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How do you bird?

November 20, 2009

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

  1. November 20, 2009 9:59 am

    I agree with you, anecdotally speaking it seems the longer someone’s been birding, the more GISS oriented they are. In fact, most of the birding experts I’ve met started when they were 8 years old…over and over I hear the magic 8!
    I also have heard that kids’ personalities are pretty much hard-wired in the brain by the time they are 9….so perhaps there’s a connection. The brain’s malleability starts to dampen after 9.

    There was some interesting exchange on this topic on my blog in September, check it out here:

    I think it is much harder to go the GISS route later in life, but like with anything, experience is the cure. Not that that is easy when there are mortgages and kids, but when obsession kicks in it’s definitely possible! : )

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 20, 2009 10:07 am

    @Laura – That’s where I read it! Thanks for reminding me!. I think you’re absolutely right about the way people, and children especially, approach learning and how brain development can make things easier or more difficult for adults.

  3. November 20, 2009 10:11 am

    I started when I was seven. My first guide was a Peterson and I used to spend so much time quizzing myself on the silhouettes in the front and the back of the book. It was like memorizing my multiplication tables.

  4. November 20, 2009 11:31 am

    I started birding in my early 20’s, but I think I’m very much a giss birder. I’m right with you on your last paragraph there. I rely heavily on giss, but my ability to apply those subtle differences in difficult identifications needs work. I think you’re dead on in that the “best” birders are able to combine those two things and also can verbalize it.

  5. November 20, 2009 12:04 pm

    I started birding seriously in my late 20s. For now I use a combination of primitive GISS and field marks. I would like to be better with GISS because I think it would help with identifying birds in flight or distant flocks of birds. I think impressions help a lot with sorting out some tricky groups like little brown jobs – a bird’s “facial expression” is hard to verbalize in terms of field marks but differs noticeably from species to species.

  6. Nate permalink*
    November 20, 2009 12:22 pm

    @Birdchick- I was kind of the same way. We always had field guides around when I was a kid and I spent lots of time flipping through them sort of absent-mindedly. It really is like doing drills.

    @Patrick- Being able to verbalize identifications is something I struggle with and try to work on whenever I’m out. It’s one thing to know what a bird is, and a completely different thing to explain why it is to someone else.

    @John- A bird’s “expression” gets to the core of giss birding, but as you said, it can be a hard thing to explain. Really good explanations seem to percolate into the general birding community though.

  7. November 20, 2009 1:00 pm

    Although interested in the outdoors and wildlife my entire life, I didn’t start “birding” until my late 20’s and feel like I gypped myself out of a headstart. It seems that my brain still had some of the malleability of kid because today I feel fairly confident in that I “recognize” birds using GISS principles. When I see a different, new, or less frequent bird, alarms go off in my head and I go into “identification mode” rather than recognition/GISS mode.

    In the last few months I have been birding “field-guide-less” and forcing myself to take notes and make horrible sketches of what I am seeing. When in ID-mode I have started a mental checklist that goes something like this:

    1. What does the bird look/act like compared to what I have seen before? What other birds is it like?
    2. Most prominent characteristics: bill shape, body shape, color patterns, calls.

    By this time I have settled down my initial excitement of seeing something different and mentally force myself to start noting down specifics like leg color, wing-bars, length of wings compared to tail, etc.

    (see my example of a taking notes about a Northern Shrike that recently passed through my nieghborhood )

  8. Nate permalink*
    November 20, 2009 1:21 pm

    @Robert- As Laura said earlier, experience is without a doubt the best was to get comfortable with birding by giss. Just like you can learn a language as an adult, you can get the giss concept with repetition and work. It seems as though you’re on the right track noticing stuff that seems different, because the first step to knowing what something is is knowing what something isn’t, if that makes any sense at all.

  9. pinguinus permalink
    November 20, 2009 5:55 pm

    I started birding very young, but I have to admit I’m not as good a GISS birder as I’d like to be. I can usually get to genus pretty well, but I’m a terrible judge of size (not just with birds, but with everything) and that tends to throw me off a bit when dealing in proportions, especially on a moving bird. Sometimes I’ll look at, say, a pigeon that’s much closer or much father away than I think it is and be like “WTF is that?” for a second.

    A big factor, besides age, that I think might make a difference:

    Self-confidence or the lack thereof. With a field mark in a guide, you can point to the page and say “This authority supports my identification; I followed the rules and id’d the bird”. Whereas GISS, as you pointed out, is often a matter of feelings and impressions, and sometimes can’t be articulated. Someone who’s been brought up to expect answers to come from a textbook or a leader might find that difficult at first. Of course, experience would probably tend to lead to more self-confidence over time.

  10. November 20, 2009 10:03 pm

    I also started very young (before 8, don’t think I let the Peterson out of my sight for at least a year or two). I’m very much a birder by impression (I think it’s a better term than giss as general color pattern and behavior don’t necessarily fit into the definition of giss but do with impression). Not quite sure what to make of it, but I didn’t identify the silhouette until I scrolled down far enough to see the grass and then it was totally obvious. So it wasn’t just the bird but the surroundings that made the ID.

    I wonder if the difference is not necessarily one of age but one of concentration. It takes more focus to learn the shape and behavioral clues that are much harder to illustrate than the plumage. Someone without a family to look after and a house and car to afford has a much easier time of immersing themselves and really learning the subtleties. Probably not a coincidence that some of the top birders I know that didn’t start young started after they retired, which pretty much gave them the same freedom.

  11. Aaron permalink
    November 21, 2009 2:56 pm


    Good topic.

    I believe age is probably a big factor and a much more important one than experience. But I think there is an even more important factor than either of those: when you started birding, did you spend most of your time birding alone or with maybe one other person, or, did you mostly join up with groups of people such as organized field trips? Almost without exception, the best birders I know taught themselves to bird by spending most of their birding time by themselves in the field. I think being a new birder in a field trip situation is really, really poor way to learn to ID birds. Someone points out a bird, tells you what field marks are important, and shows you its picture in the book. But the new birder didn’t figure out anything on their own, so they really didn’t learn the skill of IDing a bird. All they did was look at the field marks for a particular species–something much better learned sitting on your couch. The trip leader who showed them the field marks might have IDed the bird purely on GISS but pointed out field marks because that is something easy and concrete to point to.

    Younger birder are more likely to teach themselves how to bird and how to ID birds. They don’t get caught up in the field marks checklist mentality because they don’t know any better. They just figure out IDs on their own by intently studying actual birds. People who start later in life often go on field trips or organized birding situations. They know they don’t know anything, so they try to learn from those with more experience. And that advice is usually to find a bird and then look it up in your field guide. I don’t know any younger birders who actually carry “field” guides with them in the field (In the car yes, but not on them). Not only is it unnecessary and probably unhelpful for actually learning to ID birds in the field, but it would simply never occur to them to do so. This is because they have virtually memorized the book at home. They already know the vast majority of relevant field marks, and recognize them almost subconsciously when they see a bird. Because of this, they are free to focus on the other aspects of a bird, like behavior, subtleties of shape, posture, flight style, etc. If you aren’t obsessed with a bunch of specific field marks, you can actually learn what the whole package “looks” like. This gets reinforced to me every time a bird flies across the road and I casually ID it as, lets say Song Sparrow, and the person I am with, often with many more years experience, asks how I know what it was when there was no way to see the spot on the breast. How do you NOT know what it was–its the most common sparrow around! Who needs to see a spot when the bird is IDable on shape, size, and flight style with the naked eye? This is the result of two very different ways of learning to ID birds I think.

  12. Nate permalink*
    November 21, 2009 3:44 pm

    Really good thoughts, all!

    @pinguinus – You’re absolutely right that size is one of the most difficult things to determine, even for experienced birders. I think giss addresses this somewhat, as focusing on proportion rather than actual size can be a useful way to think about those differences in birds, and tends to be, at least for me, part of the subconscious “feeling” I can pick up on when I see certain birds. Accipiters, for instance, show this. Part of the impression of size when looking at a Coop or a Sharpie has a lot to do with body proportion. But, as you said, that can be a difficult thing to verbalize most of the time.

    @Jason- That’s a good point. “Giss” is sort of an imperfect way of describing birding by impression or feel. And the photos are imperfect as well, as when you see a Robin there’s obviously more to it than shape, there’s behavior and range and habitat and all the other little things that you know and that your brain is subconsciously accessing. I suspect you’ve got a point about time being a factor as well. To become good at something, especially to make that something seem unconscious or “natural”, it’s clearly a result of a great deal of time spent working on it. Practice makes perfect, and that goes for athletes, musicians, and birders alike.

    @Aaron- Another good point. Young birders spend a lot of time figuring things out for themselves. As with any obsession, when you want to do something all the time you often end up having to do a lot of it yourself. It’s clear that there are traits of young birders, in addition to the fact that they started young, that likely have a lot to do with their comfort level with what we’re calling giss birding. It’s probably a combination of any or all of them.

  13. November 23, 2009 12:33 am

    I started birding last year, so I was already 28. I go by the GISS method too. If that doesn’t work, I look at the beak. We’ve had pet birds since I was four, though, so the same rationalization applies. I would stare at my cockatiel, Audrey, and his dad and try to figure out the differences in their plumage.

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