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In which I misidentify a Turkey Vulture

December 17, 2009
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Birders come in many stripes and enjoy birds for a myriad of reasons, but the one thing that we likely all share is that we’re all called upon from time to time by our friends and family to answer questions about birds,  to identify that strange bird at the feeder or that hawk that sits on the power pole on the way into work or the enormous bird perched on a light pole in the parking lot.  We birders take on this responsibility freely, if inadvertently,when we out ourselves as birdwatchers to our non-birding peers.  See, just about everyone has an interest in the identification of certain birds, if only for the human desire to put a definitive name to something, but not everybody has the time or the inclination to get into birding as seriously as we (and you know if I’m speaking to you) do.  Simply by owning a pair of binoculars and actively seeking out birds you are an “expert”, even if you don’t feel as though you live up to the implication this entails or are prepared for the heavy burden bestowed upon you.

Personally, though, I love it.  But I’m a sucker for photo quizzes or anything that seems to be a test of my birding ability.  I consider it an opportunity to do a little birder outreach or, at least, a chance to discover how other people think about birds, especially when they may not necessarily have the background acquired through years of study.  Knowing how to talk about birds is as much a skill as knowing how to identify them.  It’s eye-opening to say the least, but you have to be careful that you’re not talking past each other.

Which brings me to my story.  My wife calls me at work the other day saying that there was a big bird sitting on a light pole in the parking lot of the office park where she works.  She tells me it’s enormous and dark.  Now, I feel as though my wife has, to some extent, been a fellow traveler on this birding road I’m on.  Not necessarily one traveling by choice mind you, but mental osmosis can be a powerful force if applied consistently and patiently throughout a relationship.  There was a time, early on, when I tried to get her to share the joy I found in birds.  At this point, indifference is probably the best I can hope for, with the occasional, “hey, that’s cool”.  I’ve come to grips with this, but I perhaps I had placed too much faith in her when I asked whether the bird had feathers on its head.  “I think so”, she said.

I should have realized she probably didn’t know what a bird without feathers on its head would look like, or that even such a thing existed.

This is where my imagination got away from me.

See, a big dark bird with feathers on its head could only be one thing.  And given that I knew her office was near Lake Crabtree I became convinced that the bird had to be a juvenile Bald Eagle.  What was it doing on a light pole?  It was lost, whatever, the head had feathers people!  And my wife, she knows vultures.  She wouldn’t mix these up.  So she said it had a red head.  Ok, that bugged me, but I was certain that was likely the light.  Oh, you’re going to try to get pictures?  Great, send those to me to confirm my suspicions.

Ooooooooh.

I see now.  I probably should have given more weight to the red head thing and less to the assumption that the bird had a feathered head.

There’s a general rule among bird watchers that you should take the observations of birders under the age of 25 with a grain of salt.  It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they can tend to let their imaginations run away from them in the excitement of the moment.  That rush of adrenaline that comes with discovery is addictive, and it’s an incredibly easy thing to let yourself do if you’re not careful.  Even now, with several years of experience under my belt, I’ve been guilty of it, especially among birds I’m generally not familiar with in places I haven’t been before.  One of the keys to becoming a good birder is to learn to manage those expectations without losing the thrill of the moment that’s such a big part of why we bird.  The best birders have mastered this, or at least, they’ve seen enough birds that the irrationality of the moment of discovery is tempered by experience.  Most of the time and especially in my home region, practically my backyard, I’ve got this pretty much under control.

But second only to the moment of finding a good bird for yourself, is being a part of that moment for someone else.  We’re nothing if not examples of the power a cool bird sighting can have on the psyche of a person who’s ready for it.  It’s something we would want for everybody.  So here I was, imagining for my wife and her co-workers a Bald Eagle on the light post of their parking lot instead of the far more likely and, in retrospect, completely obvious Turkey Vulture.  I let my excitement for them get the best of my better judgment.  This, apparently, I have trouble controlling.  The adage “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras” is pretty obvious after the fact.

But perhaps there should be an addendum so, in the future, when someone describes hoofbeats, you don’t start suggesting zebras either.

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11 Comments
  1. December 17, 2009 12:24 pm

    I really enjoyed that…probably because I relate so well. My non-birding wife has been the first to spot most of our yard birds. She knows enough to know when a “different” bird appears but still she remains indifferent. Knowing I will love her all the more for her discovery, she calls me at work and does her best to describe it using non-birding vernacular:

    “Its black and orange. Yes, more orange than a Robin…and a little white and yellow on it.”

    I start quizzing her about other characteristics of the bird and her responses are generally a frustrating “I don’t know”.

    “Can you take a picture and e-mail it to me?”

    “No I’m making sandwiches for the girls. Hopefully it will be here when you get home. Gotta go…bye!”

    “Wait, wait, wait! Look up Orioles and Grosbeaks in the field guide on the counter and call me back when…” – CLICK! –

    After an agonizing hour of attempting to conjure up a family emergency to take me home I get an e-mail from her with a photo attached. She has postively identified it from the field guide as a Black-headed Grosbeak…a yard first! Yet her tone is so nonchalant as if to say “I don’t know why you get so excited over such a silly bird.”

  2. Nate permalink*
    December 17, 2009 1:36 pm

    @Robert- Great story! My wife’s explanatory skills aside, she would have me believe that she thought it was a Vulture from the start, so her gut is pretty good. So like yours, it seems something has gotten through to her after all.

  3. December 17, 2009 2:16 pm

    That’s a great story. It’s happened to all of us. And it still even happens with our own identifications. Dan spotted a large shape in one of the trees some ways off in the field behind our house a month or two ago and was *convinced* it had to be something unusual, an eagle, or at the very least a Rough-leg, ’cause it was *huge*. I wasn’t so sure, but was willing to hold off on an ID because he seemed so convinced. And then as I watched with a scope, the bird flashed its rufous-red tail as it balanced in the wind.

    And the other thing about non-birders is that as soon as you mention to someone new that you’re a birder, or that you work with birds for a living, *everybody* has a bird story they want to relate to you. And usually it’s something rather mundane, to a birder, but was meaningful enough to them for them to actually take note of a bird and remember, so you try to be enthusiastic and supportive of their interest and twist their mundane observation into something notable for them.

  4. Nate permalink*
    December 17, 2009 3:14 pm

    @Seabrooke- Yep, the best birders are able to minimize their mistakes or to refrain from calling them out, but no one is completely immune from them.

    You’re absolutely right about the bird stories. People seem to want validation from an “expert”, which is nice if you’re open to providing it. Sometimes birders are unprepared by what being the local bird expert entails.

  5. December 17, 2009 3:49 pm

    I think it’s easy for birders to have trouble identifying the bird a nonbirder is describing because we have much different standards for what might be uncommon or notable. Plus the details a nonbirder notices aren’t necessarily the ones we end consider important.

  6. Nate permalink*
    December 17, 2009 10:55 pm

    @John- I think you’ve gotten to the heart of it. Details like “enormous” are only moderately helpful.

  7. December 18, 2009 1:17 pm

    Hilarious! And all too familiar. Anyone who can tell the difference between a great-tailed grackle and a brown pelican is an expert, so I think we’ve all been there, especially when dealing with limited information. We can regale each other all day with similar tales (Have I told you about when my mother asked me to identify a sparrow-sized clump of leaves in a tree about 100 yards from where we stood?). Ultimately, though, even when I put my foot in my mouth with hearing a few details and thinking I can pin it down, I worry less about that and relish the idea that people want to know, are trying to be better about appreciating what’s out there, and feel I might be able to help (though they’d never call again if they knew the truth!).

  8. December 18, 2009 11:50 pm

    “mental osmosis can be a powerful force if applied consistently and patiently throughout a relationship”

    Very true. My wife is interested in the outdoors, and enjoys some birds. But definitely not a “birder”. But mental osmosis is real. Every now and then she asks to see the pictures in a birding magazine to see if she can identify the bird. Wow, that sounds alot like a birder to me, better not tell her that :). Anyways, she can ID many birds, or at least get to the right family.

    In fact, just recently, she beat me to the identification of a bird in a video I was watching. So it definitely pays to take heed of your non-birding spouse’s comments.

  9. January 7, 2010 11:00 am

    Good thing it wasn’t a dark-headed vulture; you’d have really been sure!

  10. January 9, 2010 12:54 am

    Great story… some years ago, my former non-birder neighbor called (knowing that I’m a passionate birder) very excited to say me he was seeing a Harpy Eagle (Panama’s National Bird… and by far the only eagle known by most of my compatriots) right in the phone post in front of the house. A quick glimpse through my kitchen window proved that it was an Osprey 🙂

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