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
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
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 haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.
It's a Brown-throated Thrush. Your father doesn't teach you
But it was the opposite. He had already taught me:
See that bird?
It's a Spencer's Warbler. (I knew he didn't know the
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bird identification so seriously that they become hostile and withdrawn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.