March 8, 2011

Expert bird watchers – liars or freaks?

Going bird watching with an expert can be an unnerving experience for the beginner birder. The expert seems to pull birds out of thin air, yelling names and pointing to a tiny grey lump in a tree or a slight shuffling of leaves. The expert seems to know the name of the bird before the beginner has even gotten binocular to eye leaving the newbie to ask, “How do they do it?” The first obvious answer is simply, “liar!” But, after a few hours in the field the beginner comes to see that the lumps in the tree are waxwings and the shuffles of leaves are vireos and accepts that the expert is actually seeing the birds they shout out. The second logical thought is, “exceptional eyesight”. Is it possible that the expert bird watcher is in fact some kind of spider-bit, half human, half hawk capable of seeing tiny field marks at fifty yards? Not always. The truth however, may be even more complicated and incredible than this.

Is it possible that the advanced bird watcher actually stores the identity of individual species in specific locations in the brain achieving almost instantaneous recall? Recent brain research has shown that when a patient is shown a picture of say Bill Clinton, the Sydney Opera House, or Marilyn Monroe a specific and different spot seems to “light up” in the brain with each example. This idea suggests that the bird watcher is not going through a laundry list of field marks, a mental who’s who of the bird world, and spitting out an answer but rather is triggering a lifetime of background information that is stored in its own location ready to be triggered by a certain kind of song, habitat, or brief impression. What gets more incredible is the human brain’s ability to fill in missing information. 

Consider this picture. Pixilated and blurry yet the majority of North American adults can identify the two people in the photo. The brain fills in information that is simply not there, creating a positive identification. Is it possible that the brain of the expert bird watcher is filling in missing visual information with habitat and topography, sound, weather, even smell to trigger an instant identification? Though this theory may sound far fetched future research might someday unlcok this amazing process. For now the beginner has to accept that there are complicated systems at work but also take heart that this is no act of supernatural powers, simply time spent looking at birds, and then pause to ask, “how did I know that was Bill and Hillary?” 

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact:

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