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Show Your Work[*]

Remember word problems in math? “Ava runs 3 meters per second; her friend Ella runs 3.5 meters per second. Ava starts 100 meters ahead of Ella…” If you’re a 4th grade math savant, you already know the answer: 3 minutes, 20 seconds.

The thing is, We’re not all 4th grade math savants. The rest of us would like to know how you instantly arrived at the answer of 3 minutes, 20 seconds. As every math teacher and exasperated parent has demanded, through gritted teeth. “Show. Your. Work.”

Same thing with bird ID. Yes, a few of us can simply proclaim “Cordilleran.” We hear a flight call, and we instantly know “Uppie.” The briefest glimpse is all it takes to declare “Thayer’s.” We see a cormorant in flight and we say, “____________________.”

Featured Photo, June 2016 Birding. Cape May, New Jersey, October 2015. Photo by © Tom Johnson.

Featured Photo, June 2016 Birding. Cape May, New Jersey, October 2015. Photo by © Tom Johnson.

What, in fact, can we say about this cormorant? I’m curious: What do you see on this bird? Are you a colors and patterns sort of person? Or are you more about size and shape? Does the age of the bird matter? The date and location? There’s no one true way to putting a name on this or any bird. (In the same way, there are multiple ways to get the answer 3:20 in that math problem: algebraically, geometrically, pictorially…)

Here’s another cormorant, and the same question: What do you see on this bird? Is it “just” a “____________________” cormorant, an obvious “____________________” cormorant? I get that, but it’s not the question I’m asking. Again: What do you see on this bird?

Show your work.

Cover, June 2016 Birding. Pinellas County, Florida, March 2009. Photo by © Mia McPherson.

Cover, June 2016 Birding. Pinellas County, Florida, March 2009. Photo by © Mia McPherson.



[*]Snarky rhetoric alert. One possible reaction to all of the preceding might well be something along the lines of: “Jeez, Floyd. Lighten up. It’s just bird ID, for crying out loud. Are you serious, trying to extinguish the joy of birding by dragging in math equations? Can’t we just call it a Red-faced Cormorant, and be done with it?” I definitely can see where that sentiment might come from, but I also hope you won’t tune me out: I believe it’s profoundly worth our while to work through the ID process. That’s the only point I’m trying to get across here. We’re all friends. We learn best when we work through bird ID together, when we show our work—better, when we share our work. So let me close with a better title:


Share Your Work


By the way, it’s not, I’m nearly certain, a Red-faced Cormorant… 🙂

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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

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