Thursday, 11 April 2013

A pointless complaint

Pointless is a BBC quiz show in which pairs of contestants are faced with multiple-choice questions and have to find correct answers that have been chosen least often by a random selection of 100 members of the British public. As the game progresses, unsuccessful contestants are eliminated until one couple remains to face the final round and a possible monetary prize. 

On 10 April 2013 I watched an episode of Pointless in which, at the penultimate stage, the two remaining couples were asked to identify British birds that have two-word names. They were shown photographs of five birds, which were labelled as ---- Thrush, ------ Duck, ---- Bunting, ---- Wagtail and -------- Dove. 

Both couples chose to name the Wagtail, with one couple identifying it as a Grey Wagtail and the other pair as a Blue Wagtail. Both were wrong, because the Grey Wagtail is an altogether different bird and the Blue Wagtail is a tropical fish. The correct answer was Pied Wagtail.

Except that it wasn’t. 

The name Pied Wagtail is applied only to the British and Irish subspecies of the White Wagtail. Known to its friends as Motacilla alba yarrellii, the Pied Wagtail can easily be identified by its black or dark grey back, but the bird illustrated, with its pale grey back, was clearly a White Wagtail of the continental European nominate race, Motacilla alba alba

(Several other White Wagtail subspecies can be found across Asia and north Africa. They have been given names such as Moroccan Wagtail, Masked Wagtail, Black-backed Wagtail, Amur Wagtail and Indian Pied Wagtail.) 

Incidentally, as many as 47 of the 100 randomly selected people described the wagtail as a Pied Wagtail. Only the Song Thrush was more frequently identified, with 50 subjects able to name it. The pigeon was correctly identified as a Collared Dove by 23 of the 100. Perhaps surprisingly, more people were able to name the rare Snow Bunting (12/100) than could identify the much commoner Tufted Duck (7/100).

[And when the episode was repeated on 16 March 2015, there was no acknowledgement of the Pied/White Wagtail error.]

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