It happens with startling regularity. The misidentification of birds, that is. We all do it, even those of us who claim to be pretty good at it.
It’s not just birds, though; it’s darned near everything we see and process visually. Attorneys with any experience know well that eyewitness accounts of events are usually in error to some degree. This was illustrated to me many years ago with a class exercise at the Air Force’s flight safety officer school. We were asked to recall details of a two-minute film we had just watched together. All of us—let me say that again—all of us were wrong to some extent.
With that in mind, it’s really not too surprising that when folks like those at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department hear stories of this critter or that, some measure of caution is exercised before taking the claim at face value.
Digital imagery has changed the game considerably, however. Trail cams can now capture pretty reliable images of rare animals like a fisher or a puma, nearly removing the guesswork that used to accompany such claims. Everyone’s got a cellphone, too. A quick snapshot of this or that and the image is now studied, parsed, dissected, and forwarded instantly.
Given all the tools available to us today, one would think misidentification would be a thing of the past.
Just last week I got an email from a friend, forwarding photographs of a bird taken by a homeowner in town. It was fairly obviously a bird of prey with its hooked beak, erect posture and menacing mien. A few opinions were tossed about prior to these images arriving in my inbox. The consensus in the email thread concluded the bird in question was a prairie falcon. It wasn’t.
Actually, if someone claims to have seen a prairie falcon in their boulevard tree in the middle of town, no pictures are needed to know it isn’t what they think it is. Why? Prairie falcons, you see, are called that for a reason. They are birds of open dry landscapes with views of the horizon in every direction. Think Badlands. That’s where you find prairie falcons in North Dakota. The bird in the photo was a Cooper’s hawk. It nearly always is.
I say that because I frequently hear from folks in town telling me about a raptor they are seeing in their yard. The stories usually include a claim they’ve got one of Fargo’s peregrine falcons killing birds in their neighborhood or some version of this theme. Oh, and here’s a picture of it sitting on my chain-link fence. The photo, of course, will be almost always a Cooper’s hawk. Peregrines are birds of barren cliffs and don’t spend time in wooded areas.
In a similar fashion, I occasionally hear about snowy owls in folks’ yards, mostly in winter. Much like the falcons, though, snowy owls require open areas to hunt and roost and won’t be in your elm tree. It’s most often a very pale great horned owl that’s responsible for snowy owl reports from town.
Once a person starts to comprehend birds and their habits, an understanding develops. The big picture begins to emerge with increasing clarity. Over time you get a sense as to where and when certain species ought to be. Or ought not to be.
Cases like those mentioned above call for the application of the philosophical principle of Occam’s razor.
That is, given two explanations for the same thing, the simpler one is usually correct. Odd occurrences would have had to have taken place for a prairie falcon to be sitting in a Fargo backyard. Ergo, the logical explanation is that it is something else, something expected.
Odds favor the normal. Still, there’s always a chance it is something rare, however slim. Lightning does strike and birds can and do show up in out-of-the-way places and during the wrong season. Weird things happen. Just make sure you get a good photograph, or document it in some clear way. The expectation will be that of something usual. But I’ll still want to see the picture. Just in case.