Sunday, January 29, 2012

Would Unrealistic Field Guides Be Useful?

Debates about new field guides these days usually focus on whether the book uses illustration or photographs.  There is agreement, as far as I'm concerned, on the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies.  Photographs do a better job showing how birds actually appear in the field but are difficult to obtain (the new Crossley ID guides take a very thoughtful approach).  Illustrations look less "realistic" by virtue of the fact that they are artistic creations, but they are much more easily manipulated to show different plumages and for comparisons. 

Though illustrations are representations, it seems that the one constant for both types of field guides is the quest for realism.  This make total sense, of course: if you want to help people recognize the birds around them you'd want your images to look like the birds.  More than that, the subtle differences between many species mean that the more realistic the representations in a field guide, the better the user will be able to make the correct ID. 

Part of me wonders, though, whether there is a point that increased realism comes at the expense of usefulness in learning.  I use field guides in two ways: for study and for reference.  I study the guides to learn about the birds, the goal being to bring the knowledge into the field and use it to ID birds without further consultation from the guide.  I reference a field guide when I can't remember something, like whether it's the Sharp-shinned or the Cooper's Hawk with the squared-off tail.  Even my earliest days of birding I studied the guide much more than I referenced it.  I knew that for all good birders, birding in the field was a closed-book exam - when one talks about the "skill" of a birder they're usually talking about the ability to identify quickly and without consultation.  If I wanted to be a good birder I had to learn the birds and remember them.

Increasingly realistic imagery isn't the only strategy for the study (i.e. learning and retention) of birds, but it is the only one (visually, that is) used in any of the field guides I know of.  Would unrealistic imagery help?  I'm thinking that if a birds' colors were shown in with more contrast or the diagnostic features of its structure exaggerated, it might serve as a memory trigger when the species is seen in the field, like some kind of visual mnemonic device. 

To help make my point I've made a series of crappy drawing of raptor heads.  PLEASE DON'T LAUGH AT THEM I KNOW THEY'RE NOT GOOD. 

These images clearly show a limited set of plumages (and these raptors might not, in retrospect, have provided the best example), but simplifying the birds' features (i.e. falcon facial patterns) and exaggerating the colors could help in identifying the birds later on. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are Birds Dislocated By Global Warming "Countable"?

"Wild" means that the bird's occurrence at the time and place of observation is not because it, or its recent ancestors, as ever been transported or otherwise assisted by man.
-Interpretation of ABA Rule 3

We all agree that global warming is caused my man, right?  If birds start showing up in strange new locations because those locations now have more suitable climates because of climate change, are those birds considered to be "otherwise assisted by man"? 

No, because that's crazy.  Hummingbirds that over-winter in northern climes subsisting on feeders are countable, and birds that cross on ships are countable.  

I'm just thinking about it because I've been thinking a lot about Rule 3, namely how hard it is for bird records committees to judge whether a bird is an escapee or a wild bird.  Okay, okay, I'm upset that I drove forever and missed the Chaffinch today.  Are you happy?  I missed the Chaffinch.  I don't even care.

But seriously, the escapee/wild problem is the biggest problem facing records committees, correct?  How could it not be?  If a bird - a Common Chaffinch, say - is found in an odd place - I don't know, like, western New Jersey - and it doesn't have any obvious marks of confinement, how can the correct answer possibly be determined?  If both potential explanations - escapee or vagrant - are possible then anything after that is a guess.  Informed or not, without further evidence any decision is just playing the odds.  

I don't know much about the subject, but it's interesting.  I'm going to try to work on some posts coming up here to tackle the issue.  Hope they'll be showing up soon.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Which Bird Has The Weirdest Range?

I like looking though field guides at birds' ranges.  I like the neat little stories that they tell about migration, and the things you can learn about the natural characteristics of the US.  OK, I also like the pretty colors. 

There are a couple different kinds of ranges.  There are the neotropical migrants with summer ranges in the northern US or Canada and winter ranges either absent or in Florida or whatever.  There are the elevation migrants (I'm sure there are scientific names for these things), like Townsend's Solitaire, that stay in the mountains during the summer but spread out to lower elevations when they're forced out by snow and cold.

Then of course there are the non-migratory birds.  These guys are the "downers" of the range pages.  They're boring (just one color) and many of their ranges are broken up by man-made habitat fragmentation (see: grouse).  I try to flip past these guys pretty quick.

The antidote to the lame-o non-migrants are birds with weird bits in their ranges.  I'm using a Peterson guide for this, and there plenty of great examples.  Why are there holes in the American Redstart range in South Dakota and Illinois?  What does the Whip-Poor-Will find objectionable about western Ohio and the Binghamton, NY area?  What's up with that weird spot in south-central North Carolina where Vesper Sparrows can be found?

The bird with the weirdest range, though, is the Black-crowned Night Heron.  Look at this thing!

What a kook!  Stays year-round in Louisiana and south Alabama but skips over Mississippi?  Has no problem getting up into the depths of Alberta but won't touch Wyoming?  What's up with that little dot on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan?  I love it.  

Congrats, Black-crowned Night Heron, stay weird.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Am I The Only Birder Who Didn't Know...

...that Savannah Sparrows are named after the city of Savannah, GA and not the synonym for "grassland"?  I figured that since they're most common in fields and meadows, they were named for that habitat. 

According to a little thing called "the dictionary" (I'd never heard of it either), both "savanna" and "savannah" are proper spellings of the landscape, but the sparrow was named because the first specimens were taken there by Alexander Wilson.  

Quick: Without cheating, there are four other North American species named after American cities.  What be they?

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