An "Easy" Photo Quiz?
by Ted Floyd
There they go again! Always messing with the format of the venerable Birding photo quiz. Guilty as charged: We like to keep you guessing.
The photo quiz answers in the current issue of Birding (September 2012, pp. 52-53) are a bit different: two authors (Ted Floyd, Tom Johnson), exact same answers (Eared Grebe, Bushtit, Canyon Wren), but two totally different approaches. In the print version of the magazine, Ted says these birds are "totally obvious." Tom's take: "Not so fast..."
And now they continue the conversation, here at The ABA Blog. What do you think? Check out Ted's and Tom's analyses, both in the print version and online, and then chime in with your own thoughts. Even if you don't have any thoughts about this particular quiz, we'd love to hear from you about the photo quizzes in general. No matter how much we dink with the format, one thing remains constant: Members consistently tell us that they pay attention to the photo quizzes in Birding.
Enough preamble. Let's hear from Ted, and then from Tom, and then from you.
Rhetoric’s a funny thing. Mine evidently fell flat. I’ll try again.
I think birders are amazingly skilled at identifying birds by sight.
I’m guessing many ABA members had no problems with the Eared Grebe in Quiz A.
Now suppose Quiz B had been not a Bushtit’s nest, but rather a Bushtit itself.
How many readers would have gotten that right? My guess: a lot.
It’s strange, when you think about it, that many birders can instantly recognize a Bushtit—a bird that is practically devoid of field marks. In the case of the Bushtit, the bird itself is “hard.” The nest, by comparison, is whoppingly “easy.” Yet I bet more American birders can ID a Bushtit than its nest, and I think that’s weird.
Right: A Bushtit's nest (photo by Carroll Waldron Ropp) and a Bushtit (photo by (Derrick Ditchfield). Which is easier to identify?
As to the Canyon Wren’s song, imagine if I put before you a graphical representation—we’ll call it a “photo”—of an empid or a frigatebird. (A photo is just as abstract and symbolic as a sound spectrogram.) Right away, folks would be analyzing the photo for primary extension, molt limits, Staffelmauser, and what have you. Staffelmauser! What the—? Undeniably, birders are incredibly smart and detail-oriented people, capable of understanding millimeter-scale differences in flight feathers. Talk about “hard”!
Nests and sound spectrograms? I’ll stick to my guns—easy as pie.
Dawkins’ greatest book is The Extended
Phenotype. I’m going to simplify a lot, but Dawkins’ basic argument is that
there is much more to an organism than many of us realize. For ages, we have
conceived of a bird’s phenotype in terms of its “field marks.” But I think
that’s changing. I think the birders of tomorrow will be more holistic in their
outlook—as appreciative of sound spectrograms, nest architecture, and, yes, DNA
as of feathers and bare parts.
I’ll throw down the gauntlet. The “hardest” image was Quiz A. Not as hard was Quiz B. Least hard was Quiz C. (There, Tom! I’ve avoided the E-word!)
Decades ago, we birders learned about wing formula. This decade, mark my words, we’re going to learn about sound spectrograms.
And nests? They were all the rage in the 1890s. I hope we can recover that lost knowledge.
To begin, I still think the second and third quiz images (Bushtit nest and Canyon Wren song spectrogram) are not easy. Although I think Ted overestimates the number of birders who understand or care about Staffelmauser, I agree with Ted’s sentiments about the progress that birders have made and will make in pushing the frontiers of bird identification. Much information that we could use to nudge those frontiers already exists—in books of course, in vast but scattered internet resources, and in the untold millions of digital images that birders increasingly create while in the field.
One of the things that I’m still learning about on a daily basis is the varying reliability of printed bird books, casual ID articles, and scientific papers. I grew up trying to devour each and every piece of printed bird information as I found it. In many cases, this led to my absorbing misinformation, but I’ve since realized that such stumbling blocks are simply some of the exciting parts of the learning process.
Above: A Canyon Wren* (photo by J.N Stuart) and a Canyon Wren's song (sound recording by Nathan Pieplow). Which is easier to identify?
I’ve learned that, in order to peruse the breadth of such literature and make informed decisions about its accuracy or field utility, one must scour untold hundreds of books and at least several dozen magazines and journals. If you want to listen to and analyze bird sounds, there are excellent libraries out there in cyberspace as well. However, each of these resources typically exists in its own vacuum, so that doing something relatively simple—for example, learning how to identify sound spectrograms and nests of well-known North American birds—can’t really be done with the use of a single resource. Even a trip to a well-rounded university or museum library can leave you without access to an out-of-print journal or hard-to-find book.
I’d like to propose a way forward. To encourage more birders to dig into books and web resources with a less haphazard approach that I’ve used in the past, I hope that organization of and access to such far-flung bird resources becomes more a priority of both academic ornithologists and popular authors, recordists, photographers, etc. While no amount of reading can replace field experience (which I suspect is where most of us birders derive the fascination and pleasure that makes birding fun anyway), it can certainly help to inform and enrich our time in the field.