How do you bird?
I read something somewhere recently, and for the life of me I really can’t remember where I found it (perhaps a reader can help?*) (edited to add: It was Laura Kammermeier’s blog! Thanks Laura!) , about the way individuals go about identifying birds and whether or not that correlates with when an individual began birding. As a purveyor and purviewer of internet birding forums I often and somewhat interested in the ways people go about identifying birds, often the most popular thread at many of them. I admit to being slightly addicted to the game of identifying birds from sketchy photos, so I’ll often participate even while decrying the lack of attempt by many of these photographers to at least make an honest effort at the identification themselves. But that’s a blog post in itself, and not one I’m concerning myself with here.
What I’ve found is that it’s interesting how concerned people can get over a relatively common bird showing an aberrant plumage, not an unusual incidence really, that causes them to second guess what should be a fairly straight forward identification. It seems that if a check fails to be placed next to even one of a list of pre-ordained identification criteria, the mind spins to a new species rather than a slightly different example of a normal one. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that way to identify birds incidentally, and most of the time it’ll probably work, but it suggests a dogmatic approach to bird identification beholden only to field marks. An approach that’s likely to cause problems fairly regularly when you consider the range of variation birds show.
The alternate way to identify birds is heavily based in GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape), alternately called jizz if you don’t mind being a little crude, or gestalt if you want to sound as though your pants are fancy and you prefer tweed jackets. It’s based in impression, taking the whole of the observation and coming up with an identification that incorporates not only field marks, but also behavior, habitat, and any number of enigmatic characteristics that are difficult to quantify. Giss is birding by feel, and occasionally, it’s difficult for a giss birder to even explain why a bird is identified as such because to them, a bird just feels right, and there you go. For instance, for a giss birder the photo below should be fairly easy, regardless or whether it’s blacked out or not. There are obviously field marks apparent here, and this isn’t a perfect example of giss birding by any means, but you get what I’m saying.
A little better, but still a very “feel” oriented identification.
Whereas a birder who relies almost entirely on field marks, would need a more clear photo to see the dark head, pale bill and partial eyering, all apparent even in gray scale.
At which point it becomes clear we’re dealing with American Robin.
I’m covering well-traveled ground here. Most birders don’t really need a primer in giss birding, we’re all aware of it but it certainly is a hard thing to explain. I’m very much a giss birder, as are most “experienced” birders (not that I’m making a statement as to my experience. I make mistakes, people), and I wondered why this is that birders who are considered “good” by any metric you can imagine, rely by and large on impression when in the field. And this is the part where I wish I had that article, or interview, or something… (and I do! See above)
I began birding when I was pretty young. Sure, I didn’t begin actually “birding” in the way we think about it until I was in my teens, but as a kid who was always interested in nature I had an opportunity to internalize a lot of it. I think many “good” birders had childhoods similar to mine, those spent simply exploring nature. Given what we continue to figure out about children’s ability to learn at a young age this makes sense. For instance, I have friends that grew up bilingual who often describe their ability to switch between language as an unconscious act. They hear the words in conversation and simply respond to them. And what is giss birding but making the connections in the brain without conscious thought? And as in a language, experiencing it at an early age makes those connections stronger and faster.
That doesn’t make the ideal way to think about birds though. While seeing a bird and coming to a conclusion about its identity without thinking in a concrete manner about field marks as such is a pretty natural thing for me, occasionally I’m unable to explain why I think a bird is what it is beyond “that’s what it looked like to me”. This is this sort of thing that drives rarity committees nuts by the way, and is the obvious downside to birding too much by impression at the expense of anything else.
It seems to me, purely anecdotally, that there is a correlation between birders that start later and those that are field mark oriented with their identifications. That doesn’t mean such birders can’t absolutely become excellent giss birders, thought I suspect that it would take longer and require more work. The brain is already hard-wired and takes longer to make those connections needed to be able to identify a bird with little to no thought. On the other hand, that conscious effort can make identifications more considered and informed. There’s often little intuitive about Larus gulls or Empids, for example. You simply have to have your stuff together, all of it, to tackle them.
Ultimately, you’ll want to be able to use both a giss approach and a more conscious approach, which is where the really “good” birders are. I suppose the ability to subconsciously identify most of the common birds frees up the mind to be able to easily access information about the difficult or rare ones, but that’s only a concept I can apply in theory most of the time. Though I rely heavily on giss, my ability to comprehend the subtler aspects of molt or age or rare Calidris identification still needs some work. I guess that means I don’t have an excuse, so I’d better get to work.
So how do you bird, and does it square with the way you want to be able to bird?
*And there’s also the possibility I imagined it
photos from wikipedia