American Birding Podcast



Brat Pack

A little more than a year ago, Noah Strycker, Associate Editor for Birding magazine, registered a complaint with me. The photo quizzes in Birding, he opined, were contrived and unrealistic. Worse, they were boring and unedifying.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the quizmasters knew in advance what the mystery birds were. In many instances, the quizmasters were in fact the photographers of the mystery birds. The quizmasters had the huge advantage of being able to discern, let’s say, that tiny pixel of yellow on the median secondary coverts that were frankly invisible to the rest of us. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? Where’s the educational value?

Make the quizzes blind, Strycker advised. In other words, level the playing field. The quizmasters would have the same amount of information—location, date, and of course the quiz photo—as the rest of us. No more, no less. The blind quizzes would be more educational, a lot more “fair,” and certainly more fun.


09-5-11-F01 [gull] 09-6-13-F01 [Mystery]
Starting with the September 2009 issue of Birding, the photo quizzes have been “blind.” The quizmasters know the
location and date of each photograph, and that’s all. In the September 2009 issue, quizmasters Tom Johnson, Luke
DeCicco, and Neil Gilbert worked out the flying bird (left). In the November 2009 issue, Saraiya Ruano and Paul Hess
analyzed the bird standing in the grass (right).

It sounded good to me. I bounced the idea past Cameron Cox, Photo Quiz Editor for Birding, and he liked it. More than that, Cox disclosed to me that he had independently come up with the same basic plan and was about to propose it to me, anyhow.

Great. We were all on the same page. The only remaining hurdle was to find quizmasters for upcoming quizzes. I unveiled the proposal on the “Frontiers of Bird Identification” listserv, and the reaction was surprisingly negative. Some of the offline responses were borderline nasty.

“You’ll never get anybody to do this.”

“Nobody will want to risk their reputation like that.”

“You just want to make the quizmasters look bad.”

Um, those weren’t my ambitions for the new quiz format, and I’m sure they weren’t Strycker’s or Cox’s, either. Rather, we wanted for the quizzes to be fun and educational for the reader. Blind quizzes seemed to us to be the way forward. The old model—which dates back to before Strycker and Cox were born—had grown stale and outdated.

Now the story gets fascinating.

In one sense, the naysayers were spot on. Cox and I have had a fair deal of trouble finding “establishment birders” to serve as quizmasters. Their excuses are varied, but they all boil down to the same thing: The oldtimers don’t want to be embarrassed by the blind quiz format.

But here’s what the naysayers didn’t anticipate. And to be honest, neither did I. The response from young birders—basically, folks from their mid-teens to mid-twenties—has been strong indeed. Ten of 18 (56%) of our new quizmasters were born since 1980; I’m not sure about their exact ages (and I’m not going to ask), but I believe all of them were under 25 when they enlisted as quizmasters. Six of the remaining 18 (33%) were born in the 1960s and 1970s. And only two (11%) were born in the 1950s or earlier.


10-6-12-F01 [Mystery 01] 10-6-16-F02 [Quiz Bird B]
These images are from upcoming Birding photo quizzes. Quizmasters Benjamin van Doren and Marcel Such have been
tasked with figuring out the bird on the left, while quizmasters Harold Eyster and Alison Világ have been assigned the
bird on the right. All four quizmasters were born in the 1990s.


What’s up with that? Didn’t someone tell these teenagers and twentysomethings they’re supposed to be vain and self-conscious? Evidently not, and that’s wonderful. (Is it because of better parenting in recent years? If so, the oldtimers deserve some credit for that.)

Out with the old, in with the new?

Not so fast.

With age comes an inevitable amount of perspective and experience, which, in tandem, amount to wisdom. The kids could benefit from the wisdom of their elders. Indeed, any beginning birder—of any age—would surely profit from the wise counsel of folks who have been birding for thirty, forty, or more years.

So here’s an appeal to the oldtimers—anybody born before 1980—to sign on as a quizmaster for Birding. Yes, you might botch a bird ID in front of the 10,000+ folks who read Birding. That’s beside the point. In the process of working out the solution, you’ll accomplish something far more important than obtaining a right (or wrong) answer: You’ll reach out to an eager audience with your tips, techniques, and insights for bird identification. For what it’s worth, you’ll earn the respect and gratitude of your audience. You’ll make an impact.