The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #12: How to Misidentify a Bird With Grace and Dignity

Mistakes happen to the best of us. Here's how to save face.

Despite being a terrible singer and dancer, and never being able to memorize lines, I acted in a few musicals in high school. In my junior year I was cast as a knight in a production of Once Upon a Mattress, which included a song for just us knights called “Normandy.” On opening night, under the bright lights, I mistakenly turned an eight-beat rest into a six-beat rest and surprised my castmates and the audience by belting out a two-second solo. I could see my father grimacing in the audience. It was my last production.

Though the audience is generally smaller, birding occasionally presents its own opportunities to make an ass out of yourself in front of other people—in this case, in the form of misidentification.

All birders, even the best of us, make constant errors. Birding is hard. All these dang things look and sound alike, and the light was bad, and it was flying away from me, and I had something in my eye.

Worse, birds don’t make appointments. You’ll be out there in the woods and, ready or not, something will zoom past, or sing out from the distance. You probably weren’t prepared for the question, but it’s now on you to answer: “What the heck was that?”

When you’re alone you are free to provide any answer you wish, such as “I have no idea what that was.” Or, a personal favorite, you can choose to ignore the question altogether and tell yourself that it was just a tree squeaking or something. When you’re with other birders, though, someone’s got to say something. Often, there’s an unspoken pressure to be the first to make an identification, like you’re all on some nature quiz show and you’ve got to buzz in first. Answer correctly and you look like a good birder, make a mistake and it can be embarrassing.

Reddish Egret. Photo: Lorraine Minns/Audubon Photography Awards

A misidentification is even worse when there are a lot of people who see it, which is pretty easy these days thanks to the internet. If you report something unusual to eBird, be prepared to have a local reviewer ask for more information or question your sighting. It’s happened to me a lot. Expect the same scrutiny if you report something to a public group like a birding listserv or Facebook group, but with the possibility that a misidentification will also be public.

But as everyone knows, it’s not whether you make mistakes that matters—everyone does—it’s how you handle it. A good birder can handle a mis-ID with grace and dignity, and come out a better birder on the other end. Here are some tips on how to do so gracefully.

Don’t worry about being definitive. In general, it’s good to be wary of birders who come to a quick conclusion on a tough or not-well-seen bird. I know it can feel like there’s pressure to come to an ID, but there’s no race. If you’re unable to come to a firm identification, that’s fine. Think of Jeopardy—you don’t have to buzz in. Instead of focusing on a conclusion, concentrate on what you saw: what the bird looked like or sounded like. Take photographs whenever possible, and notes on behavior. These can help you ration out an identification later, or help you be better prepared next time. It’s far better to talk through an identification than to jump to a conclusion and be wrong.

Don’t stick to your guns. When having made a public misidentification or when having your sightings questioned, the worst thing you can do is be stubborn. It’s a great feeling to find a rare bird, and it’s embarrassing to be called out for being wrong, but, man, you gotta just deal with it.

All eBird reviewers and listserv managers have stories of people who handled questions badly. Sometimes it’s an “I know what I saw!” or a “How dare you question me!” Other times there’s name calling and bad language. I know of a guy who tried to photoshop rare birds into a picture in response to an eBird reviewer asking for more information on an ID.

Don’t do that. Be cool. You can improve your identification skills, but it’s harder to improve your reputation.

Red-legged Honeycreeper. Photo: Leslie Scopes Anderson/Audubon Photography Awards

Get back-up. The best way to handle a misidentification is not to misidentify in the first place. And the more information you get from a sighting, the more likely you are to make a correct ID. I always try to have a camera with me when I’m birding in case I need to document something rare, or just to review later things I see in the field. Having a smartphone helps a ton, too, for checking photos or to record sounds.

Finally, if you’re having trouble with an identification, just ask someone. Email the listserv generally or pick someone’s email off it and just email them out of the blue. They’ll be flattered you asked. We’re all in this together, after all, and we’ve all been there.

Follow these rules and you can handle your next embarrassing misidentification like a pro. Get through those first confusing years and pretty soon you’ll be the one correcting others, that salty old pro making IDs from a mile away. And when that day comes, be nice to the new guys.

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