My bird identification skills are shaping up

When I was a kid, my dad showed me outlines of Japanese aircraft in cards and books that he’d been issued while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Recognizing the difference between a Japanese Zero and an American P-51 Mustang, he told me, could give you and your buddies a few precious seconds more to hunker down in a bunker and not get strafed.

There’s no comparison between taking cover in the jungles of New Guinea and strolling the suburban woods of New Jersey, of course, but those lessons on fighter and bomber silhouettes translate well to bird identification.

I’ve been ruminating on how clever our animal friends have been over the centuries in evolving natural camouflage, like the coats of squirrels that blend them into the bark on the trees they climb, affording them a bit of protection against predator hawks circling above.

Birds have the knack for concealment, too. I’ve been struck by how well they blend into the branches of the trees where they perch. I’ve been fooled many times by birds standing stock still on a limb, at which my eyes send a signal to my brain that says, “branch, don’t bother raising your binoculars.” Then the bird shakes its wings and flies off, leaving me to wonder at how blind I was.

The longer I’ve been birding, though, the more likely it is that the eye-to-brain messaging works the other way around. I think I see a bird in the tall grass and it turns out to be a cluster of leaves. Decaying plant matter, to my eyes at least, has an amazing ability to emulate the form of birds.

This morning, I was walking on the golf course adjacent to our lot and from about 50 yards out from a retention wall, I halted at what I thought might be a great blue heron. I often see them at the ponds at the course, but not today. The sinuous pattern I spotted was not the graceful neckline of a heron but merely an illusion presented by the gaps in the stone wall hugging the green.

Is it a bird or is it a plane? My tissue dispenser plays tricks on me.

The most absurd example of my eyes and brain trying to identify everything around me came yesterday as I approached a box of tissues. What kind of bird is that, I wondered as I looked at the tissue poking out of the top of the dispenser. Or does it look more like an airplane?

I laughed at myself for trying to map a bit of nature onto a Kleenex. But later I smiled because that little bit of foolishness told me that I’ve trained my brain to look for bird-like patterns all around me. I believe I’ve progressed to the point where at a glance I can tell the difference between a magpie and a Mitsubishi.

I will need to work harder, though, on identifying the wide varieties of flycatchers — or are they just branches poking through the leaves?

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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