the weather warms up, according to Life Hacker.

Rock salt poses two major hazards to pets: damage to their feet and poisoning from ingestion. The first is the one most pet owners are aware of. Not only do large grains of salt hurt when they get stuck in a dog’s paws, but they can also lead to frostbite and chemical burns due to the de-icing process at work. The easiest way to prevent this is by covering your dog’s paws before taking them outside. Dog booties get the job done, as do protective balms and waxes that can be applied directly to their pads.

The second danger is a little harder to anticipate. The only way you can stop your dog from eating rock salt from the ground is to keep a close eye on them. Does your dog seem a little too interested in a puddle or a mound of snow? Encourage them to move on before they have a chance to take a lick.

If, for some reason, you forget to follow the steps above and your pet has a bad encounter with some winter salt, don’t panic. For salty feet, soak your dog's paws in warm water once you get inside to wash away any remaining grit. If your dog exhibits symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and disorientation and you suspect they’ve ingested rock salt, contact your vet right away.

Even with the proper protection, winter can still create an unsafe environment for dogs. Check out this handy chart to determine when it’s too cold to take them for a walk.

[h/t Life Hacker]

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© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

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