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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Have we all lost our minds?

The recent Birding photo quiz presents us with a picture of three unidentifiable birds. But that didn't stop many of us from speculating what they might be. What does the willingness to pin a name on these blurs say about the state of birding in America? If the photo hadn't been taken in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker search area, would we even bother looking at it? If a novice birder showed up at your birding club with this photo in hand, would you even bother trying to identify it? It is perhaps the worst bird photo ever published anywhere. I'm trying to be careful with what I say here, since some good friends of mine were willing to play along and submit their identifications. But at best this photo can only serve as a birding Rorschach test exposing the inner workings of our imaginations. Maybe we've all gone a little crazy lately.


Jeff Gyr said...


Photography has been around for over 100 years, and I still don't think we've really, truly come to grips with it. For example, one often hears people (usually photographers) saying that photography is a "universal language," which, according to my art history profs, it isn't. You have to learn how to interpret photographs before you understand how they correspond to reality, just the way you have to learn the way words correspond to things, whether in Spanish or Kiswahili or English.

There's a more fundamental confusion though. Many people seem to think that photographs *are* reality, maybe better than reality, which they see as more subject to observer bias (I think both are highly subject to it).

I was also stunned by the vehemence of some of the answers to the ABA quiz. But I did find some of them edifying, especially Rich Hoyer's egret hypothesis. Turns out, I had unconsciously assumed the birds were flying into the frame--as Rich notes, they may well be flying out.

But really, with this photo, I think we are approaching the point of people arguing over the shapes of clouds: "That cumulus over there is a much better fit for Daffy Duck than for Porky Pig, AND I CAN PROVE IT! In fact, I've posted an extensive analysis of video grabs of these and series of similar clouds on my web site...."

That's not to say I don't find such exercises diverting, and occasionally instructive. But I do have to wonder at the certainty with which some of these hypotheses are advanced.

Good birding,


Patrick B. said...

I started reading through the responses the other day, then just said to myself, "This is ridiculous." It was an interesting exercise, but a little much for my tastes.

David Leahy said...

I think such a photo quiz is only an interesting exercise if the quizzer actually knows the answer. Then it becomes an amusing guessing game with non-zero element of birding skill involved.

If the answer is unknown, as in this case, it's truly a waste of time.

As others have noted, this is one step worse than a waste of time, as it appears to be designed to throw a bone to ivory-billed "believers", even though there is essentially no information content. This sort of "evidence" does more to widen the divide between skeptics and believers than to close the gap, as individuals see what they want to see.

John said...

Of course they are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Three of them. Heck, it's as good as all the other photos...

Jochen said...

I agree with David:
Mystery photos are fun and educating if the answer is known. But what was there to gain or learn from this photo quiz?


So where's the point?

There is no point.

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