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Apr 1, 2001

Being a Fool

As I stand here, looking through the binocular, contemplating such deep philosophical questions as ďwhatís that?Ē and ďjust how much like itself should any given thing be expected to look?Ē, it occurs to me that I am a fool. That this condition is widespread is of little consolation, and perhaps itís no mistake that April Foolís Day typically falls during Lent, a season that exposes our shortcomings. Turning the tables on common sense can open the path to insight, and a joke on one of us is a joke on all. Sometimes it seems that existence itself is a sort of monstrous prank, though whether we are perpetrators or victims is hard to say.

Our best jokes are played upon ourselves, though not without some help from Providence.
I had the fortune to see the first swallow of the Spring. A Tree Swallow it seemed to me, seen near Balcony Bridge, on the 18th of March. Everything agreed with that identification, except that the color was rather dull, for which reason I reported it in the Log Book as a female bird. Thinking too much and not enough all at once is a habit of mine, and considering the matter later on, I realized that there was something strange, in that male birds typically lead the migration. They return first to the breeding grounds, where they establish territories from which to woo the later arriving females, so itís unusual for the first sightings to be of anything other than adult males.

Doing a bit of research, I found that Tree Swallows are indeed the first swallows to return in Spring. Alone in their family, they eat fruit, as well as insects, which allows them to winter in North America, and to make their migratory move earlier than species strictly reliant on a good supply of bugs. These facts at least suggested to me that it was not inconceivable for a stray female to have found itís way here. At least the timing was right, and it was more likely than in the case of a species that wintered only in the tropics.

I needed that much reassurance, despite the evidence of my eyes, in case anyone challenged the veracity of my report. Of course, if Iíd just listed the species, without the sexual qualifier, there wouldnít be a question, but thatís what I mean by thinking too much and not enough together. I was afraid of being exposed for the fool I am. As it was, nobody wrote any comment on the point, and the sighting showed up in an online summary, so I guess it was considered credible.

That doesnít mean that somebody out there didnít shake their head over my foolishness. The Log Book has its share of errors, and not all are subject to correction. Thatís par for the course in birding. Observers of varying skill are out there, and sometimes itís the least of us that are most eager to make report. The log at Point Pelee is nicknamed the ďBook of LiesĒ.

Iíve never told you a lie, but Iíve certainly made some honest mistakes. Looking back at my earliest entries here, Iím appalled at my ignorance, especially in the matter of birds. After a year and a half, I feel like Iím making progress, but that mostly means being more humble about a slight decrease in the depth of my ignorance. So, if posts from early 2000 betrayed a woefully inadequate understanding of the complex process of molting, or mistook migrating Red-tailed Hawks for descendants of our local pair, I hope that these errors of fact did not detract from broader points I was making, regarding names and privacy. I donít think anything Iíve written is so compromised, but maybe I just havenít realized it yet. I reserve the right to make deletions or corrections, and I apologize for not actually putting much time into doing so. If I were to prepare the material for republication there are a few things Iíd change, but as it is, I have a relatively harmless record of my own path towards greater understanding, and maybe thatís not a bad thing either. I should probably add some asterisks, with links to corrections, and Iíll do that, just as soon as...well, Iíll keep it in mind. In the meantime, double-check before you use any of these gems in cocktail party chatter. If you donít know better yourself, whoís the fool?

You and I are not the only ones. Sometimes a little foolishness is a good thing. The post on names focused on the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a bird misnamed, because, as any precise birder will tell you, it does not suck sap by suction, but laps it with a bushy tongue. But the poetry of the old name prevails, and a Yellow-bellied Sap Lapper just sounds silly.

I want my words to sound, not silly, but not so much authoritative, as merely true, with as much humility as truth deserves. Trying to express joy and wonder in technically precise terms will surely teach humility. Whatís important is not to lose the ecstasy of the endeavor among the details of discipline. Ideally, the demands of the one should focus our appreciation of the other.

That did happen to me with the swallow.
The next of the new arrivals was the Eastern Phoebe. The Phoebe and the Tree Swallow do not look much alike, except when they do, and thatís the problem with birding: a lot of obvious things are not always so obvious. After Iíd seen a few of the familiar Phoebes, I found one that perched in a slightly atypical pose, leaning forward, rather than itís usual upright posture. In this position, the bird suddenly reminded me of the Tree Swallow, which had briefly perched in a similar attitude, and I had a moment of gut wrenching doubt. Had I actually seen a Phoebe? Could I be that foolish?

The birds are quite different in detail, but they are basically dark above and light below, of similar size, and both are, well, birds, so there is some similarity...
Awash in the presence of the bird, everything else seems to disappear. Itís hard to do anything but look. Thatís what I mean by ecstasy, and thatís where the discipline comes in. Looking is not really passive, and by systematically examining details, ordering them within an overall impression, and maintaining a comparative context for the information, we can quantify our ecstasy in a manner that allows us to extend it beyond the moment, even if we lose some of the sheer existential fire in the process. And when that fire is lit again, we will recognize it.

The presence of the Phoebe drove the experience of the Swallow from my mind, to the point where I doubted its existence. This is no more than the foolishness that binds our limited perception. Luckily, I had learned enough about observing to satisfy myself that I had indeed seen a Tree Swallow. I had even made a couple of sketches, which help to cement fugitive memories. I could support my identification based on details of shape, pattern, and behavior. The bird swooped like a swallow, had the pointed wings and small bill, even the little bit of white just behind the wings, visible from above as it banked and turned. Any given detail is subject to individual idiosyncrasy, or perceptual distortion, and preconception can cloud our observations, but the range of evidence has convinced me of the birdís identity.

As for the sex and color, well, I guess there is a modicum of doubt, and perhaps any doubt is too much. Life feels that way sometimes, and birding even more so, but Iíve been known to say that doubt is always reasonable, so feel free to disbelieve in my swallow if you like.
But I did see it.
And thatís no fooling.
At least Iím pretty sure.
Take it from a fool.

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