How to Know the Birds: No. 39, What If They Cancelled Bird ID?

  • What: Gray Flycatcher, Empidonax wrightii
  • When: Sunday, July 12, 2020
  • Where: Hardscrabble Mountain, Eagle County, Colorado

One of my kids, for part of his summer reading project, recently completed Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (2017). In the first section of the book, Rovelli invites the reader to imagine a universe without time. Hours and minutes; before and after; “midnight” and “Tuesday”—all those things are gone. It is, on the face of it, an absurd proposition, especially for a physicist like Rovelli. You might as well remove molecules from chemistry or meaning from language. Or how about this: birding without field identification.

On a warm Sunday morning earlier this month (dang it! “Sunday morning…this month…”), I was in the dry foothills of Colorado’s West Slope. This is lonely country, austere and beautiful, the sort of place where one can begin to wrap one’s mind around the idea of a world without time. In the second of the three parts of The Order of Time, that is where we find ourselves—in a place where time, at least as it has been formally conceived, is no more.

I’ll be honest with you. I was keenly aware that morning of the passage of classical, canonical time. I was in between errands, both of them time-sensitive. But during my, er, time in the foothills, I got to thinking about the birderly equivalent of physics without temporality. You see, there were empids everywhere I went: on every juniper, it seemed, on practically every sagebrush; and in the airspace all about. “Empids” are what birders call flycatchers in the genus Empidonax, and one species, the gray flycatcher, E. wrightii, outnumbered all other bird species combined in this place.

Let’s play a word association game. I say, “Empid,” you say, “__________.” Let me guess: “Field ID,” or “Bird identification,” or “ID challenge.” You get the picture. Here in the ABA Area, the Empidonax flycatchers, more than any other group—more than Calidris sandpipers, more than even Larus gulls—are the epitome of bird ID. In a typical encounter, the empid seen IS the empid identified, an equivalency; the one is the instantiation of the other, the other the reification of the one.

But not here. I say, “Empid in mid-July on the sere slopes of Eagle County,” you say, “__________.” Well, you don’t say, “ID challenge.” That’s because the probability of finding an empid other than wrightii is nil. And so the gray flycatcher is become something new and different, as though it were a physics equation without the time variable. Physics without time, according to Rovelli, is a place of new conceptions, new possibilities. The world goes back to being the world, dynamic and multivariate. An empid—it’s a gray flycatcher of course—hops up onto a juniper snag. You say, “__________.”

In the multi-media sampler that follows, we engage the gray flycatcher anew. The ID variable has been deleted from the various equations of the experience of birding. Rovelli’s thought experiment is a “world stripped to its essence, glittering with an arid and troubling beauty.” It is an “empty windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.” And although it is “a strange alien world,” it is “nevertheless still the one to which we belong.” The simulacrum, it turns out, is the real deal. Rovelli’s metaphor, placed in the mountains, in the land of rock and sky, IS the literal, physical world of the gray flycatcher and those who seek the species. Let’s take a look:

In this self-portrait, the author enters the realm of the gray flycatcher, a species in the genus Empidonax. There is a >99% chance of finding an “empid” here, and a >99.9% chance that it will be E. wrightii, the gray flycatcher. Field ID, central to the normative engagement of Empidonax flycatchers, is become irrelevant. Photo by Ted Floyd’s shadow of © Ted Floyd taking a picture of Ted Floyd’s shadow.

Empids are famously hard to ID. Fledgling empids like this one are nigh on impossible. Or so we are accustomed to thinking. This fledgling has to be a gray flycatcher for the simple reason that we have taken ID out of the equation. There is nothing else for it to be—and so now we must reconceive the bird as something other than a challenge for field identification. Photo by © Ted Floyd—for additional gray flycatcher media, consult the author’s eBird checklist for the morning of July 12, 2020.

Question: At what stage in its life does the gray flycatcher begin to exhibit its stereotyped tail-dipping behavior? Answer: Evidently within days of fledgling. Did you know that? Did anybody know that? And what’s up with that goldfinch-like utterance by the fledgling? Did you know they make that sound? Video by © Ted Floyd—visit the Macaulay Library’s video archives for additional footage of the flycatchers of Hardscrabble Mountain.

The simple sounds of adult gray flycatchers—the whit call and the ribbit song—are of some use in field ID. The diverse vocalizations of fledglings in family groups, a strange combination of soft and frenzied, add color and character to the sagebrush-and-juniper scrublands in which the species breeds. Recording by © Ted Floyd—go to Xeno-Canto for a gallery of gray flycatcher audio from the same place.

Clear skies and rimrocks in sharp relief; gray flycatchers patrolling the hillsides; and a dark wood-nymph resting on the gypsum-rich caliche underfoot. This little lepidopteran, Cercyonis oetus, is abundant here, the gray flycatcher of its clan, easily outnumbering all other butterflies. I say, “Gray flycatcher,” you exult, “A landscape, a world, a universe more dynamic, more alive, than we ever knew.” Photo by © Ted Floyd—check out these iNaturalist uploads of more photos of dark wood-nymphs from this site.

In Positions, a compendium from 1981 of interviews with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, a three-stage progression for modern analysis is put forth: deconstruction → realignment → rehabilitation. Steps 2 and 3, especially Step 3, often get lost in the shuffle. But not so in The Order of Time, an exemplary work of deconstructionism. I mean, the middle chapter of the middle part of the book, the point at which we are completely unmoored from classical physics, is called “The Inadequacy of Grammar.” The chapter prior: “The World is Made of Events, Not Things.” You can’t get any more Derridean than that.

In the third and final section of Rovelli’s book, time reappears. I won’t go full spoiler on you here, but, suffice it to say, time is reconstructed by Rovelli as something closer to the humanities than the sciences. Except that that disciplinary distinction is found to be wanting. You heard it here first: They’re gonna be teaching The Order of Time in textual analysis seminars this coming semester…

In the meantime, let us reconstruct bird ID for the present age. On a lark, I presented iNaturalist with my Hardscrabble Mountain gray flycatchers, and the app performed flawlessly. Not just the adults teed up in textbook fashion atop junipers; but also the fledglings, nearly featureless blobs of downy softness. Apps like iNaturalist and Merlin aren’t there yet; every one of us has a story about a woodpecker identified as a fish or something. But I think it’s inevitable. The apps, unlike many humans, keep learning and keep getting better. They’re already amazingly good.

iNaturalist works! The author fed the app tricky photos of barely fledged juvenile gray flycatchers, and the algorithm returned the correct result every time. See close-ups of these and other gray flycatchers by exploring the author’s eBird checklist for the morning of July 12, 2020.

On top of it all, we’ve got products coming online like Swarovski Optik’s dG, short for Digital Guide, an instrument that identifies the bird for you while you’ve got it in your field of view. The dG is in beta-testing, last I heard, but the details remaining to be worked out aren’t in the software; they’re just the hardware—some issues of ergonomics and portability and signal strength. Like the early, chess-playing, Kasparov-vanquishing computers, the dG prototype already gets the job done.

Will humans stop identifying birds? No, of course not. We have calculators, after all, yet we still do math. In a pinch, you or I can make change for a $20, calculate Mike Trout’s OPS, or figure the 95% rule threshold for a Big Day with 180 species. And so it is, really, with the vast majority of the birds we encounter. We see a blue jay or barn swallow or killdeer, and we know immediately what it is. As to the “hard” IDs, here’s the hard truth: Yes, I think we’re getting to the point—we’re almost there, I would say—where we’re going to turn things over to the machines. And why wouldn’t we? They’re better, they’re faster, they’re free. Is it somehow nobler or purer to look something up in a book than to download it? If so, I got a sheet of long division problems I’d like you to solve.

But there’s something bigger, quite a bit bigger, at play here, and I’m going to end on that note. Rick Wright prophesied it in a 2014 essay that I commend to every thinking birder:

A century ago, it was anybody’s guess which direction this newborn hobby would grow in. The defining focus of American birding could have been conservation, or life history study, or aesthetics, or taxidermy, or any of the thousand and one things the human mind can do with a living object. Instead, we decided, I believe more or less consciously, to make bird-watching about identification.

I concur with that assessment. We made bird-watching, and in due course birding, about field identification. And now here we are a century later. Bird ID has been very nearly obviated. But not with brighter binoculars and bigger field guides, the way we anticipated for much of the 100-year reign of modern birding. Identifying birds used to be an objective, a destination, in countless instances the end of a journey. Like a chemical reaction:

this field mark + that field mark E. wrightii, the gray flycatcher

We have arrived at the point now where we might decompose the solution, not back into its constituent field marks, but rather into an explosion of things new and wondrous:

identification  conservation + aesthetics + life history study + . . . + all the things the human mind can do with a living object

A century is a good run for any paradigm.

Since the early 1900s, the chief objective of birding has been to put the name on a bird like this gray flycatcher. But field ID is on the verge of being repurposed as a jumping-off point for wonder and discovery hitherto unimagined. Photos by © Ted Floyd.



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.