You may have heard this saying–it’s sort of funny–about dialogue in university humanities departments: “The disagreements are so bitter because the stakes are so low.” It’s funny, as I said, but I also think it’s unfair. What’s at stake is human thought, and isn’t the grandest and most precious thing about our species?
It’s wonderful that we humans have invented chess and go, jazz and opera and Mongolian long songs, poststructuralism and various religions, and birding. I make no apology for the things that fire us up: third-cycle Thayer’s Gulls, hybrid geese, cryptic species in the New World tropics, etc. Wondering about those things brings out the best in us, I would say.
They’re complex matters. They’re not cut and dried. It’s natural to talk about gulls and geese and tapaculos. Debate and disagreement ensue, and that’s fine.
Of late there’s been a bit of debate, you may have noticed, on the pages of Birding magazine. It’s about the plumages and molts of adult Northern Harriers. The latest foray comes from molt guru Peter Pyle on pp. 46-53 of the January/February issue.
The fine points of the debate are interesting to me, but it’s the big picture that I find more compelling. The big picture, for me, is that adult male Northern Harriers are more complex and more fascinating than I had given them credit for. They don’t fit into neat boxes, as I once imagined. These days, when I see male harriers, I find myself asking questions–about interactions among physiology, feather wear, and the breeding cycle–I’d never thought of.
The stakes are high, the way I see it. In pondering harrier molts and plumages, my mind has been opened to an expanded conception of the natural world. For my money, this is birderly debate at its best.
How about you? Can you think of an ornithological argument you’ve been involved in? One that led to a renewed or enhanced appreciation of the natural world?
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