Birders (Photo by Don Reimer)
Birders (Photo by Don Reimer)
When spending field time in the company of skilled birders, novice birders are sometimes impressed by an “expert’s” prowess at instantaneous identifications. Bird identification is a honed set of perceptive skills, after all, built on a lexicon of visual and auditory cues that combine to produce an informed outcome. But just how reliable are our eyes at recording what we actually see? For instance, multiple eyewitnesses at crime scenes occasionally report the facts substantially wrong, with dire consequences in the balance.

Many believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. One researcher says the act of remembering is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.”

I’m the first to admit that I have misidentified birds with some degree of regularity. And I am not alone. Even nationally recognized birders and field trip leaders (the ego-neutral ones, at least) admit to mistaken IDs on occasion. And oddly enough, mislabeled birds do appear in some widely published nature magazines as well.

For seasoned old-hand birders, first impressions and snap judgment calls can come easily. Their brains hold a weighty mental catalogue of various bird shapes, relative sizes, plumages and characteristic flight styles, obtained through years of patient observation. It is therefore tempting to call out a flying bird approaching from a distance when 90 percent of its attributes appear to fit a given species description. This becomes dicey when the leader proclaims a “such and such” to an assembled bird walk group. Then when it lands nearby, the bird in question turns out to be some different species. No problem. This situation presents a perfect opportunity to examine the bird more precisely and set the record straight for all. Generally speaking, mistakes become our best learning experiences if we dissect and explore them.

How can you increase the odds of making correct identifications? For starters, learn the common birds around 

you well. Really check them out. Don’t neglect that American Robin snatching earthworms from your wet lawn — absorb his handsome mosaic of black, gray, white and 

russet. Last March a rare Old World thrush, a Redwing, was observed on an athletic field in Wilton, New Hampshire. Resembling our local robins in certain ways, the Redwing was recognized because some alert birder noticed how its appearance varied slightly from the surrounding flocks of migrating American Robins.

It is worthwhile learning the basic anatomy of birds that is typically found in most field guide introductions. Knowing the parts of a bird will strengthen your ability to pinpoint diagnostic features that can help to clinch an ID. And don’t rush to consult the bird book. Instead study the bird while it remains in view. That could be your single opportunity.

I’ve heard some wonderfully creative and humorous excuses from birders who’ve gotten birds wrong. Statements like “Oh no, that’s not the same bird that I saw” or “I could be wrong because the bird was flying directly toward the sun when I first spotted it.” Perhaps my favorite occurred one spring morning after I pointed out a Tennessee Warbler to an avid birder who was yearning to add that species to a Bird Life List. Granted only a fleeting glimpse and desperate to record the warbler for the list, the plaintive birder inquired, ”Did I see that bird?”