Critical thinking helps with wildlife ID (& everything else)

American robin

I took this picture on one of my nature outings. Nearly every day I take pictures in the woods and wetlands behind my house in the Pacific Northwest. I’m certainly no John James Audubon or Bindi the Jungle Girl, but I am slowly learning to identify flora and fauna that I see on a regular basis.

Of great help to me are a couple of apps: Merlin Bird ID and PictureThis. Google Lens also can be helpful, except for that time when it identified a blurry raccoon as a New Guinean long-nosed bandicoot.

When I saw this bird, I didn’t know what it was. It looked a bit like the juvenile European starlings I’d seen. In other words, brown. That’s pretty much all I could tell. When I got home, I uploaded the picture to the Merlin Bird ID app, and the result came back: American robin.

Say what? Robins are orange! That was my initial reaction, and that’s why I missed the identification on my own. I’ve seen a million robins, but I was off track in thinking that robins are orange. More accurately, robins’ breasts are orange and their heads and backs are brown. All I could see of this bird was its head and back. All I could see was brown. As soon as the app identified the bird as a robin, I noticed the tiny bit of orange breast that can be seen in the photo. I also noticed (yet again) that my critical thinking skills have room to grow.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. It reminds me that my thinking can be distorted by perspective and a bias for familiarity. I missed the ID because of my perspective; I could see only brown. I missed the ID because it looked a bit like another bird in my miniscule bird repertoire.

Too bad this distorted thinking isn’t limited to wildlife identification (although even then it can be lamentable if we mistake a grizzly for a Great Dane). We do it more often than we realize. The good news is that we can train our brains to think more effectively, to sharpen our critical thinking skills. Being aware of our perspectives and biases moves us in the right direction. Listening to the perspectives of others takes us even further.

Let’s train ourselves to think more effectively. Let’s remember that the robin isn’t just orange.

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