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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 longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.