Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Natural Mind, Part 1

The other day I went on a short birding trip with a friend who is new to birding (not new to appreciating birds, just new to learning and documenting what type they are). She said she felt she would never be able to recognize and remember all the different types. I remember feeling the same way when I began birding a few years ago. But birding has taught me a lot about the human mind, mainly that it instinctively wants to recognize and remember the natural world.

There are so many cues for recognizing birds. Color is the easiest one. We can all recognize a cardinal or a blue jay, and it’s impossible to forget an American goldfinch once you’ve seen the male in his yellow summertime glory. We also easily know general types and their general niche in the ecosystem: ducks are found near water, vultures soar high in the air. Those are good starting points, and we already know them, even without thinking much about them. At some point our minds noticed those features and filed them away in our innate filing system.

It only takes a little bit of observation time to start filling in some of the other features. One is song. That seems like the hardest to memorize, especially given that most of us think we are visual rather than aural learners. But our minds are working on those, too. I was telling my friend that many people memorize bird songs by turning them into English phrases, such as “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, please!” for the Carolina wren. “Wait, I know that one,” she immediately said. She had heard that unmistakable melody, at surprisingly loud volume, all around her house, all year long. Her mind had already recognized and memorized it; she just didn’t have a label to put on it yet.

Another is a more subtle sense of where to find birds. Robins are on the ground during the nesting season, looking for earthworms. But many other birds are never seen on the ground. If you hear a Baltimore oriole - another unmistakable sound once you learn it - you should always look up in the very top of the trees; you will likely never see one on the ground. If you see a bird in the evening flying across your yard, swooping and diving and rising up again, over and over and over, chances are it’s a swallow of some kind.

Similarly, flight is a big indicator. Finches have a cute little up and down swoopy flight. Doves can move at an incredible speed straight across the sky, while a blue jay has a slow, clumsy flight. Shape and flight together are helpful indicators. I’m still learning to differentiate raptors, and one of the best ways to do so is to look at the general shape as they fly, which will tell you whether it’s a soaring hawk hunting for mammals (buteo, such as a red-tailed hawk), an agile-flying hawk hunting for other birds (accipter, such as a sharp-shinned hawk), or a flying-super-fast-or-hovering falcon hunting for just about anything (falcon, such as an American kestrel).

Once you get the big categories under your belt, more subtle features help further. Birders look for the number of wingbars a bird has or whether there are colored rings around their eyes. There are spots, stripes, and other marks. Bill type and shape are big helps as well: seed eaters have a certain bill shape that is very different from insect eaters, and we can all recognize the unique shape and function of the hummingbird’s nectar-extracting bill.

And, finally, our minds classify through comparison and contrast. As the categories sharpen, we instinctively begin to use those categories to differentiate birds. I thought I saw a phoebe while birding one morning last week. But the bird was a little bigger than a phoebe and had a white bar at the end of its tail, so I knew immediately it was an Eastern kingbird. When it made its buzzy sound, that was additional confirmation.

I read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in college, during a wonderful class on Faulkner taught by Dr. Charles Chappell at Hendrix College. I read it easily, despite the fact that it’s such a difficult book. It is narrated through stream of consciousness by a character who is cognitively disabled, and it makes little sense. Somehow I knew that I should simply file the information presented in each narrative away in my mind and not worry too much whether I understood it or not. Suddenly, in a series of moments of clarity toward the end, I had enough information to get what Benjy was trying to say. I often think of that when birding or working to identify trees or figuring out any other aspect of nature. All I have to do is let the information flow into the incredible classification system that is my brain, and over time my brain will sort it all out and give me the ID.

In my next blog on this topic, we’ll take a look at some of the indigenous peoples who live close to nature and use their innate classification system to memorize hundreds of species and aspects of the flora and fauna on which they depend for survival.