BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Hindsight

They say hindsight is 20–20. That after looking back on something you experienced, after you have time to reflect on it, it’s a lot easier to accurately evaluate what happened. I’m not so sure. Especially when it comes to thinking back on a bird you saw, what it really looked like, and how you identified it.

About a year ago, I happened upon an article in The New Yorker magazine that was both intriguing and sobering. It was about the criminal justice system and the accuracy of eyewitness testimony at trials, but it could have been about birding and documenting rarities just as well.

Over a hundred years ago, a law professor staged a crime in his classroom, without telling his class in advance it was all an act. After it was over: “He asked his students, as eyewitnesses, to describe exactly what they had seen....The results were dismal. The most accurate witness got 26 per cent of the significant details wrong; others up to 80 per cent.”

The students’ performance was no aberration, the article went on to say, as this experiment and similar results have recurred on countless occasions in the next hundred years. In other words, eyewitnesses get the facts wrong at a high rate, and the author’s repeated use of the word “misidentification” in this discussion immediately caught my eye. Was I reading about eyewitness testimony at trials or inadequately documented bird sightings?

Similar experiments revealed something further. It had been assumed that a witness with a high level of confidence would correspond to more accurate testimony. Not so: “The witnesses who picked the wrong person out of the lineup were just as confident about their choices as those who identified the right person.” This reminded me of how often a rarity is reported by those who make a point of insisting how there was absolutely no doubt about what they saw.

Another pattern emerged from these experiments: “Having multiple witnesses did not ensure accurate identifications.” Unfortunately, the same is true in bird identification, even though many state bird records committees consider rarities seen by multiple observers to be automatically more credible than single-observer records. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee (MOURC) does not have this policy, which I believe is the correct approach. While it always adds to the credibility of a record to have as many observers as possible document a sighting, a higher number of birders seeing a rarity does not on its own guarantee a correct identification.

Years ago in Faribault County, two Mountain Plovers were reported and apparently correctly identified, and several observers flocked to the site the next few days, relocated the birds, and agreed on the ID. Unfortunately, a couple years later, it was shown the birds were actually American Golden-Plovers in a plumage unfamiliar to most birders and not then covered in any field guides. This was simply a matter of birders assuming the initial identification was correct and repeating the error when they saw the birds.

This was not an isolated event. Much more recently, in the fall of 2001, there were actually two similar incidents. A Yellow-billed Loon was found on Mille Lacs, and during the next few days several birders tried to relocate it. Some were sure they were successful, although it is now apparent the Yellow-billed Loon was only present for one day. What happened? It seems a Common Loon with a paler-than-normal bill and plumage showed up the next day in the same area, and birders naturally and incorrectly assumed this had to be the Yellow-billed.

And the following week and not far away in Aitkin County there was a report of a Brant. Some birders relocated the goose and understandably checked it off as a Brant, assuming the original ID was right. Others relocated the goose, took a second look, and correctly identified it as an immature blue-morph Snow Goose. The original observer made a simple ID error, and it was repeated by others who looked more at what the first observer said than at the bird and its actual field marks.

The New Yorker article continues with another account of witnesses to a staged crime who were shown six “mug shots,” which included the actual guilty person. Although all the witnesses had close and repeated looks at him, only 54 per cent made the correct ID. And when another group was shown six other photos which did not include the culprit, only 32 per cent correctly picked no one: “But most of the rest chose the wrong person — the one who most resembled the perpetrator.”

Again, consider how this parallels birders misidentifying birds. The mug shots are pictures in the field guide, and when someone says “it looked just like the picture in the book,” this doesn’t mean the ID was correct. And if the field guide mug shots the birder looks at don’t include the species or plumage of the bird actually seen, it’s easy to see how errors are made if the birder simply chooses the picture that seems the closest.

There is one final parallel with birding. “Witnesses who are not explicitly warned that a lineup may not include the actual perpetrator are substantially more likely to make a false identification, under the misapprehension that they’ve got to pick someone.” Similarly, some birders seem to think that everything they see can and should be identified. Such a notion is hardly the case, and forcing an ID on every bird will certainly lead to cases of mistaken identities.

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I’m sure you’ve noticed by now this Hindsight installment offers no helpful household hints on any tough ID problems. You may also be discouraged by all this, perhaps wondering if there’s any point or accuracy in sight records. But rather than discouraging you, this brief essay is meant instead to encourage you to be aware of pitfalls involved with identifying difficult birds, to take accurate field notes (if not photos) at the time of your observation, and to realize how matching pictures in the field guide to the birds in the field isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

And, if nothing else, just realize that we’re all human, and it’s human nature to have fallible memories of what we saw, to make mistakes, and to dislike making them. No, despite that article in The New Yorker, MOURC is not going to reject all sight records. But when it does turn one down, and that record is one of yours, relax. This is not a criminal trial. This is birding, it’s fun, and none of us is convicted, fined, or sent to jail as the result of our misidentifications.