Vanderbilt University Birding Expertise Project Looking for Birders of All Levels to Help With Their Study


Palomar Audubon was contacted on behalf of Professor Thomas Palmeri, on the faculty at Vanderbilt University. Their laboratory studies expertise and currently have a project on birding experts funded by the National Science Foundation. They are trying to recruit birders of all experience levels, from beginners to experts.

One of the initial experiments is a bird identification test, so it might be of interest to people in our group, even if they have no interest in participating in any other experiments.

The experiments are all online. This is the web site:

Following is information from their website.  If you wish to particapate, go to their website to registar.

-Jeff Ebright

About Us

This project is a collaboration of members of the multi-institutional Perceptual Expertise Network (PEN) and the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC). The project is led by Vanderbilt University’s Category Laboratory (CatLab), directed by Dr. Thomas Palmeri (

There are many kinds of experts. Some people are expert at solving physics problems, playing chess, making medical diagnoses, or performing athletic movements. We focus on perceptual experts. Birders and ornithologists, as well as radiologists, mycologists, firefighters, and other specialists are noted for their remarkable ability to accurately and rapidly recognize, categorize, and identify objects and events within their domain of expertise. Understanding the unique abilities of experts can have important real-world implications for enhancing the development of expertise in the workplace.

But understanding perceptual expertise is more than characterizing the behavior of individuals with idiosyncratic skills in highly specialized domains. Perceptual expertise may also explain some of the unique aspects of what might be called everyday expertise, recognizing such things as faces, words, or letters. Viewing perceptual expertise as the endpoint of the normal trajectory of learning, rather than as an idiosyncratic skill, allows us to exploit studies of experts to understand the general principles and limits of human learning and plasticity. Viewing faces, words, and letters as domains of perceptual expertise can yield new insights into how ravages of brain damage might lead to the perceptual and cognitive deficits seen in autism, dyslexia, agnosia, and other conditions, and can possibly lead to breakthroughs in education and treatment.

Our work is made possible by grants from and the National Science Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.


We are interested in perceptual expertise. What makes experts experts and how do experts become experts? How do they differ from novices or beginners? Do they perceive the world differently? Do they know more? Do they know different things? Do they use knowledge differently? Do they use certain kinds of knowledge more quickly? Or is there some combination of all of these?

Our target domain for this project is perceptual expertise identifying birds. Many birds are shy and have little interest in being seen. Expert birders are skilled at making rapid identifications at a glance, often under less than ideal conditions with poor light and camouflage from dense foliage. For ornithologists working in the field, accurate identification of what birds there are, how many there are, as well as an accurate accounting of what birds are not present, is critical to research and conservation. Identification accuracy is also highly valued by a significant proportion of the birding community who regularly take part in citizen science efforts during formal and informal bird counts.

Most research on perceptual expertise has simply compared experts to novices. Bird experts know the names of more birds than novices. That’s what makes them experts after all. Bird experts also identify birds far more rapidly than novices. In fact, a bird expert can accurately identify a picture of a bird as an indigo bunting as quickly as they can identify it as being a bird. Bird experts have better memory for birds than novices. Bird experts are also said to perceive birds holistically, in terms of overall impression and appearance. This sense of seeing a bird holistically is commonly referred to as jizz in the birding community. Our first goal is to better understand perception, identification, and memory abilities of expert birders.

Our second goal is to go beyond simply comparing experts to novices. Our goal is to understand how perception, identification, and memory changes across the full spectrum of expertise. Think of the person who commonly leads bird counts in the community, the state ornithologist, or the professor of ornithology at the local college. They are clearly more expert birders than those who picked up a new hobby in the past year or two. How do perception, knowledge, and memory differ across various levels of bird expertise? And how do these differ between individuals who might do birding as a serious hobby from those who have a deep biological knowledge of bird behaviors and habitats?

We can only do research on individual differences in perceptual expertise by collecting data from hundreds, if not thousands of volunteer participants. We can only research the full spectrum of expertise if we get participants with a wide range of skill levels. We really do want beginning birders to participate. We hope that some experts in ornithology will participate too. We do experiments online so we can reach out to birders across the continent. Thanks for your interest. And especially thanks for your participation.

Our blog, This is Your Brain on Birds aims to share some of the past and current scientific findings and reflect on the insights of birders and their unique expertise:

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