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Headless White Birds

Here is the May 2012 Birding photo quiz:

12-3-18-F01 [Photo for Print Version of Birding]

The photo, by Photo Quiz Editor Tom Johnson, is from New Jersey in mid-November.


Here’s another photo of the same birds:


12-3-18-F01x [Photo for WebExtra]


Now for the fun part. What are they? Let’s have a discussion about these birds, right now, right here, out in the open, for all to see. Let’s learn together. Let’s share together. We’ll be respectful of one another; we’ll glean insights from beginners and experts alike.


Let’s start off with a question for the experts. Let’s say you instantly recognize these birds as swans. (Yes, they are swans.) How do you know that? What tipped you off? Please give us specifics. Don’t just tell us, “They look like swans.” There are, in fact, a lot of all-white birds in the world, including a fair number that could occur in New Jersey in mid-November. Conversely, there are brownish swans, black swans, black-and-white swans, and so forth.


Now don’t do it for the beginners. Do it for yourself! An incredibly beneficial exercise, I have found, is to discipline myself to explain to beginners or even complete non-birders how I know what I know about bird ID. A tiny bird flies by, and I say “Audubon’s Warbler.” I hear a single call note, and I proclaim “Hairy Woodpecker.” A bird steps out onto the sidewalk, and I declare, “Female House Sparrow.”


How? How do I do that? The vast majority of humanity has no idea what those birds are. But I do. And you do. How do you do it? How do you know?


A mathematician can’t get away with saying, “e+1=0…I just know it to be true!” No, a mathematician has to be able to prove it. Same general idea, I believe, with bird identification. If you know how to ID an Audubon’s in flight, or the call of a Hairy, or a female Sputzie standing on the sidewalk, you oughtta be able to say how you know those things, or so I opine.


So let’s start with the basics. How do you know these birds are swans?


Let’s get that discussion out of the way. Then let’s try to figure out what species they are.


Let the games begin!


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Well, I stopped my big day team’s car last week for a white rock so not sure if I should dive in… But even without comparison these look large, I guess because of the large radius arcs on the backs (though I think one is larger than the other…) I wonder if feather size relative to the bird is also giving the subconscious cue that these are big- never thought of that before… In pic two the back bird shows a very long neck, ruling out all-white domestic-type ducks, as would the feeding style of using the long necks to reach down instead of tipping up…

  • Shawnne

    I think they are Trumpeter Swans!

  • Ted Floyd

    Thanks, Bill, for the comments.

    First, a confession from me. Earlier this year, I stopped a big group of birders for two distant white blobs that I declared were swans. We all got on the birds. We looked at them through binoculars. We all agreed they were swans.

    Then we got them in the scope. They were distant American White Pelicans with their heads tucked in.

    Second, let’s talk about that exact same bird you’re talking about, namely, the one with the very long neck. Well, Great Egrets are all white, they’re large, they’re typically found in standing water (as here), they have short tails (like these birds), and they have very long white necks.

    Now you and I and Shawnne and others just know these birds aren’t egrets. But I’ve just given a perfectly good description of a Great Egret. (Again, aquatic species, all white, large, short tail, very long neck…)

    If you asked me to “prove”–say to a complete non-birder presiding over a public hearing–that these aren’t egrets, the “proof” I’d offer might be a bit bumbling.

    One final thought. Twice in the past month, I’ve had folks in the neighborhood ask me about the resident storks and swans; in both instances, they were talking about American White Pelicans.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, Shawnne. I’m curious: Why do you think that? Could they be Tundra Swans instead? Or maybe Mute Swans? (Those species do occur in New Jersey in autumn.)

    Anyhow, I’m wondering what thought-process has taken you to Trumpeter Swan.


  • I have seen thousands of swans. I’ve seen Trumpeter Swans, I’ve seen Tundra Swans. I’ve seen Mute Swans. I’ve seen Black Swans.

    Just as importantly, I’ve seen swans in motion. I’ve seen them move from a heads up position to a head underwater position. Those mental images are stored in the swan file on the right side of my brain. When I see these photos, my right-brain finds a match (or several possible matches) and transmits the data (via my corpus callosum) to the verbal centers of my left-brain which puts a name to the bird. It may choose “Whistling Swan” rather than Tundra Swan (because I’m old). It may choose Trumpeter Swan when I really mean Tundra Swan, because naming is a “communication to others” linear thing that has nothing to do with what my right brain cares about.

    The question “How do you know?” is also a left-brain thing. When I’m feeling particularly right-brained, I just call it “birder voodoo magic” and change the subject. Linear ticking of the field marks, behavioral cues and range data are (for me, at least) not part of the primary identification process in most cases. That’s all stuff I attach to the ID post-facto. It’s the stuff I use to explain to others why the bird is what I think it is.

    And this is the fundamental problem with the “How do you know?” question. Explaining why those pictures show swans is (for me) a completely different action than making an ID. I make identifications on the non-verbal, non-linear side of my brain based on years and years of experiential “image files” which I started acquiring when I was very young.

    When I answer the “How do you know?” question, I’m not explaining how I know, I’m telling the questioner how he can know, too. This is a left side of the brain, linear process. And because it’s a linear, left-brain explanation to a right-brain non-linear activity, it’s going to leave the average questioner unsatisfied.

    The question “How do you know” really isn’t about field marks, buts that’s always the answer we give. I know, because I’ve spent the time building up a skill set. In a world of birder apps, field guides to everything and instant gratification (that’s so 10-seconds ago), the concept of patience will always seem unsatisfying…

  • And for the record: it rides in the water wrong for a Mute and the base of the neck in the second picture looks too thick for Tundra (Whistling). My voodoo sense is these are Trumpeters.

    But I’m willing to talked out of it.

  • The Ghost of Frank Smizik

    Egret wings protrude well beyond the ends of their tails. That’s not the case with these birds.

    The tails of these birds do not protrude far enough beyond their wings to be Mute Swans.

    Without cheating, I couldn’t tell you why these couldn’t be some all-white strain of a barnyard goose type.

    Can you definitively rule out Bewick’s and Whooper Swans here?

    Did you know that Willow Ptarmigans swim?

  • I reckon one is a Tundra and the other is a Mute or Trumpeter (an exceptional bird in New Jersey, right?)…there is an obvious size difference and difference in tail length between the two birds. Since I live in a relatively swanless part of the world, that’s all I can say…I do like the Willow Ptarmigan theory though.

  • To me from the other side of the pond I think the furthest away is Mute based on tail. The nearer bird is more of a challenge for me I think probably what we call Bewicks and you call Tundra

  • Mr. Smizik’s Ghost

    Yikes. I didn’t even pay attention to the rear bird. Yes, the differences in tail-length are quite apparent! Good calls by both of you.

  • Mr. Smizik’s Ghost


    While difficult to establish with certitude, it does seem that the near bird has a shorter body than the rear bird. I don’t know what the relative length of the Trumpeter Swan body is vis-a-vis the Mute Swan, (sub in other swan types), nor whether this is irrelevant to begin with due to intra-specific variability. It’s just something I wanted to point out to those who may know better than I.

  • Phil Kenny

    Yes, we have a natural ability to identify without thinking, which serves us well most of the time. I can recognize my wife & kids in a crowd in a second, but I would have a hard time describing them. I react to a snake in the field without having to think about the field marks of a rattle snake. However, to be a better birder, we should not rely on snap decisions, which can be wrong, and are not reliable proof. Applying something along the lines of the scientific method, our hypothesis would be: Bird A is a Mute Swan. But a hypothesis can never be proven. So we need to be able to say why it is not a Tundra Swan or why it is not a Trumpeter Swan, and thus more likely our hypothesis is correct. And this is what helps us to become better birders. By focusing on the field marks that allow for a diagnostic distinction between 2 similar species, we are validating the hypothesis but never proving it. We should also try to be aware of pitfalls in identification, such as confirmation bias. Just don’t look for the Mute Swan field marks, if that is what you already think. Try to say to yourself How do I know this is not a Tundra Swan. And always be willing to say I don’t know. Some birds are just not identifiable in one photo.

  • Ted Floyd

    There was a marvelous photo–in North American Birds, I believe, a while back–of a large flock of ptarmigan well out over the Bering Sea. Steller’s Eiders, Laysan Albatrosses, Willow Ptarmigan…who’da thunk?

  • Ted Floyd

    This morning, I briefly mistook a drake Mallard for a cock Ring-necked Pheasant. Don’t laugh. The bird was standing in tall grass, away from the water, facing me head-on, with its head oddly thrown back. Alls I could see was: green head, white neck ring, chestnut breast, and (to the extent I could see it) some yellow on the bill. Perfect match to a cock pheasant…’cept it was a daffy drake Mallard.

    Bill Oddie, I think, tells the story of giving a perfect description of a Skylark…except it’s a Pectoral Sandpiper. (Or maybe vice versa. Or maybe I have the species wrong. But you get the basic idea.)

    In his article in the March 2012 Birding, Chip Scialfa talks about how we employ “heuristics” to make those blindingly fast bird IDs. Check out his article here:

    Good stuff, for sure. But, for me, two problems remain:

    1. What about the instances in which we make serious blunders? That is to say, what about the instances in which our “heuristic” thought-processes fail us, and badly so? That’s interesting to me.

    2. And what, actually, is really going on? How come I can say “Audubon’s” or “Hairy” without even a split-second’s thought? How does that work? I want to understand that better.

  • Ted Floyd

    An underlying assumption for many of us (myself included) in this discussion is that we birders tend to be able to make an essentially immediate determination about what type of bird we’re looking at: swan, raptor, warbler, woodpecker, gull, etc.

    But is that really always the case? For a mind-bending (and humbling) bird ID exercise, try this online photo quiz:

  • Ted Floyd

    Mr. Smizik’s Ghost raises an important point. Quite often, in situations like this one, we make the understandable assumption that we’re looking at two (or more) of the same thing. For sure, those two birds look awfully similar overall; so our minds tell us, I think it’s fair to say, that the birds are the same species.

    We tend to focus in on one bird (makes sense to look at the closer bird, just as Mr. Smizik’s Ghost as done), and our minds just sorta mush the other bird (or birds) into a generalized image of the particular bird we’re focusing on.

    So, yes, I will tell you that we appear to be dealing here with two swan species. I bet Mr. Smizik’s Ghost wasn’t the only reader who assumed these two birds were of the same species.

  • “Serious blunder” assumes that what we do is serious.

    I’m wrong all the time. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the birds in these picture that I have so confidently diagnosed as Trumpeter Swans turn out to be something else. We all just need to stop being afraid to be wrong. The world will not stop spinning.

    The other day I was listening to the radio. A song came on that I hadn’t heard in ages: “everybody’s talking about a new world in the morning…” I could sing along. I remembered all the words, the melody, the changes. I could not for the life of me remember the singers name. That’s experiential bird watching in a nutshell. The names only matter when we stop to think about them (or when somebody asks) and our left-brains kick in.

    Naming is the least important thing about the art and practice of bird watching, but it’s one of the more important parts of sharing the EXPERIENCE of bird watching with other human beings. And it’s in the sharing that we start to worry about blunders and reputations and covering the cock-up. But owning the mistakes and using them as teachable moments is a way more powerful tool for interacting with other humans than getting right answer and proving prowess. The first step toward being a better bird watcher is to get over the fear of being wrong. The second step is getting over the fear of being wrong in front of others.

    Understanding the mechanisms of heuristic data processing is an interesting mental exercise, but ultimately amounts to breaking down a nonlinear brain process so that the linear part of the brain can understand it (and share it with others). It’s still a nonlinear process and has to be developed in a nonlinear way in the nonlinear part of the brain.

  • Ted Floyd

    Thanks, Mike, for getting this conversation back on track.

    I, personally, didn’t mean for us to get onto the topic of making mistakes. (Although that is a fascinating matter, for sure.)

    What’s of greater interest to me, in the present context, is how we communicate to beginners how we know what we know. We birders see “swan” in those images. But others see “white bird” or just “white blob.” To me, it’s important to be able to explain to somebody how it is that we instantly get to “swan.”

    And, inevitably, we sometimes do make mistakes–even at the gross level of, say, “swan” (or “duck” or “woodpecker”). If you haven’t seen it already, do check out

  • Jacob Socolar

    My best guess for how I “knew” these are swans is the fact that their heads and necks are completely underwater, but their bodies are not tipped forward at all. Perhaps somebody else can think of other birds that place their heads underwater without tipping the bodies forward…?

  • Robert Hewitt

    Hip Shot, one Trumpeter, one Tundra, I’ll say which when they put their heads up.

  • Ted Floyd

    Re: “Serious blunder.”

    See Michael Jacobsen’s letter (“Observer Error?–Relax”) in the print version of the May 2012 Birding, p. 14. It would seem that he agrees with you…

    Also, this particular aspect of the discussion continues into the July 2012 Birding, which we’re fiendishly at work on right now.

  • Hardly…

    If I’m reading Mr. Jacobsen correctly, he is expressing a point of view I’ve encountered with others that goes some thing like this: Birders are not scientists, therefore the information we communicate is not data and we should not be subjected to peer review and vetting. What birders do is not important enough, not serious enough to be corrected and doing so hurts our feelings and takes all the fun out of our hobby. This is, to my mind, the ultimate expression of the fear of being wrong.

    In order to learn stuff, we have to be wrong sometimes and, in order to know we’re wrong, somebody (who presumably knows more) has to tell us so. Every time a birder communicates what he saw, he is making a knowledge claim, whether he cares to admit it or not and claims of knowledge deserve scrutiny before they are enshrined in the commons.

    Making a mistake is not a “serious blunder”. It’s a learning experience and often a very good story. There is no “dark side” to the ebird database, but there are mistakes produced by normal human error lurking on the fringes of those pretty maps and there should be a mechanism for fixing them. Hyperbole feeds into the fear of being wrong. Those of us who may genuinely know more need to work on our collective bedside manners.

    We need to get over our fear of being wrong so we can be better learners. Go out and practice your Empidonax flycatchers even if they are hard and you might misidentify a few. Communicate to others the rare things you think you saw, even if you might have misidentified something more common. It’s okay to take a chance and maybe make an error. The serious blunder is in being unwilling to occasionally be wrong.

  • The birds have put their heads up. One has an orange bill with a black knob; another has a black bill with a yellow spot.

    Which is which?… 🙂

  • The bird in back in the first photo, and with neck partially raised in the second is a Mute Swan. Two things stand out: one, as has been mentioned already, the longer tail that’s held more cocked-up. The second in the long, sloping shoulder. Look at the angle where the front end of each bird’s body enters the water.

    Something I’ve also noticed in the field, and is discernible here: Mute Swans are just a tad bit “whiter” than our other two.

  • Ian

    I think those are Trumpeter Swans

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