Robins, Waxwings, and a Little Perspective

Robins“It’s a Robin.”

“No, I’m not talking about the Robin, I’m talking about the Cedar Waxwing….the one over to the right and then up a couple feet on that branch with the smaller broken twig near the end.”

“I see the spot but that’s clearly a Robin…..not a Cedar Waxwing.”

“No, dear, not that one…right above it…there’s a Cedar Waxwing.” (This from my better half trying to be very patient with me while knowing how stubborn I can be when I think I am absolutely positively sure about something.)

waxwingsAnd so it continued, back and forth. I was sure I was looking at the same bird as the rest of the group. There were four of us and we were focused, binoculars raised, on a lovely evergreen – spruce, maybe – that was filled with American Robins at the moment but it seems that someone had spotted what looked like a Cedar Waxwing and, of the four of us, I just could not seem to see a Waxwing. After all, Robins are clearly different than Waxwings – it really isn’t hard to tell them apart. So why was I only seeing the Robins? Were there really Waxwings in amongst the Robins or were the few juvenile Robins in the flock causing some confusion in the identification?

robin and waxwingIt is always possible. Even expert birders get confused sometimes when making identifications. And juvenile birds can be the worst. Well, other than female Red-Winged Blackbirds…which are absolutely the worst. But today, we were dealing with Robins and Waxwings. And Robins are so very easy. After all, everyone, I mean every red-blooded American knows what a Robin looks like…even if you’ve never seen a Cedar Waxwing, you could tell the birds apart just by knowing the Robin. They are really quite different. So what was going on that I just could not see the Waxwing that everyone else was seeing?

puzzleCould be my brain was filling in the blanks? Our brains work that way. We catch glimpses of something, a few parts here and there and our brain fills in the holes and gives us a complete picture…even though there may not be quite enough pieces available to give a definitive answer. It is part of how we survive. Many times, a quick reaction requires that our brain fill in the blanks and get us out of danger. How many times in your life have you caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye and immediately reacted without fully knowing what was coming at you? Happens all the time….you go to step into the street and jump back just in that instant when a car comes careening around the corner. Now, that’s an easy one for the brain. The location and the sudden movement on the roadway would clearly indicate that it is a car that is coming and not, say a charging moose. Both would be dangerous…but chances are, on a busy city street, it’s a car. So it is well and good that your brain fills in the blanks and you “know” it’s a car even before you clearly see it. Might be a truck, of course, but the important thing is that your brain filled in the blanks and caused you to step back to an area of safety.

Of course, our brains do this all the time…not just in times of danger. So, maybe my brain was seeing all the Robins in the tree and just helping me to jump to a conclusion that all the birds in the tree were probably Robins. But, once I started to get additional information from external sources (say hubby and friends) and I started looking for Waxwings, I should have been able to differentiate between the two birds and find the Waxwings.

But there is that issue of perspective. Each of us was viewing a small portion of the tree that was visible through our individual binoculars……two tiny two inch pieces of glass at the end of a tube. It is like that old story about the blind men coming upon an elephant for the first time. Each man could only comprehend that part of the elephant he was able to touch or to hear (or maybe even to smell since I’ve no doubt that you’re gonna smell an elephant pretty quickly once you get close). In our birding group that day, we each had a view of the tree in relation to where we were standing beside the car we had just exited (or not, since at least one of us had a clear view from his seat in the car through the open window). And, even though we each scanned the tree looking for the birds, we were still limited to the view through our binoculars or what we could see with our naked eyes.

bird watching 2So it is when you are birding. It is good to spot the bird in question first with your naked eyes and then try to find the bird with your binoculars to get a more detailed look. But we all have a tendency to use the binoculars to scan an area, in this case, the rest of the tree, to try to see if other birds are present, which there were, before looking again to try to spot the birds without the binoculars. Usually I kind of revert to an up and down thing with the binoculars that eventually makes my eyes and head hurt but that’s another issue altogether. All in all, when we are looking at something, it is difficult to focus on one small thing for too long. Our brain needs to keep scanning and looking (seeking out danger?) and any movement at all within our frame of reference grabs our attention away from the one thing on which we are desperately trying to focus.

Similarly, we look at life and the world we live in through a set of binoculars (or, I’ve heard the analogy of a window) that are made up of our individual experiences and background. So, I may be limited in my vision because I’ve never experienced something. Like my robin….I know robins quite well so seeing them and identifying them is quite easy. But, if I’ve never seen a Waxwing, my knowledge and experience is going to fail me and I’m not necessarily going to recognize a Waxwing even when I see one. Apply that to larger things in life. If I’ve never seen a charging moose, how’s my brain going to know to fill in the blanks and know to get out of the way when I finally do see one? My perspective is off and the best way to fix (i.e., enlarge) your perspective is to learn more things and experience more things. And the best way to let go of some of your limitations (say prejudice or bigotry) is to experience more and learn more about the things and people you don’t know.

Fortunately, I do not have to encounter a charging moose to figure out how to recognize one – I can just watch nature shows on the old television and learn something that way….or, I can do an internet search…..or, better yet, I can read a book. (What a concept!) Or, in the case of the Waxwings, a bird guide. (But, with people, I think perhaps it is best to do a whole lot of listening and interacting along with a whole lot of open-minded type thinking rather than just going with what you hear on the telly or read in a book…I’m just saying.)

But there is another aspect of perspective that has me thinking this morning. My perspective is different than yours…and everyone else’s for that matter…because each is based on an individual’s knowledge and experiences. So, two of us could be staring at the same tree and see different birds and both of us could be quite correct….or absolutely wrong. Likewise, two people could witness and event and “see” it in different ways based on their individual perspective.

Now, my knowledge of how a police officer or detective works is limited to watching hundreds of episodes of “Law and Order” (note 2)…and a bunch of other cop shows going all the way back to watching Matt Dillion on “Gunsmoke” (note 3). So, I have a pretty good handle on how it all works, right? (Of course, not right.) But I have noticed that, on these television shows, right after a homicide, you can bet your bottom dollar that the detective in charge is going to tell the police officers on the beat to get statements from anyone and everyone who might have seen what happened. And even if a person did not see what happened, they might have seen or heard or know something that would allow the detective to put together a more complete picture of what happened that resulted in that poor lost soul ended up laid out there on the pavement with bullet holes in his or her chest.

Every potential witness has a different perspective and it seems that the detective’s job is to put all the stories together and see where the stories overlap and try to figure out what parts are truth and what parts are just noise provided by those separate brains trying to fill in the gaps to make sense of it. But the detective has to be careful because his or her own perspective is going to have to impact on the conclusions and will need to be considered. And what happens when there is a single witness whose recollection disagrees with all the others? Is that one wrong? Or, maybe the other witnesses all had limitations that clouded their judgement in some sort of groupthink? The detective is looking for areas in which the recollections of the various witnesses agree or coincide to come up with the most probable truth of the situation. But he or she should also be looking for those cultural and individual limitations that might indicate an untruth has possibly been injected (consciously or not) into the memory that needs to be discarded before the truth can be surmised.

jurySo it stands to reason that we need to have multiple witnesses to convict someone of a crime….or even to accuse someone of a crime. And this has been the way of it since ancient times. In the Bible at Numbers 35:30 (note 1), the punishment for murder is decreed to be death but no one could be put to death solely on the testimony of only one witness. There had to be multiple witnesses. Today, we see this repeated in our own justice system whereby a person is arrested and tried only when there is sufficient evidence to include multiple eye witnesses, if possible. (Okay, I realize that sometimes things go terribly wrong and innocent people go to prison based on the flimsiest of evidence and no witnesses at all….but the ideal situation is to have multiple witnesses plus solid physical evidence before accusing an individual who is innocent until proven guilty.) And, back to perspective….a jury for a trial is made up of more than one…usually twelve. It seems to me that this is based on the same concept…that every individual sees things through their own set of experiences; so for conviction, there needs to be more than one perspective.

And so, I had my own perspective….and I certainly saw those Robins…but three others saw a Cedar Waxwing too. So, the evidence seemed to say that I was missing something and I needed to take another look before I jumped to the conclusion that only Robins were in the tree. My perspective was very definitely missing something important…..the Waxwings.

waxwing 2Eventually, I did see at least two Cedar Waxwings……tucked behind some foliage but showing enough of their little black masks so that my brain could fill in the blanks of what I knew about Waxwings to affirm that there were indeed Waxwings in the tree. (And not the one pictured above….the ones I saw that day were not cooperative enough for a photo….considering that I barely saw them at all.)

And, thank goodness, I did finally see those birds because you know I was never going to hear the end of it from my friends and husband if I hadn’t.  Again, just saying.

  1. Bible, New Testament, King James Version (KJV), Numbers 35:30.
  2. Law and Order”; Producer: Wolf & Stern, Created by Dick Wolf, 1990-2010; USA; Television.
  3. “Gunsmoke”; Creator – John Meston; Producers – James Arness, Norman Macdonnell, John Mantley, Philip Leacock; USA; First Episode Aired – September 10, 1955; Television