Documenting Rarities, Part 3: Reality Check
by Ted Floyd
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Everybody’s heard that line, right?
Which one is “right”?
The original must, in some sense, be correct. It’s what Pope wrote. End of story.
I’m not so sure about that. Google the two phrases: You get 484,000 hits for Pope’s rendering, but 1,360,000 for the “wrong” version. If it’s on the internet, it has to be true.
Well, maybe not.
But there’s another sense, a deeper sense, in which our “knowledge” is more correct than Pope’s “learning.” Just as Pope intended “learning,” so we intend “knowledge.” Pope was wary of a little learning; we’re suspicious of a little knowledge.
In messing with Pope’s wording, we’ve constructed an alternate reality. No, we’ve done something more drastic: We’ve rejected Pope’s construction of reality; we’ve supplanted it with one of our own construction.
What on Earth does any of this have to do with the VN-8100PC? Stay with me; we’ll be talking about birds again soon enough.
“What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.”
I bet a lot of readers relate to those words much as I used to. Until recently, I assumed—more than that, I knew—they were the utterance of some turn-of-the-20th-century ornithologist. I pictured a scenario like this one: The teenage Ludlow Griscom (1890–1959) breathlessly reports a sighting of a rare Clay-colored Sparrow, only to be rebuked by a skeptical and wrong-headed museum man.
It’s a compelling story, a morality play for modern birders. Back in the benighted day, ornithologists used to shoot birds. But we’re better than that: more skilled, more knowledgeable, and, most of all, more virtuous.
Like any effective morality play, the Legend of Ludlow has affected our behavior. From my earliest days as a birder, it was drummed into me that the good birder keeps a field notebook. The good birder subscribes to North American Birds. The good birder aspires to serve on a bird records committee.
Those are good behaviors and aspirations.
But there’s a hitch. You see, The Legend of Ludlow is just that—a legend, a fiction. Go back to the turn of the 20th century, and you’ll discover that the proto-birding community is brimming with people, books, and other sources that are exemplary for their field ornithological sophistication. Check out Frank M. Chapman’s Birds of Eastern North America (1895), Neltje Blanchan’s Birds Every Child Should Know (1907), and especially Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study (1911). As to the ornithologists themselves, do you really want to argue the case that Robert Ridgway and Annie Alexander (right) weren’t good birders? (Answer: Do yourself a favor; don’t go there.)
Well? Well, who said it? What cretin of a specimen preparator uttered those obnoxious words?—“What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.”
That’s the most delicious part of it. Those words are fiction, parody even. They’re spoken by a character in Arthur Ransome’s Great Northern? (1947). Ransome’s strange work—part children’s book, part parody, and, oh yes, part morality play—was published in the same year as the epochal third edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide. By 1947, a modern birding ethic had been long established. By 1947, the contemporary birding community—its ways and mores, its narratives and traditions, its folklore and legends—had taken form. Writers like Ransome and Peterson affirmed, in their very different voices, the moral precepts of modern birding.
Birding, I’ve argued elsewhere, emphatically is not a form of escapism. It’s just the opposite: Birding reconnects with us reality, with real life, with the here and now. When we go birding, our human sensory apparatus kicks into high gear; we achieve a heightened sense of awareness; birding is a high-definition sensory experience.
So it was for me—and I suspect for many of you—in my first few months as a birder. My first White-breasted Nuthatch was brilliant. My first Carolina Wren was radiant. My first Killdeer was incandescent, impossibly rare, yet right there, right in front of me, really there.
I didn’t see my first Red Crossbill until I’d been birding for close to a decade. By 1990, I’d learned enough that I was able to prepare for my first encounter with the species: It would be winter, of course, perhaps on a Christmas Bird Count; the flock, consisting entirely of adult males, would swoop down into a snow-laden conifer, pry open the cones, then fly away, chippering loudly.
That’s not at all how it happened. Instead, it was August. Although I was in western Montana, it was blazingly hot. The birds weren’t adult males. They were streaky juveniles, two of them, perched not in a spruce or fir, but rather on the branches of a broadleaf sapling along the banks of the Swan River. There they were, the real deal: as brilliant as any nuthatch, as radiant as any wren, as incandescent as any Killdeer—right in front of me, really there.
Recent encounters with Red Crossbills haven’t been the same.
In the 1990s, the Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra, evolved. It went from being a fine bird—undeniably handsome, a delectable winter rarity in much of the United States—to being an emblem for birding in the postmodern age. We have reconstructed the Red Crossbill. Now it is the “red-crossbill complex,” comprising eight, nine, maybe ten “cryptic species.” One way to distinguish among the red-crossbills is to examine acrylic implants of the insides of the birds’ bills. Another way is to learn the flight calls. According to The Sibley Guide, one red-crossbill says kwit, another says kiip, another says kyip, and two others say—wait for it—kyip, just like the others.
Back on June 14 of this year, some friends and I came upon a flock of red-crossbills at a feeding station near Rocky Mountain National Park, Boulder County, Colorado. What to do? Well, I whipped out my VN-8100PC (look how small that thing is!), obtained a recording of the flight call, and then obtained a recording of the so-called “toop” call (this vocalization is given by perched birds when they are agitated). To confirm my impression that these were the vocalizations of Type 2 Red-Crossbills (or “Ponderosa Pine Crossbills”), I have examined Audacity-generated sound spectrograms of the bird visible in the upper right of the photo:
Yep, that's the “species”-specific flight call of a Type 2 Red-Crossbill (left), and that’s the “toop” call (right). The heavy interference in the 6-kHz band, by the way, is from Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.
Meanwhile, one of my companions, Carl Bendorf, was busily photo-documenting the bird. The eight, nine, ten, or however many red-crossbills differ appreciably in bill morphology, as I noted above, and one way to tell them apart is by careful measurement of bill length. Carl’s fine photos (only two of dozens are shown here) are probably sufficiently detailed for assessing the millimeter-scale differences in bill size that separate the various red-crossbills which occur in Colorado.
Let’s now rewind the tape, if you will, to that blessed August 4, 1990. Here comes a confession that may surprise you: Way back in 1990, half a lifetime ago, I could, indeed, have envisaged the day I’d be identifying birds by sound spectrogram and by what we today refer to as digital photography. I knew enough then, I’d learned enough, to be able to anticipate new paradigms for field ornithology and new methods for bird identification.
Something else, though, some futuristic drama, I couldn’t have anticipated.
There was something wonderfully unrehearsed and insouciant about my encounter with those juvenile crossbills in the tree along the banks of the Swan River. They were right out in the open, in plain view, not expected, but not really unexpected either, just there. I wrote about the birds in my field notebook, and I immortalized them in the prefrontal cortex of my cerebrum. And that’s pretty much the end of the story.
The crossbills I saw a couple weeks ago were different. They were at a well-known feeding station; a moment ago, I googled the name of the place and got 20,200 hits. Back in the day, Red Crossbills were frustratingly nomadic; today, red-crossbills are easily tracked online. Seriously, there are apps for figuring out the location of the nearest red-crossbill, warbling-vireo, or any other bird “species.”
I entered the sighting in my field notebook, just as I would have in 1990. But in 1990, recall, that would have been the end of it. In 2012, that was only the beginning. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve intensively analyzed my sound spectrograms and Carl’s digital photos of one bird in particular.
Now for the part I couldn’t have anticipated in 1990: Even while this past month’s birds were still under observation, I was already giving thought to public presentation of this little interlude. Would I post to COBirds? Nah, not “worth” it. Alright, then, would I upload the sound recordings to Xeno-Canto? I’ll probably get around to doing so. Would I report the data to eBird? Of course. Would I blog about it? Evidently! Would Carl put the images on Flickr? Yup. And, of course, this question: Would it all be put out there on Facebook? Well, when I got back home, another one of my companions, Oliver Bendorf, had already posted images to my Facebook wall.
Al Gore may have invented the internet, but Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) was its prophet. Baudrillard wrote about “hard” concepts: semiotics, poststructuralism, hyperreality, and so forth. His most provocative contribution, if you ask me, and also his most invigorating, concerns what philosophers refer to as the simulacrum. Certainly, the basic concept of the simulacrum did not originate with Baudrillard; Plato, for starters, was all over it. But Baudillard had a special insight—one that has everything to do with the internet, and, I believe, with birding.
I discovered Baudrillard in the course of reading about the remarkable art of Richard Ankrom (b. 1955). Ankrom’s most famous work is a fascinating forgery. He installed a “fake” highway sign above I-5 in Los Angeles. Oh, the sign looks “real.” Indeed, the sign is better, far better, than what had been there: It has been remarked that Ankrom’s forgery has surely prevented nasty car crashes and probably saved lives. Even the installation (pun intended) of the art was a clever forgery: Ankrom disguised himself as a construction worker, faked his papers, and got his sign up there. The upshot: a smoother ride for untold millions of Angelenos and tourists, and, as I said, fewer car wrecks and fatalities.
On the one hand, Ankrom’s sign isn’t “real.” It’s a forgery. The real sign was ineffective, and it cost something to produce and install. (Ankrom did it all for free.) On the other hand, the Baudrillardians would say, Ankrom’s sign is real, a new reality, “hyperreality,” the truth even.
The VN-8100PC and the Nikon CoolPix are exemplary simulacra. So are we. What I mean is, So is our contemporary birding culture. Think about it for a moment. How often, in this age of digital photography, do you hear the following: “You'd better have proof!” It’s Arthur Ransome’s Great Northern? all over again. Our reality, constructed from a morality play. Our community and culture, the actualization of an old myth. We are a self-fulfilling prophesy.
E. Digby Baltzell’s famous book, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (1964), argued that mid-century birdwatching was a symbol for the old order. Jean Baudrillard would say that today’s birding, and today’s birders, are the old order.
Toward the end of his career, Baudrillard became interested in the construction and simulation of social networks. Ironically, he died just a few months after Facebook announced that membership eligibility would be open to open to all persons on Planet Earth.
Facebook has changed the way we bird, no question about it.
Let’s back up a step. Facebook has changed the way we live, no question about it. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Stephen Marche writes about our Facebook personas. Our Facebook personas are gussied up and beautified; they’re sanitized and bowdlerized; they’re better than the original.
Marche could have taken it a step further. An eternity ago—back in 2007—it was perhaps the case that our Facebook posts reflected our real lives. Five years later, something has changed: Today we order our “real” lives so that they will be well presented on Facebook.
I’ll say it again: When I was watching and recording those red-crossbills near Rocky Mountain National Park, I couldn’t help but give thought to how the experience would play out on Facebook and in the blogosphere. In contrast, when I watched those Red Crossbills in Montana, my conception of reality was restricted to the here and now, or, I suppose, to the then and there.
Which of the two experiences was subjectively, and perhaps even objectively, the better?
Stephen Marche’s main theme is that, paradoxically, Facebook—despite being an online agora for hundreds of millions of users—has made us lonelier. Rick Wright, coming at it from the birder’s point of view, said much the same thing in a troubling and important essay in the January/February 2008 Birding. In “Birding Alone” (pp. 42–47), Rick argues:
“By touting expertise, the internet devalues wisdom; by fostering anonymity, it obviates the complexity of true communication. It removes us from community, and then, in a sinister move, claims to supplant that lost community with a new e-polity of its own. But virtual community is no community at all. The internet both creates and conceals a social vacuum.
“The quality of private experience and the content of personal memory may perhaps seem not such a serious matter. But it is precisely individual experience and individual memory that collectively determine the nature of a political culture; if that is true, the online transformation of birding threatens to have some serious consequences indeed. If the traditional model of birding is in the process of being replaced by a new one, then the much-vaunted potential for amateur birders to contribute to science and to influence conservation policy is in danger of vanishing. The new model, encouraged and justified by the internet culture of instant expertise and monadic anonymity, imposes a memory structure that recognizes only discrete episodes, not a gradual and continuous process of learning; experience becomes a series of unrelated events rather than a dialectic of preparation, accomplishment, and qualification. Good luck replaces effort, diligence replaces insight, facts replace ideas. The isolation of events and the decontextualization of experience make our lives seem less a landscape than an archipelago, and our conduct of our lives less a journey than a series of island hops.
“If we cannot any longer conceive of our lives as landscapes, what hope is there that future generations will conceive of landscapes as life? The atomizing impulses of digital communication may well eventually transform our habits of thought to the extent that we can no longer see the vital connections that make up the natural world.”
Rick’s written a lot of great stuff over the years, in Birding and elsewhere. And I have to say, “Birding Alone” is one of his greatest. (I also have to say: You owe it to yourself to read the entire essay.) And I have one other thing to say: When I reread Rick’s essay, today, in 2012, I find that it is possessed of a certain quaintness. Why, Rick doesn’t even mention Facebook!
The scenario Rick Wright fretted about has come to pass. The future is now. Jean Baudrillard prophesied it. Al Gore played his part. Writers like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (google him) have charted a course of action for our new lives, our new reality, this hyperreality, on the other side of the digital divide.
But the best advice of all, I daresay, the wisest course of action, is from more than three centuries ago:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
—from An Essay on Criticism (1711), by Alexander Pope