Should I believe this is a bald eagle based on the evidence?

Bald eagle

Yesterday morning I saw what I believed was a bald eagle in my pajamas. (I know what you’re thinking: What was a bald eagle doing in my pajamas?)

After calculating the laziness factor of birdwatching from bed, I sprung into action, grabbed my camera, and got a few shots. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and headed toward the tree where I saw the bird. (I know what you’re thinking: What was I doing in a tree?)

When I got close, I was excited to see that the bird was still there. It was a bit like what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he saw that the flag was still there. (Okay, it wasn’t anywhere near that exciting much less meaningful, but you get my drift.)

I took more photos. The bird appeared to be dark all over, so I dismissed the bald eagle hypothesis (always something I’m loathe to do).

I trudged back home and took a look at the pictures I had taken. This is a photo I took from my bedroom window:

Keep in mind that the bird was a looooong way off, my camera has its limitations, and my window could use a wash. Still, it looks like a bald eagle, right? Huge. White head and tail. Bright yellow beak. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Why did I see an all-dark bird when I got closer to the tree?

Then I got to the second set of bird photos (separated by a few shots of snow and then more snow).

Excusez-moi? Who are you, and what did you do with my bald eagle? Apparently I missed the changing of the guard.

I entered the photos into my Merlin Bird ID app to get some insight into what was going on. I was especially looking for confirmation of the bald eagle ID! I uploaded that photo to the app. Drum roll, please …

American crow. Or black-backed woodpecker. Or great horned owl.

Huh? I uploaded it a second time.

Brown-headed cowbird. Or dark-eyed junco.

I know it’s a crummy photo, but please try harder.

American crow. Or green heron.

I give up. Let’s try the photo of the second bird.

Red-tailed hawk. Or red-shouldered hawk.

That’s more like it. I’ll buy that.

So, what am I to think about the first bird? According to the app, it’s a woodpecker or an owl or a heron or a walrus or a sheep or one of the Backstreet Boys. What should we do when we are trying to determine the truth and our go-to authority seems off?

First of all, we keep in mind that it’s possible that our go-to authority is off. Blind trust is risky. Humans and their inventions are fallible. Secondly, we look at the evidence.

Building evidence-based beliefs means that we consider all of the evidence and figure out the best explanation for that evidence. What is the evidence about this bird’s identification?

  • My app is fairly reliable, but it has been wrong before, especially when the photo is poor quality.
  • The bird is huge and appears to have a dark body, white head, white tail, and yellow beak. This description fits a bald eagle and no other bird that I’m aware of, at least in this area. Caveats: I am not familiar with all types of birds, and the image quality is so poor, I might not have an accurate description of it.
  • I shared the photo on Facebook and asked people what they thought it was. Six out of six people identified it as an eagle.
  • The Merlin Bird ID app includes bald eagles on the list of likely birds in Vancouver, Washington, today.
  • At least two bald eagles have been spotted in this immediate area in recent days.
  • I really want it to be a bald eagle.

Okay, okay. That last one isn’t evidence. We often allow our desires to influence our beliefs, but we’ve really got to stop that. So, let’s throw that one out. What are we left with? When we can’t be certain, we settle for possibilities and probabilities. Based on the evidence, I am comfortable at this point with believing that it is probably a bald eagle.

Notice that, above, I didn’t ask for the evidence that this is a bald eagle; I asked for evidence about the bird’s identification. On Facebook, I didn’t ask others whether they thought it was a bald eagle; I asked them what they thought it was. Starting out with a presumption or bias can steer us in the wrong direction.

I want to know the truth, whatever it is. So, I leave the door open for more evidence if it should ever come. In this case, I can invite more evidence by asking what y’all think. I’m interested to know what you think of the first photo, especially if you have experience with bird identification. Let me know in the comments below!

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