(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)
By Deirdre Good
When we want to identify something, we look at it closely.
When we see someone we think we know in a crowded place, we concentrate on seeing particularities–that distinctive walk or hair or face.
To identify birds, people look at their markings. How big is the bird? Is it as big as a sparrow, a robin, a pigeon, a chicken or an ostrich? Is the bird fat or skinny, long or short? We look at each part of the bird. Is its bill short or long, thick or thin, curved or straight? How about the tail? What shape is it? Is it long or forked? Are the bird’s wings pointed or curved, long or short? You have to train your brain to focus on distinctive traits. Expert birders can identify birds by a single glance that takes in all these details at once. This is called the “giss” or general impression of size and shape of the bird. Similarly, experts recognize a bird just by hearing a few notes of a birdcall. If you start by recognizing the giss of birds that you see regularly, you can take in differences of more unusual birds at a glance. All of this takes time and persistence.
For several weeks one Spring I joined a group that went birding in Central Park with an expert from the American Museum of Natural History. At the end of the time, I could tell a white-throated sparrow from a chipping sparrow. And when I saw the difference between a female pine warbler and a female ruby-crowned kinglet (the female isn’t ruby-crowned), I thought I might be getting somewhere. The next year I joined a group looking at migrating warblers. This summer, I’ve seen a common yellowthroat warbler residing in a nearby field down the road from where we live in Maine. However, I’m still not very good at identifying warblers in general.
Enthusiastic birdwatchers (birders) in the UK and Europe are known as twitchers because they will drop everything and travel long distances to make an unusual bird sighting. Twitchers often compile lists of birds they have seen. I belong to a list that announces unusual bird sightings in New York City. Postings identify sightings and location of rare species. It’s often very exciting to see an unusual bird and to be in the company of other enthusiasts.
But in my heart of hearts I must confess that I’ve become skeptical about this approach to bird watching, which is just about universal, for the reason that someone once pointed out to me–it fails to take into account the individuality of each bird.
To be sure, observing distinctions within the same species is going to take me much more time. I won’t be able to put away my binoculars (as everyone else does) after saying emphatically, “that was a palm warbler!” and move on to the next bird. I’ll need to be settled in one place for longer. I’ll need to pay much more attention to the particular curve of a beak or feather markings or some detail I have yet to learn.
This summer, an injured female purple finch has been showing up at our bird feeders. Her left wing and leg is damaged so her balance on the feeders is precarious but she still flies. I’ve no idea how she was injured but she survived the injury although it is visible. She comes to the feeders by herself and with a male purple finch, presumably her mate. I suppose its not often that we see injured birds probably because they don’t survive long. I find myself thinking often about this female purple finch and her well-being. I’m thrilled to see her when she shows up and am concerned when she doesn’t. But because bird watching is a passive activity, I can only observe her when she does visit and try to compare one visit with another by memories or photographs to assess whether her health improves at all.
The funny thing is that because of her injuries she has become a distinctive bird to me. Until she arrived, I’d been working at singling out one male-rose breasted grosbeak from another. But observing her is effortless. So what’s the payoff for seeing individual birds rather than bird species? Isn’t this the way God sees birds? Isn’t it the way God sees us?
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.