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Would You Consider the Thoreauvian Approach to Bird Identification?

Henry David Thoreau was famously a better botanist than ornithologist, but he wasn’t too bad with his birds either. In spring, he would get warbler fever like the rest of us and travel to a place called Holden Swamp to look for them. It only takes a little stretch of the imagination to hear Henry grumbling about how good Magee used to be before all the crowds started coming. And he absolutely adored the wood thrush, which he references in his journal thirty-nine times: exactly as many as his good buddy Emerson.

Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond, as it exists today.

Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond, as it exists today.

But it was as I was reading Victor Carl Friesen’s interesting The Spirit of the Huckleberry: Sensuousness in Henry Thoreau that I encountered what to me was an intriguing aspect of Thoreau’s birding history. According to Friesen, in his journal Thoreau occasionally references a bird he calls the “night-warbler,” which Thoreau never positively identifies. He told Emerson about the night-warbler, and it was Emerson who advised him not to try to identify the bird because it was important to leave some mystery in nature. “That’s so Emerson,” said my wife when I told her the story.

In this instance, Emerson seems to have convinced him. Thoreau resisted his desire to determine the night-warbler’s identity, and it remains a mystery for us today. But Emerson’s values and Thoreau’s decision are not what birding culture has become. Indeed, they seem almost heretical. Cinching the ID is the entire point of the game. We labor over every mystery bird, and experts from around the world convene on the internet to nail down even the most difficult cases of hybridization, aberrant plumage, you name it. Birders fill entire bookshelves with volumes dedicated to the challenges of advanced identification. We are so not Emerson or Thoreau.

So I’ll pose the question: would you ever, under any conceivable circumstance, adopt the Thoreauvian approach to bird identification? Would you willingly desist from the pursuit of a correct ID to leave mystery in nature? Is mystery no longer a value we consider worthwhile?

As for me, I don’t know whether I’d ever adopt the Thoreauvian approach to bird identification or not, but if I had the chance to take a birdwalk around the pond with either the man himself or someone who could nail every flight call and whisper-song, I think I know whom I’d choose.

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Ted Floyd

    “The merlin it seemed to me it might be called: but I care not for its name.” So wrote Thoreau in this journal of April 29, 1846.

    In an analysis in Birding (Dec. 2002, p. 555) of this episode, Allan Burns arrives at a conclusion that’s a bit different from Frank Izaguirre’s: “The modern birder’s obsessive attention to detail traces at least indirectly to the influence of Thoreau.”

    As Frank notes, Thoreau was enthusiastic about the spring warbler migration. To put it mildly!–Paul Hess reports in Birding (May 2011, p. 24) that Thoreau’s detailed records have been analyzed by modern scientists looking at longterm changes in the synchronized “phenology” (basically, the timing) of bud burst, caterpillar abundance, and the spring migration of birds. With astonishing prescience, Thoreau predicted that his observations might have relevance to scientists interested in understanding–wait for it–climate change.

    So here’s the deal. Thoreau couldn’t be bothered with the name of the merlin or the “night warbler.” But you can bet his observations were accurate, his instincts spot-on, and his insights penetrating. Or so I opine. What can I say?–I’m a Thoreauvian, at least on my better days.

    Emerson. Whew. I mean, he’s the person, perhaps more than any other, who breathed life into the American spirit. He’s an arch-Platonist, disdainful of the facts, always searching for a higher truth. Emerson’s noblest intellectual successors are such figures as Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams. But let’s be honest: Emerson’s legacy also extents to creationists and “birthers,” to climate-change deniers and supply-side “economists.”

    Emerson and Thoreau share certain qualities and traits: prodigious intellects, preternatural work ethics, geography and gender of course, and a deep and abiding humanity. But I guess I am most attracted to the essential tension in their visions: Emerson the Platonist, Thoreau the realist.

    Here’s a final thought. Emerson’s favorite bird was the Black-capped Chickadee for its Yankee industriousness; Thoreau’s was the Wood Thrush because it sang freedom.

    Great stuff, Frank. You should write a book about this stuff… 🙂

    • Ted Floyd

      A great book for persons looking to get into Thoreau on Birds is, well, “Thoreau on Birds” (Beacon Books, 1993), edited by John Hay.

      • Frank Izaguirre

        I’m adding that to my reading list!

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Thoreau’s attention to detail was certainly extraordinary. I read somewhere that a paper he wrote on I want to say forest succession, or a similar topic, was cited in a botanical article as recently as the 1940s.

      But he always kept an ear open for Emersonian ideals, and I think that’s what intrigued me about the “night-warbler” story. So much of what he wrote and how he lived his life was a balancing act between his passion for the details of natural history and a search for higher ideals. He tried to keep the worlds of biology and literature woven together and intertwined right at the time when they were separating.

      The way I see it, Thoreau is kinda liking birding itself in that way. Ornithology is a big part of birding culture: contributing to citizen science projects is such a celebrated tradition, and we love learning about all the latest discoveries made by researchers. But birding is not just science, far from it. And when we’re out there, I think a lot of us wonder what’s really driving us, how it all fits in to the bigger scheme.

      Ok, maybe there’s my book title: Where I Birded, and What I Birded For.

      • Ted Floyd

        Meanwhile, Thoreau’s ornithological studies are being cited in prominent journals in the 2000s and 2010s!

        Seriously: Ecology 89:332-241 (2008), Condor 112:754-762 (2010).

        Thoreau, like Theodore Roosevelt, is remembered for things other than ornithology. And Thoreau, like Roosevelt, was a top-flight birder and field ornithologist.

        • Frank Izaguirre

          Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter I believe… any other birder presidents? I had the thought some time ago that that could be the subject for another blog post.

          • Laura Erickson

            FDR was an avid birder–he took a May day off during the war to go birding. I don’t think Carter was a birder until after his presidency. The two Roosevelts were the only presidents ever to have been members of the AOU. ABA? They never heard of it.

  • gyrfalcon

    I have often let the ID of a bird go unknown if I am unable to get a really good look at it. I want to be able to see and personally ID it before I will consider it “counted”. I’ve “missed” out on a handful of lifers, even ones that I have photographed, because I failed to positively ID them while I had them in my binoculars or scope. I know it might go against the norm, but I don’t want to gain a new lifer bird just because someone on the internet told me what the bird in my photograph is.

  • Laura Erickson

    I love this quote by Walt Whitman. (1892, Prose Works: “Specimen Days: Birds and a Caution”)

    Many I cannot name; but I do not very particularly seek information. (You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things, and of the sentiment of feather’d, wooded, river, or marine Nature generally. I repeat it—don’t want to know too exactly, or the reasons why.)

    • Frank Izaguirre

      What a wonderful passage! I may recite it next time I struggle with some fall warblers 😉

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