ALWAYS IN SEASON: Watching hockey, watching birds have something in common
Here's a question: How do we recognize birds? It was a hockey game that brought this question into urgent focus. Of course, we recognize bird in several ways: Shape, color, size, specific field marks, noise, behavior. Or some combination of these...
Here's a question: How do we recognize birds?
It was a hockey game that brought this question into urgent focus.
Of course, we recognize bird in several ways: Shape, color, size, specific field marks, noise, behavior.
Or some combination of these, which birders call "jizz." Jizz is the combination of characteristics that marks a species. (There are other meanings. I won't share them.)
A barn swallow's jizz would include the thrilling call, the rapid flight, the rather pointed look, the overall purplish color.
And it would include specific field marks, the salmon-colored throat and the deeply forked tail.
What does this have to do with hockey?
Lately, I've been going to hockey games with a couple of youngsters. These are my grand-nephews, Jace, who is just 5, and Breck, who is not quite 3.
Jace is a hockey fan. He pays close attention to the play, probably closer attention than most people in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
During one game last year, he asked me, "Where's Kristo?" Not playing, was the answer. Kristo missed some of the season.
During pre-game warm-ups at this year's opener, Jace declared, "There's Kristo," and sure enough, he pointed at No. 7.
How did he know?
It's easy enough to distinguish the home team from the visitors, of course. They were uniforms of different colors.
That's a field mark.
And individuals of each team -- each species, so to speak -- can be distinguished, too. The number on a hockey jersey is a reliable field mark. There's only one No. 7 in a green-and-white jersey on the ice at a time.
Jace is a preschooler, and he's been studying numbers, so perhaps he did use field marks to identify his favorite player.
Except, Brecken knew Kristo, too. Of course, he picked up his older brother's interest in Kristo, but he doesn't know numbers.
So, did he simply follow his brother's example, and identify the same player? If so, how?
By imitation, perhaps.
But perhaps also because he recognized the combination of characteristics that define Kristo as a presence on the ice -- his jizz in the jargon of birders. This would include the shape of his body, his posture, his style of skating, the way he interacts with others on the ice. It would also include field marks, the No. 7 on his back, of course, but also his blond hair and his rather ruddy complexion.
Field marks? Or jizz?
This is an urgent question for birders hoping to hone their identification skills -- especially as they move (as birders inevitably do) from species that are unique and easy to identify to species that are less distinctive and therefore easily confused with similar species.
Here's an example of how this works:
Hawks are easily separated from other kinds of birds. They share jizz, certain characteristics that make them pretty easily recognizable.
Individual species can be confusing. This is especially true for hawks in flight. Like hockey players in action, hawks in flight are hard to examine closely. They simply don't hang around in one spot for very long.
So, birders rely on a combination of characteristics. Red-tailed hawks, for example, have broad wings and wide tails. This sets them apart even if the birder can't see the distinguishing field mark, a red tail.
Another common hawk of open country, Swainson's, has narrower wings and appears less bulky, and so it, too, is recognizable at a distance. Specific field marks -- white on the leading edge of the wing, a brick red chest -- clinch the identification. Rough-legged hawks, the great winter raptors here, show white in the base of the tail and dark in the elbows of the wings. This, with their large size, marks them as a distinct species.
Of course, it's better to rely on vocalizations or behaviors to identify some species. Juncos, for example, are ground-feeders that often flee to low perches when they're flushed. Some other ground-feeding finches, fox sparrows, for example, head for low, heavy cover when they are disturbed.
It's part of their jizz.
It takes close attention to appreciate jizz -- but mastering it makes birding more rewarding -- and hockey, too, judging by my nephews' budding appreciation of the game and its players.
Jacobs is editor and pubisher of the Herald.