A male northern cardinal is captured by the motion-sensitive Bird Buddy camera in columnist John Kelly's backyard. The feeder has a WiFi-enabled camera. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
4 min

I’m sure the finches, jays, wrens and cardinals in my backyard don’t care that my new bird feeder is as cute as Hello Kitty or that it allows me to flood my Instagram feed with cheeky little bird portraits. They just want tasty sunflower seeds.

But I’ve become fascinated by Bird Buddy, a $200 feeder that has a motion-sensitive camera and uses artificial intelligence to identify a species, then fires up an app to wirelessly beam photos straight to my phone.

Finally, I can enjoy birdwatching while TV watching.

That wasn’t the aim of this new “smart” bird feeder, whose creators raised $4 million on Kickstarter and began shipping the product in October. Rather, they were interested in “gamifying” the outdoors. They figured that clever digital bells and whistles could lure new participants to the hobby of birdwatching.

“When thinking from a design and brand perspective, we tried to strike a balance between fun and serious,” said co-founder Kyle Buzzard.

The colorful plastic bird feeder looks like something from a cartoon. The app has lots of cartoons, too. The birds themselves become stars of their own nature documentaries. Bird Buddy shoots video, but it’s the still photos — birds tilting their heads quizzically — that are most captivating.

Co-founders Franci Zidar and Ziga Vrtacic are programmers from Slovenia. Buzzard (his real name) is an industrial designer in Michigan. The trio oversaw the development of a proprietary rechargeable camera that captures the perfect bird-selfie view and an AI program that identifies the birds.

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The AI was trained with the help of hundreds of Kickstarter backers who were sent preproduction units.

“We asked them to send us photos of birds,” Zidar said.

Millions of images came in. The photos were sorted and labeled by a team of interns led by the company’s in-house ornithologist, a process that took six months. With each identification, the AI grew smarter.

Bird Buddy is sort of like a trail camera, those things that biologists and hunters mount on trees and check periodically. But there’s a difference.

“When you don’t have AI capability, you’re asking the user to sift through hundreds of photos that are really bad or not interesting,” Buzzard said. “One of the benefits of us having the feature of AI is we’re actually filtering all that stuff in the cloud before those photos are even presented to you. We’ve deleted hundreds or thousands of photos before we deliver what our AI deems interesting or good.”

The program knows to save only the photos that show an eyeball, a beak and aren’t blurry. (It will capture the occasional squirrel.)

The product has not been flawless. I bought two — one for me and one as a gift for my brother. His worked fine out of the box. The camera on mine wouldn’t hold a charge, and I had to send it back for replacement. Customer service was cheerful, though sluggish.

And while the app does a pretty good job correctly identifying species, I find the cutesy interface maddening. Rather than let you simply thumb through the photos it’s taken — “postcards” in Bird Buddy’s parlance — the app first asks if you want to “Collect” them. Only after collecting them can you look at them. But I’d rather see them before collecting them. (The co-founders told me they’re aware of this criticism.)

Each species gallery includes information: the bird’s range, its songs and calls, the food it eats, and more. You can include three other people in the alerts that Bird Buddy sends out. And you can look at photos that other users have taken and post your own to social media.

I asked Zidar and Buzzard what their favorite birds are. Zidar’s is the Eurasian magpie. “It has a beautiful white belly,” he said. “I’m baffled by how it can keep it so clean.”

“Mine’s the northern flicker,” Buzzard said. “I’ve seen it in my yard before, but I haven’t been able to capture it with Bird Buddy yet.”

There’s a suet attachment available for Bird Buddy but because it doesn’t have a tail prop, some woodpeckers don’t visit. On Tuesday, the company is set to launch its latest Kickstarter campaigns: for a hummingbird feeder and a bird bath.

Zidar grew up in a small Slovenian village where his father founded a national park.

“He was very much into conservation and nature, talking about leaving the grass uncut to create shelter for birds,” he said. “I really grew up with that being nailed into my head.”

That brings up a point: Birds need habitat. No one needs a $200 bird feeder. But birds need humans in their corner. Maybe looking at pretty bird photos will help with that.