Feynman on bird identification

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-09-09

Identifying birds requires a systematic approach, an obsessive attention to detail, and a good memory. Ever since I became seriously interested in bird-watching, it's one of the things I've been drawn to, and I have answered many "What's that bird?" questions on mailing lists in the past few years.

But answering that question is only the first step towards learning more about the bird and the world it lives in. I am always amazed when I see people treating identification as an end in itself, observing a bird only until they think they know its name, and losing all interest in it thereafter.

Richard Feynman writes about his encounter with bird-watching in The making of a scientist (from the autobiographical What do you care what other people think?; emphasis mine):

One kid says to me, See that bird? What kind of bird is that?

I said, I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.

He says, It's a Brown-throated Thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!

But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: See that bird? he says. It's a Spencer's Warbler. (I knew he didn't know the real name.) Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing—that's what counts. (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

(He goes on to describe how the two Feynmans wondered why birds preen their feathers, and watched to see if birds that had just landed preened more than ones that had been on the ground for a while; and he concludes with the elder Feynman's explanation that wherever there is a source of food, some organism exists to exploit it.)

I wish I could tell this story—including the schoolyard dialogue so reminiscent of some mailing list discussions—to all the people who take bird identification so seriously that they become hostile and withdrawn if anyone disagrees with them, and to people who think that being able to identify obscure species is all there is to bird-watching.