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The McGurk Effect: Does It Impact Bird Identification?



Swainson’s Warbler singing near New River Gorge, WV…at least it sounded like a Swainson’s while I was watching it!

This really is an aside, not a full-blown post. But I thought it might kick off some interesting discussion.

I saw this post on Krulwich Wonders (an NPR blog) about the McGurk effect, where the BBC video below quite convincingly demonstrates that your eyes can “overrule” your ears, tricking you into mishearing things.

I wonder how much (or if) this McGurk effect might enter into bird identification? I often have the experience where the sound a bird makes clinches the identification of a bird I can’t see or can’t see very well. But what about a bird that I’ve made a (possibly incorrect) visual ID of? Could I then mis-hear its calls based on my visually-derived assumptions? Should we all close our eyes when listening to birds sing, so as to hear what they are “really” singing?


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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
  • Robert Mortensen

    Dang! So I can count the birds I hear, but don’t see. And I can count the birds I see, but don’t hear. But I can no longer count the birds that I both see and hear…because what I was hearing, while I was seeing, is impaired by my own brain. What about that Bewick’s Wren I heard singing, but when I saw it, it was a Song Sparrow singing just like a Bewick’s Wren…does that mean it was really a Bewick’s Wren? Oh man, this is turning into birding existentialism.

  • Dianne C.

    Maybe it is onlt triggered by watching critters with lips! Lol.

  • noneW

    So i was listening to this without ANY visuals while I browed another page…. this seems to be more an experiment in suggestion– several of the alleged clear “Bas” are not at all..

    at 40, 46, and 1:17 2:03 , they are “fas”, though they are described to the audience as starting with “B”.

  • Tom

    Do I have to remove my recent sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker from my life list?

  • Ryan O’Donnell

    These aren’t really relevant to birding, but here is whole website devoted to taking advantage of the McGurk Effect in a comedic way:

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