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.
Earlier this month word spread of a rare bird showing up at a residence in the town of Leeds, N. D. It had been years since someone had seen a boreal chickadee (poecile hudsonicus) in North Dakota so it was with more than just casual interest that I read the report.
For whatever reason, there is a specific bird call that, when heard, will stop me in my tracks every time, and I’m not entirely sure why. It echoes, it haunts, it transfixes, it seems to reach into my very being, and it represents wildness like little else will. It certainly had an influence on Edgar Allan Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary …”). I’m speaking of the husky throaty croak of the common raven (Corvus corax).
Back in the era of Baird, Wilson and Audubon, it took a skilled marksman to study birds. Getting feathered carcasses in hand — via the barrel of a gun — was the accepted practice of the day for science. It wasn’t until quality viewing optics became available to the general public that the world drifted away from carrying firearms into the field and replaced them with binoculars and field guides. A similar change is taking place today.
Most of us who grew up in this area, I would imagine, are possessed of vivid memories of being around the kitchen when our mother or grandmother would spend countless hot, humid and sweaty hours in front of the stove canning various vegetables and other foods for future consumption. It was a summer-into-fall ritual that never seemed to end.
A couple of weeks ago I took advantage of my temporary location — Ft. Collins, Colo. — and drove several miles up the winding and picturesque Poudre Canyon to a spot where I spent the next four hours pleasantly hiking the six-mile loop trail to the top of Mt. McConnel and back. It was fabulous in so many ways. Yet, it stood in stark contrast to a couple of images stuck in my head from the previous 24 hours. The prior evening I enjoyed a pleasant dinner at a local restaurant.
Among the many benefits that came with being the victor in conflicts throughout the ages was the ability to dictate the narrative from that point on. “History is written by the winners” is a quote attributed to many past figures, including George Orwell. This truism is accurate for the most part but with one glaring gap. What if the victors didn’t write? A similar circumstance occurs with natural science, particularly in regard to “discoveries.” In our textbooks, we often read of a creature that was discovered by so-and-so, be it a bird, mammal, sea creature or whatever.
It was quite warm, almost hot, as I set out on a noon jog in Fargo some years ago in early June; so warm that I had removed my T-shirt to carry in my hand. My route would take me along the bike trails on the Red River’s west bank north of Lindenwood Park, ultimately finishing at The Forum building downtown. The sights, sounds and smells of an early summer day were evident at every stride as I basked in the vigor of a lunchtime workout.
Words and their meanings evolve over time, they change across geography, and they change among different groups of users. To describe a popular carbonated beverage in this country, for example, you will hear the term “pop,” you will hear the term “soda,” and you will hear the term “Coke,” depending on where you are. They all mean the same thing; it’s just called something different by different speakers. The naming of birds is an interesting subject falling along these wavering lines of usage.
It was well over 20 years ago. I was driving east on Cass County Road 20 north of West Fargo on my way to Hector International Airport. At one point the road crosses a small bridge over what I know as the Harwood Slough. As a person constantly on the lookout for critters and birds, I couldn’t help but pass a glance into the cattails. What I thought I saw in that brief moment surprised me, so much in fact that it necessitated a U-turn and closer investigation.