American Birding Podcast



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.