Over the years, I’ve offered a lot of seemingly nonsensical advice. Bear with me. I’m about to do it again.
Now is when songbirds are returning home and starting families. It’s the perfect time to review my top-three list of self-contradictory maxims for becoming a better birder.
Topping the list: “The best way to make fewer mistakes is to make more mistakes.”
Nobody identifies every bird correctly every time. Nobody. Experts become experts by misidentifying a ton of birds along the way. Eventually, once you’ve made the same mistake enough times, you can move on to a new mistake. It keeps things fresh
On some birds, I’ve made the same mistake so many times that I’ve learned to be suspicious of my own judgment. You’d think, after six decades of birding, that I could tell the difference between the call of a northern flicker and that of a pileated woodpecker. Usually, I can. But sometimes I still screw it up. Unless I see it, I’m suspicious of my own identification.
Some experts can tell the difference between common terns and arctic terns on the wing almost instantly. I can’t. I have to work hard at it, and even then I don’t trust myself.
The birds are back in abundance. They’re singing. They’re as easy to find now as they will ever be. So go forth and make mistakes. It’s how we learn.
Next maxim: “Be wrong fast.” If you’re going to make a mistake, do it as quickly as possible. That has two advantages.
First, it improves your instincts. The slowest way to make a mistake is to find the wrong picture in a guidebook. Usually, that’s because the incorrect bird looks like the correct bird, but perhaps something was amiss in the color or field marks. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve pulled out the book and thumbed through the pages, searching for the correct identification, the bird is gone. No chance to double-check.
Furthermore, many identity clues have little to do with color and field marks. Often, behavior and location are more meaningful. Getting a first impression means making a speedy assessment of all the clues. There’s plenty of time to reassess and reidentify a bird later.
When leading a bird walk, I regularly call out first impressions, sometimes in error. I’ve been wrong so often, I long ago got over being embarrassed about it. For every birder at every skill level, being wrong is never a reason for embarrassment. It’s how we learn.
Being wrong fast is especially important when birding with a group. I’ve known many people who saw a cool bird, but delayed calling attention to it for fear of embarrassment. Not only did the viewer miss the chance for assistance, but the rest of the group missed seeing the bird altogether.
Being wrong fast gives the guide a chance to help with your identification and point out key features to remember. There are innumerable walks, festivals and tours this season, and each is an educational opportunity not to be squandered for fear of embarrassment.
Final maxim: “Rip out the pages.”
I’ve counseled for years that guidebooks have too many birds in them. I’ve suggested ripping out all the unnecessary pages: any birds that don’t live here, and the ones that rarely wander in. Guidebooks usually depict all the birds in North America, or at least half of North America. Many simply aren’t found here. When going through a book, trying to identify the bird you just saw, it’s unhelpful to have too many choices.
Ripping out the pages may be overkill, but the concept is universal. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a free bird identification app called Merlin. I’ll have more to say about that later this summer, but the first thing the app asks is, “Where are you?” The app knows the range of all the birds in its database, and it knows what each bird sounds like.
But it also knows that many species sound like other species, and there can be variation even within the same species. So before making an identification suggestion, it wants to know if the suggestion is possible for your area.
For instance, I can’t tell the difference between the song of a scarlet tanager in Maine and a western tanager in Montana. Perhaps neither can Merlin. So before Merlin makes a suggestion in Maine, it rips out the Montana pages, figuratively. Narrowing down your list of likely suspects is always helpful. If Merlin can do it, so can you.