Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

An “Easy” Photo Quiz?

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.
Derrick Ditchburn
Carroll Waldron Ropp    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.

Richard 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.

—Ted Floyd


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.

Nathan Pieplow
Canyon Wren

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.

—Tom Johnson

Editor’s Note: The Canyon Wren photo originally associated with this post was removed due to terms of use issues. It has been replaced.

The following two tabs change content below.
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)

  • I haveta say, I’m 100% in agreement with where Tom Johnson is taking things. We have more information than ever, which is good; but the information is, on the whole, scattered and disorganized, which is bad. It’s tempting to blame it all on the internet, but, as Tom implies, we who are “content generators” bear some of the fault. Let’s give more thought to presentation, organization, and access, just as Tom says.

  • I was a great fan of the sonograms that appeared with many species in Robbins et al, Birds of North America. As that guide became replaced by guides with newer info and in many cases more and better pictures, sonograms were left behind. Now a person who records bird songs tells me a separate guide will be coming out that will have only sonograms and some text. Great! Now we carry two field guides to show this to beginners.

  • Here at The ABA Blog it has been remarked on several occasions that the Golden Guide‘s “sonograms” (I think “sound spectrograms” is better) were a wonderful innovation. And, more darkly: It’s a pity that very few people (i.e., subsequent field guide authors) appreciated the importance of including meaningful, objective data on bird vocalizations. “A flat chip” is what’s in the author’s head and heart; kilohertz and milliseconds are what the bird really is saying.

    Here’s another Golden Guide innovation. It’s one that I believe even fewer people appreciated. It’s the pronunciation keys for scientific names. I say, scientific names are in fact important for bird ID. But how can they be, honestly, if a user can’t even say them? If anybody had paid attention to those pronunciation keys in the Golden Guide, why, the whole history of birding and field ornithology might have been altered.

    I’m tilting at windmills, I know.

    Nevertheless, I, personally, am grateful for a user-friendly reference that tells me how to pronounce Picoides.

  • Terry Bronson

    Tilting further at windmills:

    Let’s not forget common name pronunciations such as “pluv-ver” vs. “ploe-ver” and “pill-eated” vs. “pie-leated”.

  • Logic and linguistics dictate “pill-eated.” See

    That said, I can’t believe that that’s how to pronounce the name of the bird referred to in William Faulkner’s “The Bear.” Okay for effete New Englanders at the time (cf. Ludlow Griscom), but not for those he-men Southerners.

    Basically, it’s a red-state, blue-state thing. How you pronounce Pileated reveals your politics… 🙂

  • Something else. In “The Bear,” the woodpecker is called “Lord to God.” But the description clearly points to Pileated Woodpecker, not to Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ornitho-historians beware: References in the literature (and Faulkner is “literature,” in both senses of the word) to “Lord to God” or “Lord God” or “Lord God Bird” don’t necessarily refer to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

  • bugman

    Tom Johnson is apparently still absorbing misinformation on photo ID credits too. The Canyon Wren pictured was not taken by Tom Grey, who I assume is the same mediocre photographer living in Palo Alto and retired Stanford Law Professor. At least he should know better. The picture was taken in Fresno county by Gary Woods in December 2006 and appeared on the now-defunct website WITH a copyright logo. And now it shows up next to the sonogram on this site, minus the copyright logo? How about them apples?

  • Thanks bugman. We’ve taken down the photo for the time being and contacted both Gary Woods and Tom Grey about it.

    For the record, Tom Johnson had nothing to do with choosing photos for this piece.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, all.

    For the record, Tom Johnson had nothing to do with the use of that image. I, Ted Floyd, put it up there. And thanks to Nate Swick for removing it (I was out of the country and away from email when “bugman” posted this comment).

  • Rob Parsons

    Fascinating! Thanks for the link, Ted. It clearly makes a good case for saying Pilleated (intentionally misspelled here) Woodpecker. However, as a good linguist like yourself must surely realize, logic has no connection whatsoever with the English language. There are exceptions to just about any “rule” of pronunciation out there. Many (possibly most, not all) dictionaries give both pronunciations; some (mostly old) say only Pieleated; as far as I know, none say only “pill”. I used to argue most ferociously about the “proper” pronunciation of the “Great Crested Woodpecker’s” name, but now I try to take a more balanced approach to live and let live.

    So, does saying “pill” make you left-leaning and “pie” right on the political spectrum? Or the other way around? Or were you referring to some other politics? Enlighten this “foreigner” if you have the time & inclination.

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Announcing the 2017 ABA Young Birders of the Year! February 28, 2017 10:48
    The judges have reviewed all of the outstanding entries. ABA staff has compiled the scores. After much anticipation, we are thrilled to announce the winners of the 2017 ABA Young Birder of the Year Contest! Your 2017 ABA Young Birder of the Year in the 14-18 age group is 18-year-old Johanna Beam from Lyons, Colorado. […]
  • Open Mic: Birding opens up a new appreciation for the Sonoran Desert December 1, 2016 5:02
    In 2014 I was given the opportunity to go birding for the first time as part of a new All About Birds Program. Without previous experience, I decided to take the offer the staff at Ironwood Tree Experience gave me. […]
  • Birding Alaska and an Interview with Dr. Nils Warnock October 25, 2016 6:57
    Did you know the Bar-tailed Godwit has the longest non-stop, flapping flight migration of any bird in the world? Learn more from young birder Dessi Sieburth and Audubon Alaska's Dr. Nils Warnock. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter