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For those who don't follow the ID Frontiers listserv, that forum has been alive with recent discussion of an interesting oriole found in Georgetown, South Carolina on 9 May of this year. Originally, the bird was identified as a Scott's Oriole, which would have been a first state record. However, after much debate and a flurry of conflicting expert opinions, the bird was re-identified as an Orchard Oriole, a species that occurs regularly in the "Palmetto State." Towards the end of the debate, David Sibley wrote a detailed analysis explaining why the bird was an Orchard and not a Scott's. More importantly, he offered some enlightened discussion about the psychology that shapes and sometimes biases our perceptions.
Just this evening I received an e-mail from a long-time birding friend that included two images of a "mystery bird" that someone he knows had photographed near San Diego, California. He had circulated the photos to me and two other veteran birders earlier in the evening in hopes of solidly identifying the bird. Thankfully, I was the last to take a crack at it. The original images showed a finch-like bird that appeared to be rosy-pink/purplish over much of its body (see below). Given the apparent color, my first inclination was to think that the bird was one of the Carpodacus finches (most likely a Purple Finch). However, beyond the apparent coloration nothing looked right for that species. The other three experienced birders who had looked at these photos were all reluctant to put a name on it, which was my first clue to focus on what didn't fit rather than lock in on what seemed obvious.
Realizing that things weren't adding up, I mentally backed up and tried to abandon my first impression, which was being driven by the apparent coloration. Almost immediately, it occurred to me that aside from the apparent pink and rosy tones, this bird looked like a female Blue Grosbeak. It had a bill that seemed much too large and pale fleshy colored for a Carpodacus finch of any species. Additionally, it showed strongly peaked crown and a spiked crest (a look often shown by Blue Grosbeaks), it had two conspicuous broad pale buffy wingbars, and it seemed to have a very large looking eye on an otherwise patternless face. Under closer inspection, I noticed that most of the color around the head, especially on the nape, seemed to be more cinnamon brown and that the parts of the bird that appeared pinkish and purple (including the bill) were either in the shade or in indirect light.
Once satisfied that the bird was a female Blue Grosbeak, I began playing around with the images in iPhoto. First, I cranked up the color saturation to the max. I've found that this sometimes helps bring out the true color of the bird and reduces those hues that are artifacts of the original camera or processing. In this instance it seemed to exacerbate the problem. Someone with a better understanding of the technology behind digital photography can probably explain how these color artifacts are produced.
Next, I took the image and turned the color saturation all the way down, resulting in a black and white photo. I've found that in cases where apparent coloration is leading me astray, looking at an image in black and white eliminates the biases created by the colors and allows me to focus more on pattern and shape. I believe that the others would have readily identified this bird had they first seen the black and white images that I created. I suspect that they were drawn off track by the apparent coloration shown in the original images.
As Sibley points out in his discussion, our perceptions are shaped by expectations and initial impressions. Abandoning our initial impressions and starting over after already looking at a photo is easier said than done. Had this bird not shown a couple of key features that pointed away from it being a Carpodacus finch, I probably would have narrowed my analysis of this bird down to species within that genus. Fortunately, I benefited from knowing that three birders whom I know and respect had already puzzled over this bird without coming to a consensus about its identity. That tipped me off to think outside the box and recognize that something was amiss. I've been on the other end of this equation more times than I care to admit.