Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Birder Envy

Time for a little birdblogger navel-gazing. One thing I've noticed a little bit lately is how it is almost anathema among birding company to admit to any human foible or confusion when it comes to bird identification. Some of this surely stems from the kind of credibility issue that BINAC pointed to some weeks back, but I think there's something more going on here, although I'm not sure what.

A few weeks ago I mentioned at an Audubon meeting that while looking for an unusual bird early one morning in the area, I made a silly error when I heard some Cedar Waxwings in some nearby trees, but thought they were American Goldfinches for a short time. Of course, after about 15 seconds, I realized that I was in fact hearing waxwings, and saw them soon dart off to the horizon squealing as they do. I figured I was just plain out-of-it that morning, having just rolled out of bed and gone birding, and didn't ascribe much deeper meaning to it than that. If anything I thought it was kinda funny. But when I casually mentioned it at the meeting, I got a comment from someone to the effect of, "I wouldn't tell anyone that!"

Now, I make every honest effort to identify birds to the best of my ability, but I also feel unashamed of the occasions when I most definitely screw up. I figure that it happens to everyone - we're only human, right? Sometimes, you forget what a particular species sounds like, and you may miss seeing an interesting bird because you assumed that you were hearing something more mundane or commonplace? Or on some other occasion you watch a bird high up in tree branches, struggle mightily to observe some characters, but when all is said and done (it flits away mysteriously) you still don't know for sure what you saw, because maybe you focused too much on plumage and not enough on morphology or bill shape?

Or is it the case that, perhaps, of all the people who consider themselves avid birders, I am the only one who makes these kinds of pedestrian, embarrassing errors? Could that be?

I'm serious here. I make mistakes. Probably plenty. I do think I get it right most of the time, but I'm not so full of myself to want to hide the times when I mess up. I guess I'm a little surprised at the reticence of some birders to say what they do wrong. I find it especially odd because most of the time I find the people I bird around to be very cordial and pleasant. Must we be so concerned about maintaining our credibility and image that we suppress any inclinations toward honesty about our occasional failings?

Yes, I want others to take me seriously and believe me on the occasions when I tell them I saw an unusual bird in such-and-such place. But personally, I think it enhances my credibility to admit that there are times when I mess up, because if anything, it means that I am capable of questioning my own judgment, of recognizing when my initial thoughts or expectations have deceived me. It also means that I don't mind learning that I was wrong, and that I am more beholden to the truth of the matter than I am to maintaining an image of personal rightness, which I could easily do in matters like this by just keeping my trap shut.

If, as birders, we value accuracy and at least some measure of objective reality, why not allow ourselves to admit our own mistakes - even the ones we made just yesterday? It shouldn't be a secret. Birder envy just compounds the original faux pas.

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Norene said...

i don't consider myself a birder, but i consider the ability to admit when we've made mistakes to be central to our success as human beings.

in addition to the fundamental issue of credibility, not admitting mistakes also contributes to a cultural notion that mistakes are unacceptable. what a very small and poor life we must lead if we are afraid to try because we might "fail", or if we cannot learn from our errors because we cannot admit to them!

Gwyn said...

Oh my, I make and admit mistakes like this all the time. Sometimes it's a silly mistake like your goldfinch/waxwing mixup. Others, it might be that I *meant* to say Common Yellowthroat but instead said Yellow Throated Warbler (thereby giving a birding friend palpitations until he could check the veracity of my remark).

It doesn't matter what field of human endeavor one pursues...they're all subject to human error. Errors can be funny as well as instructive.
Too bad there are those so full of themselves that they miss this joy!

Eric said...

Thanks Gwyn. That reminds me of another speaking mistake I once made around another birder. I was at a local hotspot last spring, seeing some nice birds, but nothing out of the ordinary. This included several Wilson's Warblers.

However, for whatever reason, I just kept thinking about their little black caps, which my brain turned into hoods, and so, when this other guy asked me what I'd seen, I said, "Not a whole lot. I did see a couple Hooded Warblers though." The guys eyebrows shot up, and he said, "Really!" (Hoodeds would be extraordinary for northern Colorado.)

I immediately realized I misspoke, and corrected myself. I felt pretty embarrassed. But hey, it happens.