/ 27 February 2023

Q&A: What is the Birda app and how does it work?

Birda Lifestyle 6
New app brings the fun to birding with games, challenges and interaction with a friendly online community. (Supplied)

South Africa is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The region has a high number of endemic species and enthusiasts from all over the globe come here to appreciate the rich array of birds. 

To aid birders, both local and international, a new app has been created to make birdwatching more fun and more social. 

In 2011, after an encounter with an elusive leopard in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, John and Natalie White wondered if there was a way to digitally share wildlife sightings, so other people could enjoy them. This sparked the creation of a community platform called Tracking the Wild, which focused on helping people share their sightings across parks in Southern Africa. 

Over the next few years, the idea evolved and, in 2017, it pivoted into a birdwatching platform called Chirp Birding.

After receiving the first significant funding, and moving to the UK from South Africa during the pandemic, the Whites joined forces with Dom Barker, Birda’s chief technology officer, to realise their vision for a new era of birdwatching, founded on their shared love of wildlife, the outdoors and a belief that nature has the power to unite us. Birda was born.

Lesego Chepape spoke to John and Natalie White.

Dom Barker, Birda’s chief technology officer

How does the app work? 

Birda turns the discovery and exploration of birdlife and the outdoors into a game by using challenges, leaderboards and fun badges. This helps people enjoy, and get the most out of, their birding journey. Birda is composed of, and was created by, people who enjoy discovering birds, who want to connect to nature and want to improve their well-being. 

At its core, Birda is about connecting people with the natural world, using birdwatching. Spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier and people who appreciate this are likely to want to fight to protect it. 

On Birda, you can find out what birds people near you have seen and where; create and curate your own bird lists to keep track of your sightings; use the species guide to help you identify birds and ask the community for help identifying a bird.

Birda shares the sightings data its users generate with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an international network and data infrastructure aimed at providing open access to data about all types of life on Earth. Scientists can use this data to understand more about the world’s bird species and their habitats.  

Birda offers features and functionality very specific to our niche. We have all the benefits of a standard social network but we also have a stack of useful features that birdwatchers depend on, for example, an integrated field guide, ability to log sightings, automatic generation of life lists, challenges, badges, maps to find where to go birding and more. It is the marriage of the social and niche-specific features and functionality that has given rise to the massive growth in niche social networks.

Natalie White

How many countries does Birda operate in? 

We built the platform to work globally. So, we are focusing on Europe, the United States and southern Africa. Our species guide is complete, or relatively complete, in those areas and we’ll be building out the other regions as we get traction in different regions.  

What makes Birda different from other apps? 

There is no other app that has the same mission and offering as Birda but there is undoubtedly competition in the birdwatching app space. Apps like eBird and Merlin are very focused on citizen science and identification. While these are obviously important to Birda, and we would like to think that we do these well, they are not our primary focus. Birda brings the fun. It motivates you to get outside and explore the birds around you by turning the exploration into a game. 

Birda amplifies the enjoyment that you can get from birding … and you end up interacting with a super friendly community on the platform — this then results in bird sighting data that helps to protect wetlands, woodlands and save the planet.  

John White.

What are some of the distinct features of this app? 

Our Birda challenges are extremely successful. They include things like seeing a certain number of species during a certain time period or spending consecutive days where you connect to nature.

The challenges keep people motivated to do more birding and to get off the sofa. It is hard to leave the house when it is raining and there is a good movie on, but when you are fifth on the leaderboard behind your mother or your best friend, you end up putting on your waterproofs and wellies and venturing outside. 

If you don’t know which species you’ve seen, simply post a picture of it and flag it as “unidentified”. When you do this, your followers are notified and asked to help with identifying what you’ve seen.

Make birdwatching even more fun by keeping an eye on what your friends, family and followers have spotted. Compete to collect species and unlock achievements. Some other features:

  • No expensive kit is needed. 
  • Curate your bird collections.
  • Connect with nature, share with your community.
  • Share your birding adventures. 

Tell us about the relationship between BirdLife and South African Names for South African Birds (Sansab). 

We met with BirdLife South Africa, which was the catalyst to finding our current investor. We met with them just to show them the product, explain what we are doing, and get some of their buy-in to what we’re trying to build. There’s quite a lot of taxonomic, scientific-type stuff for which we wanted their guidance. 

So, that’s how it all started. BirdLife South Africa has been amazing. They have supported us the whole way. We are now doing some work with them to try and help them fundraise for a project. They’re creating bird names for all 11 official languages. So, rather than taking the English name for a species and doing a pure translation, they’re getting experts in every language to come up with either the traditional names or develop names for all 900 species you get in South Africa, which we think is an absolutely awesome project. 

  1. Why is it important to name birds in local languages?

The BirdLife South Africa initiative has succeeded in creating a full list of South African bird names in isiZulu, after 10 years of hard work. Sansab’s aim is to produce a full list of bird names for traditional South African languages to help a broader number of South Africans appreciate and conserve birds on the continent.

Bird names over the years have been standardised at an international level in languages such as English, Spanish and French — this means that most young speakers of South African languages do not have access to bird names in their own language — simply because they don’t exist. As more time goes by, bird names could be lost, making this initiative an urgent one.

The bird life in South Africa can only be appreciated and nurtured if each bird has a name in every South African language.

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa