A Picture is Worth a Thousand Birds!

The Perception Game: Knowing What You Know vs. Seeing What You Are Looking At


This is the photo used in the online bird ID quiz described by this article. (Photo by Mark S. Szantyr)

The advent of affordably-priced digital SLR cameras and the technological advances in digi-scoping have made documentation of rare birds much easier than it has been in the past. Even if you do everything wrong, these cameras and optical technologies are so smart and so forgiving, that you will likely still come up with an identifiable image. That being said, Greg Hanisek and I were talking one night and we hatched a plan. Our idea was to offer a properly exposed, extremely sharp image of a very common bird in a less than ideal pose and see how many birders can get the identification right. 

In order to be fair, we chose an image that provided several identification clues. Our discussion and this experiment arose after a rash of shorebird photos on the web caused an international tsunami of mistaken identifications, ID dogma, vitriol, and lunacy. This photo quiz was not designed to disparage the identification skills of the birding community in any way, nor did we wish to demean the great discussion of identification that was being hashed out on the web. More, we were curious about how good, even great birders process the visual information provided in record photos. 

I had a photo that I thought would be a good choice. I showed it to Greg and he agreed that it was the one. The fact that he had a modicum of difficulty with the identification at first made it all the better for us. Greg published the photo in his natural history blog provided under the auspices of the Republican-American Newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. Aside from revealing that the bird was photographed in Connecticut, he offered very little support information other than to point out that I was both diabolical and cruel. While his character assessment may be true, I didn’t believe that this identification challenge would be as hard as it proved to be. 

As the answers (let’s call them guesses) filtered in, the list of species and genera involved grew and grew. I was gobsmacked by the range of possibilities being offered. The bird in the photograph is one of the most common birds in North America. My friend Dave Irons, a birder from Oregon who is the content editor for BirdFellow.com, says that the juvenile plumage of this species may be “the most mis-identified bird in North America”. Quite a claim. But after this, I think he might be right. 


Here's image of an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron in roughly the same position as the bird in the quiz photo. Notice any differences? (Photo by Mark S. Szantyr)

Leading contenders in this identification sweepstakes(?) were immature Black-crowned Night-Heron (why not Yellow-crowned Night-Heron?) and immature or female Green-winged Teal (why not the other teal in this group?). Virtually no one came up with the correct answer. The bird in the photograph is a passerine. How could the size and structure of this bird be so mis-interpreted? 

References were made to the large, flat, duck-like bill. No bill is visible in the photograph. Many people talked about the thick legs (?), yet no one seemed to notice or mention the one exposed passerine-like toe. The tail, while mostly obscured, does show a decipherable basal shape and allusion to structure, none of which is right for a duck or a heron. Some thought that the bird was sitting on large rocks, causing us to wonder how the size of the rocks was determined from what is available in the photo.


One of the many incorrect guesses for the identity of the mystery bird was Green-winged Teal. Compare this actual Green-winged Teal with the color, pattern, and shape of the bird in the photograph at the top of this page. (Photo by Steven Mlodinow)

So, how does this happen and how often? Are we all (and I include myself in this question) so lax in our observational skills that we see what we want to see rather than what is right in front of us? Do we see one thing that we think we recognize and force the remaining details to fit our first assumption? If only provided a quick glimpse of a bird, perhaps it is more understandable, though no positive ID should be made on this kind of sighting. The annals of birding legend are full of situations where the first wishful identification started all observers down a garden path that resulted in a lemming-like plummet into the sea of OOPS! I am reminded of a Smith’s Longspur in California, a Northern Hobby in New York, a Little Egret in Connecticut, and oh so many other subsequent heartbreaking moments in birding. We all go over the edge not only willingly, but gleefully, especially when presented with the opportunity to bask in the golden sunlight of one more twitch on the lifelist. How quickly sunlight can turn into sunburn! This quiz offered more than a quick glance. Observers could study the image at their leisure. There was no danger of it flying off. 

So how does one assess a bird sighting? How does one assess a seemingly good photograph of a reported bird, whether it be a suspected rarity or not? 

Carefully is the easy answer. Totally is another. 

Was our photo unidentifiable? This is an interesting question and a valid answer might be NO for some observers. Does experience come into play here? Is it identifiable only when compared to patterns in one’s experience? Did I know what this was because it fit a match to something I have stored in my memory banks? This could be part of the answer but I don’t think it’s the entire answer.
As I state above, the two most shocking responses were immature Black-crowned Night-Heron and female Green-winged Teal.  Other responses ran the gamut from various sparrows to Pine Siskin.  American Pipit was mentioned once.  Two people, one a bird-bander and another, a bird-rehabilitator, got the correct answer.  

Looking at the photo provided, one can ask several questions to begin the process. How big is the bird? To which family of birds does the unknown belong? As mentioned before, there is one toe visible in the photograph. It is a very passerine-like toe and once noting this, the legs, which are visible, become very passerine-like in thickness and in length. More careful observation will show that the base of the tail is visible between the bird’s legs. The tail seems to flair out from the base, again, reminiscent of a songbird tail and not like that of a heron or duck. A look at the feathers shows fresh edging commensurate with new feathers…likely a bird of the year or a bird just recently molted. The extent of the fresh edging to all feathers visible pushes the identification to a juvenile or first year plumage. The relative length of the wings compared to the overall size of the bird can be extrapolated from what is visible of the greater coverts and primaries. The pattern of streaking on the under parts and the crown feathering differs significantly from that of the juvenal-plumaged Black-crowned Night-Heron shown above and with that of a female teal. 

Our quiz bird is a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird.  It is likely that if this bird was in the same pose in a woodland or at a bird-feeder, more people would have come up with the correct identification.  It is striking how much the context of the bird had to do with how it was identified.  This youngster was chasing a Song Sparrow through large granite boulders scattered along the southeast Connecticut coastline, begging food for all it was worth.  It was at times completely oblivious to my presence.  I was able to study it at my leisure.


The images above and below offer two additional shots of the quiz bird striking more identifiable (???) poses. Young Brown-headed Cowbirds may superficially resemble a number of species, but when one combines the general appearance, the rather heavy, conical bill, and size--larger than a House/Purple Finch or a sparrow and smaller than blackbird--there are no North American species with which they should be confused. But, given that most songbirds retain their juvenile plumages for only a matter of weeks, most of us don't see them often. Clearly, this provides limited opportunities for us to learn these temporary plumages. (Photos by Mark S. Szantyr)


If I were to break down every aspect of structure and feathering, I might be able to absolutely identify this bird from the photograph.  Then again, I might not.  Yet in the field I knew this bird. If I had been given this quiz, I believe I would have gotten it right because I spend a lot of time studying birds and because I have been blessed with a good memory.  But memory is not enough.  In fact, memory can be misleading.

There has been a fantastic discussion on the web dealing with perception, experience, and bird-study.  The way we identify birds is a complex and intricate balance of all of these things.  It is possible to hone ones abilities in each of these areas.  Certainly, more time looking at birds and more time studying birds in the field and in the literature helps with two of these.  But what about perception?  

As an artist and educator, I teach students to draw from life every day.  I teach them to look at an object and translate the three-dimensional reality to a new two-dimensional reality by using their ability to perceive, interpret, translate, and communicate.  Very often the first attempts show a lack of ability and often a lack of trust in their ability to accurately perceive what is in front of them.  By constant practice, by looking, seeing, drawing, correcting and then repeating this process over and over, students learn to draw.  More importantly, they learn to see.  

Carrying a sketch book or note book the field while birding allows an observer to use the same methods described above, seeing, studying, sketching and checking the sketches and notes, to arrive at a confidence in one’s abilities and in that identification.  Does it end there?  No.  To repeat this process each and every time ensures that one’s perception is still accurate. And sometimes, by checking and double checking, you find something that you did not expect.  The reward for this work is learning something new about a common species or uncovering a rarity.  Perhaps my favorite feature of the new Crossley Guide to Bird Identification is the wide range of views he offers of birds in the acts of being themselves.

In the classroom, I use this analogy.  I tell my students that, rather than being eagle-eyed, I prefer that they were like dogs.  Dogs walk into a room, perhaps a room they enter every day of their lives, and the smell everything, over and over, just to be sure they know what they know.  We should bird like dogs…visually ”sniff” every bird, over and over, take notes, and commit these notes to study, and then sniff again to be sure.


Just a few days ago, a video showing a juvenile cowbird was posted to one of the listservs to which I subscribe. The person posting the video link suggested that his bird was likely a pipit or a lark, but he wasn’t sure what kind. Several respondents to this de facto “mystery bird” quiz took the bait and ran with the notion that it was a pipit. Some even suggested reasons why it was either a Sprague’s or an American Pipit. Granted, the bird was walking around briskly in a somewhat pipit-like fashion, but it never once wagged its tail. Further, even though the video file was compressed in a manner that rendered it less than ideal, it was apparent at several points in the video that the bird had a conical bill. As David Sibley recently pointed out in a piece on his website, the power of suggestion (and the expectation it creates) is strong and often causes us to start force-fitting subsequent observations into what we think we should be seeing.

In the early days of the Oregon’s Bird Records Committee (1980’s), we received multiple photos of juvenile Brown-headed Cowbirds labeled as “mystery bunting” or “mystery finch.” They were submitted by folks hoping the we could tell them what incredible rarity they had discovered. Invariably, these birds were seen on a popular shorebird flat or at a vagrant trap where one might expect to find rare birds.

Link to Sibley commentary: http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/05/a-mystery-oriole-and-the-limitations-of-identification-by-impression/#more-5431


This is both a very entertaining and enlightening article and oh so true!


Nice topic and treatment. But just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the confusion caused by young cowbirds. Young male cowbirds in their preformative molt seem to cause a lot of beginning (etc.) birders much grief — patches of black here and there that might bring to mind Lark Bunting, Bobolink, and who knows what else. When a young bird molts from mottled gray-brown to mostly black, some strange transitional plumages result, and it’s amazing how difficult it is for many folks to process this.


Amen, Kimball. Add to the problem in young male cowbirds the fact that the new black feathers are very glossy and have a sometimes brilliant bluish sheen, and that the normally brown head can be dark gray or worn gray brown, but not the definitive brown of the adult, and, well, if you wanted the bird to be a Shiny Cowbird, etc, you could get it there without too much need for an overactive imagination.


You know, there is one thing that I meant to put in the article that i left out. When one keeps field notes and descriptions; when an observer works out the identification in words and pictures at the time of the sighting, it not only allows for more accurate ID’s and more skill-building in the process, it also provides a paper trail and solid documentation that can become a part of the long-term ornithological record. Certainly not so important for a Brown-headed Cowbird in Connecticut, but if it had been a Meadow Pipit, the notes, details, and sketches would be very important. Gathering and preserving these notes, the written record, evidence (!) for posterity makes the work of records committees so much easier and makes what we know about birds so much more solid.


And… Mark… if I may add a quick plug for the BirdFellow Field Notes feature… the ability to enter notes is the bedrock of collaborative and social field guide. If members enter their notes into a system like BirdFellow, then we’ll increase the chances of producing unique discoveries. As observations mix and meld together, the collection will start revealing a deeper understanding of a topic. So, after a day in the field, grab a tall glass of something cold and refreshing, kick your feet up, and record your observations by submitting your notes into our system. Just a thought… :)


Kimball, I once spent a good chunk of time figuring out one of those young male cowbirds when I was twitching a Lark Bunting in New York. I so wanted it to be the bunting but eventually had to face facts and acknowledge I dipped.

Great post!


GREAT post, on so many levels! The one thing I would emphasize though is that a photograph, despite the time it allows for analysis, doesn’t exhibit the “gizz” of a bird in the field; and oftentimes for experienced birders (even if at a subconscious level), the gizz is more important to identification than any particular fieldmark is.


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