Tag Archives: identity

How to Cheer Your Future Self Up: A Simple 4-Step Plan

I was feeling a little rough this Tuesday afternoon. There was no real excuse for this, or at least none that I’m quite willing to accept. Classes have been going well.* I’ve never felt more secure in my goals. And Tuesday was a gorgeous December day in Seattle, crisp as a ripe Braeburn. I was staring straight at the snowy sides of Rainier above the skyline, in fact, when my feelings were at their roughest. Frankly, it takes a special kind of absorption to be unhappy while one is looking at a peak that magnificent. I won’t bore you with the specifics; I admit this embarrassing evidence of my own humanity only to tell you that a few hours later a delightful thing happened that cheered me right up. And in case any of you have reason to anticipate that at some point in the future you too will be feeling a little rough in spite of mountains, I present the following simple instructions for a remedy.

• Step 1: Skin approximately 400 bird specimens for The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
• Step 2: Wait a few years before feeling a little rough.
• Step 3: Discover that FMNH 472922—a flycatcher specimen you were responsible for prepping—helped confirm the usefulness of a novel field mark, added one new species to the list of birds whose presence has been recorded in Illinois, and enjoyed a star turn in a recent taxonomic paper by a team of ornithologists from the University of New Mexico.
• Step 4: Delight!

If you’re interested in the details of this story (you should be!) I’ll point you toward two posts by Field Museum researcher Josh Engel. Here’s Josh’s introduction to the specific flycatchers the field mark distinguishes between, and here’s his follow-up, which includes a great set of photos and points out a marvelous recent coincidence that will explain the origin of the specimen you see below.

Not FMNH 472922.

Not FMNH 472922.

I should note that Josh is terrific, and well worth following in general. He writes about odd museum-y discoveries and active scientific efforts with equal pleasure and knowledgeability. I can’t seem to find a unique address for his writing that’s more specific than the one for the Field Museum’s general blog, but this link will tell you more about Josh and point you to what he’s published most recently.

I realize, of course, that if I hadn’t prepped FMNH 472922, someone else would have—and quite possibly they’d have done a better job of it. But it’s still pretty exciting to have a first-hand proof of the mantra everyone who’s involved in a natural history collection knows: You can never predict how, or when, something will come in useful. Every specimen has the potential to one day contribute to our understanding of the world. As does every human being, no matter how sorry for herself she might occasionally feel.

* It’s taken a while, but I’m finally competent at predicting the courses of substitution and elimination reactions of alkanes! Miracle of miracles, as the tailor sang.

Spotted towhee by Larry McCombs

Give Thanks to Towhees

I don’t feel this way anymore, but for months after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley I had the strongest, strangest sensation of ignobility. I’d walk down a pavement lined with lavender and juniper and rosemary and sage (eight different kinds of each, plus a hundred other unrecognizable plants that looked like they’d exploded onto the street from Fantastic Planet), and instead of glorying in the amazing smells and textures all about I’d feel myself a fallen soul who’d slipped back into Eden without permit and would soon, very soon, be found out and expelled again.

I’d hike up and down sandy trails, a peerlessly beautiful landscape of water and mountain and meadow and sky rolling out before me like some kind of vision that first appeared in the teardrop of a god, and I’d think: My presence here can’t possibly be sanctioned. This place is so bright it hurts the eye, and nothing dark can be allowed to hide amidst it.

I don’t feel this way anymore partly because since then I’ve come to know the Bay Area as a real and very earthly place, and not a paradise at all—though sometimes it can feel pretty damn close. Partly, as well, my mind is very different now than it was then. It doesn’t hold as much disdain for itself, as much intolerance. I hope this means I’ll be more comfortable here as well, in this new online home I moved into and then proceeded to shut the door on. I named it Dispersal Range for a reason, after all. I am a migratory species.

But there’s a third part—even if it is a rather small one—of the how and why I’ve come to feel that northern California could really be a friend. That is, I met a native son of hers who seemed (at least at first) to also be a little bit ignoble. I met the spotted towhee.

The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is technically a New World sparrow, but it is to most other sparrows as a middle-schooler is to a second-grader—much taller, stockier, and more awkward. A large spotted towhee could weigh three times as much as a small Savannah sparrow.

Their coloring isn’t very delicate, either—they’ve got jet-black or dark brown upper halves, white bellies, swathes of rusty red on either side, and untidy splotches of white on their wings and back that give them their name. Not for this towhee the Savannah’s sweet yellow brow or crisply streaked bib. They’re handsome, I suppose, but in a coarse sort of way. They’re like the Fonz, not Remington Steele (am I giving away my age with these very early television memories? Here, I’m 34. We recall what we recall).

That was the first comfort about the spotted towhee, during those sad and rumpled days. On some I failed to lift a brush to my hair, or change out of the clothes I slept in, and so I thank the towhee for this: No noble looks.

Spotted Towhee

Picture by Larry McCombs

The second comfort was its voice. I took a birding class a couple of months after we moved, and when the woman who taught it imitated the call of the ubiquitous California towhee, a cousin of old Pipilo, everyone in the room said “Oh, THAT’S the bird that drives me crazy.” Male California towhees sound like someone repeatedly hitting a triangle and then strangling it after a fraction of a second (only the birdcall is sharper, even more metallic, somehow), and they have a great deal to say.

But spotted towhees talk a lot, too, and they don’t call to mind a musical instrument. They sound like irritated cats, or a cross between a dinosaur and an insect. Or—in the words of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—”a taut rubber band being plucked,” “a piece of paper stuck into a fan.”

In those days I could barely make a sound myself; I either stuttered and repeated myself or let achingly long pauses fall between a question and an answer. I had forgotten how to speak, it seemed like. I felt foolish. The towhee’s crazy chat was a consoling thing: No noble song.

The final comfort I have taken in these dear west coast compatriots of mine is that thing they do. Towhees will eat anything, or just about: seeds, insects, acorns, fruit. They don’t, though, like to go very high in order to get it. Instead they forage at foot level, scrabbling about like manic (well, like even more manic) squirrels.

Both California and spotted towhees do this thing where they uncover hidden food by displacing the top layer of litter on the ground in two quick hops: Once forward, to build up some momentum, and once backward, both feet rising and then raking through the dirt, pebbles, and leaves to scratch away whatever’s in the way of lunch and leave it open to their search and capture. They can (says Cornell, again) make a shallow pit a meter square like this.

Often, walking through a garden or along the Ohlone Greenway, or just sitting quietly minding my own business on a bench or lawn, I’d hear a frantic scrabbling beside me and think, based on the sound alone: Lizard? Snake? Some small, excited dog? And then a spotted towhee would buzz grumpily amid the grass, and I would see its freckly body lurching backwards like a lunatic, and know it for itself.

One of the things I said to a friend a while ago is that when things were bad, I felt globally incompetent. My body wouldn’t obey any commands, and all my parts were clumsy. I dropped things, knocked into things. Almost every movement that I made seared itself onto the mind’s film-reel, and embarrassed me. But I could look at the towhee and understand that there were creatures careless of their bodies, comfortable in the things they chose to do no matter how ridiculous it all looked from the outside. Thank you a third time for this: No noble manner, though perhaps a noble spirit.

Things are good these days, I think. I enjoy Berkeley. I’m not afraid to grab lavender leaves and crush them as I walk, like I belong here and deserve to smell this place. The views I see from trails don’t look like postcards anymore. They are beginning to seem familiar.

I still love the spotted towhee, though. I always will. You never can tell exactly what will give you what you need, can you?

*****
There are other, more pertinent things I might have told you about Pipilo maculatus, including why so many people call it the rufous towhee, and why the name towhee at all?—but I’m afraid I’m not always very pertinent.

What We Inherit

An old friend tells me that he cannot wait to have children so he can teach them what he knows. His face displays an urgent, happy longing—as if he is a jug already nearly full, and running out of time to find a cup to catch what he’s collected. I imagine him so, overflowing with every useful skill and scrap of wisdom of his life. He is carrying both mistakes and successes like holy water. A child, he seems to mean, could receive those things in time: protect, in some way, the sweet accumulation of his own experience.

I’m beginning to think that nurture doesn’t exist, my brother-in-law informs me quietly in the middle of a lull during a dinner party. Both our gazes rest on his son, my nephew, playing by himself. Asher—at nine as inventive, impatient, tricksy, and content as he was at one—sits salty from a long day of sailing and squirming out of trouble. His face is lit by the screen of an iPad, and he is chortling to himself. His father sighs to see himself reflected so, half amused and half resigned: These days I think, he says, it’s pretty much all nature. They are who they are, and nothing you do makes a difference.

What do we bring into this world, and what do we take from it?

My mother sends me emails that bring home across the seas. The yellow birds graced us with a ballad on the palm tree in front of the house the other day, one reads. Another: The Good Lord knew that I needed cheering up, so he sent the yellow birds to fly across my path on my morning walk. She writes: Five o’clock in the morning and the yellow birds are welcoming the dawn with a magnificent symphony.

The yellow birds she’s talking about are black-naped orioles (Oriolus chinensis), one of Singapore’s most common avian residents. These are slender, jay-sized songbirds plunged in intense yellow coloring as rich as the perfectly boiled yolk of a fresh egg. Against this background, a wide, inky band of feathers passes over the eyes and wraps around the head (exactly where a bandit might tie on a mask). The black-naped oriole’s wings and tail are dipped in the same immaculate pitch, and on the downward beat of a wingflap—the two sides of its Stygian cloak whipping together, its yellow back careless of danger—this plumage has an air of rashness, of audacity.

Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis maculatus) in flight
(Photo by Yap Lip Kee.)

Indeed these Old World orioles (unrelated to a doppelganger family of birds also called orioles, the Icteridae I’ve come to know since I moved to the U.S.) can be cunning looters, stealing eggs and nestlings from other birds’ nests to supplement their otherwise humble diet of insects and fruits. They are hardy, wise. They’ve learned to thrive in the urban mess of concrete and tropical greenery that is Singapore. But bright and beautiful they are, and so are the endless variations of their metallic song.

I’m not sure how much of who I am today was dictated by birthright, how much I was taught, and how much I have clutched to myself over the years and pasted on like false eyelashes. But I like to think that even if I didn’t come equipped with either her patience or her sweetness, my mother passed her wonder down. I feel her in me when I look out the window here in the New World, catching the spark of a goldfinch or a kinglet— or a Bullock’s oriole, deep orange counterpart to its yellow cousin.

And on it goes. Home for a visit a few weeks ago, I see the same attentiveness emerging in Sophia, my six-year-old niece. Sometimes when I’m not doing anything else, Sophia said one day, I like to stand in front of the window and watch the wind. And sometimes when I’m frustrated I just sit on the edge of the bed like this and look at the yellow birds.

My mother smiled. I, too. That day three generations followed gold amongst the trees.

Hello, new Coyot.es friends. From the archives, another birdy post from the last time I was home in Singapore.

A Note to Old Friends

Hello, stalwart readers.

When I set up The Science Essayist in 2009, I saw it as an experimental space—a place to test, quietly and without fanfare, approaches to writing and making discoveries about the world that were new to me and that I wasn’t at all sure would work. For the most part I’ve never made any great effort to publicize this site, although at times I have considered it an extension of my heart and mind. I have simply counted myself extraordinarily lucky each time a stranger or two—some of whom later became very dear to me—stumbled upon it and decided to stick around.

Keeping my nose down in this way suited the extreme—and, I now understand—ironically vainglorious—aversion to self-publicity I’ve harbored for most of my life. But over the past few years I did discover a large and tremendously varied universe of experiments far more advanced than my own, conducted by knowledgable and talented people engaged in a deep conversation about the role of science in society. Together they form a community writing about life, research, meaning, and the complex relationships between humans and the natural world.

Again, I hovered at the outer fringes of this passionate group: wanting to take up hands with it and join in its shared investigations, but held back by something I once would have called shyness and now simply want to name a bad habit.

But the past few months have wrought many changes to this lone wolf self, this strange habitual brain of mine, and when Madhusudhan Katti, who writes beautifully on birds and biology at Reconciliation Ecology, invited me to join the new Coyot.es Network, I found myself saying yes almost despite myself. Coyot.es was founded a few months ago by Chris Clarke, a natural history writer whose work marries the personal with the political better than I would ever have thought possible. It’s a new network, still growing, that’s bringing together bloggers who are all interested in biodiversity, the environment, and the living landscape. I’m very honored to be part of it.

My old site, and everything on it, will remain—but from now on new posts (including this one!) will be published at this Coyot.es blog, Dispersal Range. If you’ve made your way over, I hope that you’ll wander around and get to know the other fine writers and naturalists who are part of the collective.

Besides Chris and Madhu, they currently include the excellently named Toad in the Hole (written by Ron, who is a much more serious birder than I am and also happens to live in Berkeley!) and Slow Water Movement, a totally engrossing Vermont-based project documenting the paths water takes through the landscape. It’s time for this little blog to grow up, get over its shyness, and embrace some wonderfully smart, inspired, and thoughtful company.

Almost Two

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

The Vagrant in Sweden

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.

*******

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862

*******

P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

On Tame Sows and Wild Boars

When I got to the prep lab this morning, Dave had set out two birds for me to work on: a Savannah sparrow (a species with which I am becoming quite familiar) and a sleek, long-tailed Yellow-billed cuckoo. As the cuckoo thawed, however, it became clear that it had begun to spoil—this happens sometimes when a specimen doesn’t make it to a freezer soon enough after its death—and that it wouldn’t, therefore, make a good study skin. Birds whose tissues are breaking down have skin that falls apart easily, and they inevitably lose a great deal of feathers as you go along. So Dave put the cuckoo back in the freezer to become a skeleton on another day, and drew out as a replacement an exquisitely tiny Golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). As I’ve gotten more comfortable working on small birds, Dave has given me a good many warblers to prepare—but this Golden-winged was the first of its kind that I had ever seen. While he was taking it out of the freezer, he also told me that they aren’t a very common find around here—and so I hoped I would do a good job with the perfect little creature he placed by my tray.

Fortunately, she was kind to me, and turned out beautifully. (I can use the pronoun with confidence because later I placed a pair of magnifying goggles over my head and personally examined the minuscule, very slightly raised, very slightly shinier spot behind her kidneys that Dave, with fantastic authority, indicated as her ovary. To me it looked like a microscopic, colorless oil slick sitting on top of a larger, vaguely less lustrous oil slick. Sexing birds when it isn’t mating season is an exercise in seeing what does not want to be seen.)

But besides being beautiful (Golden-winged warblers have, as their name suggests, bright yellow plumage on their wings—but they also have golden crowns, striking patches of jet black on their faces and throats, and the most modish gray feathers you can imagine cloaking their backs), it turned out that the bird I met today was also a player in a long and fascinating history.

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Here’s how it goes. The first thing you ought to know is that the Golden-winged warbler happens to have a kind of aural twin. One of the main songs you’re apt to hear these birds sing is a two or three-note whistle that is usually described as a high, gentle buzzing, like someone breathing in and out over the surface of a nail file. But hearing that song isn’t always enough to make a positive identification, because another warbler—the much more common Blue-winged—buzzes in a very similar way. And it’s especially apt to do so if it has a little Golden-winged blood in it.

Here’s why it might. The two species of warbler don’t look all that much alike; although they share the same basic colors, the way those colors are distributed on their bodies is quite different. But DNA tests reveal that they’re incredibly similar genetically. In fact, scientists believe that two or three million years ago, Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers were one and the same. At some point, though, glacier movements across North America caused the population to split into two groups: one isolated somewhere around Missouri, and the other somewhere up in the Appalachians. And from this separation came speciation.

For more than a million years, Golden-winged warblers and Blue-winged warblers were kept apart from each other mostly by dense forests, a habitat in which neither is able to thrive. Eventually, however, humans began clearing those forests and farming them—then abandoning that farmland and allowing a sparser collection of trees and shrubs to grow back. As this change in the landscape occurred, sometime between one and two centuries ago, Golden-winged warblers began moving north and Blue-winged warblers south. And because they still share so much genetic material, when the two meet, they are happy to breed with each other.

If a Golden-winged warbler mates with a Blue-winged, the two produce a reliably identifiable hybrid offspring known as a Brewster’s warbler. (A Brewster’s warbler is then able to mate with either a Golden-winged or a Blue-winged warbler in a process known as a backcross; these pairings, and their successive pairings, produce all manner of other subtly different and unpredictably plumaged birds, as well as—occasionally—another reliably identifiable hybrid known as a Lawrence’s warbler.)

Unfortunately, besides making for an incredibly complicated family tree, this habit of hybridization has spelled a precipitous decline in the Golden-winged warbler population. That’s because Golden-winged warblers are significantly more likely to mate outside their species than Blue-winged warblers, and—much to the chagrin of avian anti-classists, I presume—once they’ve done so, their hybrid offspring aren’t able to find mates as easily as pure-blooded birds. The combination of these two things has meant that, as the species have crossed paths over the past century or so, Blue-winged warblers are making pretty good headway at displacing Golden-winged warblers.

What truly amazes me about all this, beyond the fact that it’s biologically fascinating, is that I know perfectly well the whole story was present in Dave’s head as he handed me that sweet little specimen this morning—even though the only thing he said was “We don’t get too many of these.” Sometimes I wonder what it can possibly be like to know as much as he does about birds; how it must feel to have all this detail stored away inside him as comfortably and naturally as, for instance, you or I might store our feelings about our best friends.

You may have heard, if you live in Chicago and happen to be a newshound, that Dave’s retiring from the Field after 35 years of service. He’ll still be there every day for the next year, but when he does eventually leave it will be a loss beyond words to the division. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have spent the past two years working in his lab. And do you know what? If I were that Golden-winged warbler, I’d feel lucky to have passed through it too.

P.S. I owe a debt to Todd McLeish’s excellent Golden Wings & Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England’s Most Imperiled Wildlife.

P.P.S. Anyone curious about the title of this post might want to take a quick look here.

On Seeing Yourself

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but there are days when it feels I’m like meeting someone for the first time. Her features seem foreign to me, and that, in its way, is not so far from the truth.

I don’t know what it’s like for you: there are days when I am most comfortable if the sight is brief. Best if I have a specific task, like brushing my teeth or plucking at the ragged curve of my eyebrows until one bends to match the other; best if I can file the required report and move on, before too much is seen: Go ahead and wear that shirt. It looks well on you. No, there is no scratch on your cheek. It must have been a momentary twitch of a nerve… Yes, you look as tired as you feel. More tired. There it is. It’s not that I am ashamed, understand; my self-esteem is not a dress that has fallen and must be tugged back up. It’s not that I never stare; oh, stare I do. But there’s something unnerving about it.

I don’t know what it’s like for you. For me it’s a question of manners. Too direct a gaze creates an impossible challenge: which pair of eyes will drop first? I know that both are mine. Yet how strange is what I perceive—that I am at home inside one set of arms and legs, and at the same time these very limbs are hanging quite happily on a separate frame. That I am twinned.

Mirror, Mirror

I live quite comfortably with this contradiction, of course; but I suppose I haven’t always.

Babies aren’t born with what psychologists (somewhat ploddingly) call “mirror self-recognition.” It takes many months before they’re able to draw an unfaltering line between their reflections and themselves, to comprehend that the stare that meets their own so fearlessly does not belong to another human being. It’s not just a question of waiting until certain inevitable developments take place in the brain, either—though that is important. A light bulb doesn’t just blaze on one day and transform stranger into self. No; in fact, developing the ability to recognize one’s own body in the mirror seems to be a surprisingly rational undertaking, and one that builds over time.

In 1979—the year I was born, naked of a sense of self— two scientists named Lewis and Brooks-Gunn tumbled a series of burbling 12-month-old babies in front of a mirror, to see what they could see. The vast majority of them, the experimenters observed, engaged in something they called “contingent play”—so named because the movements of a reflection are contingent upon one’s own movements.

Having noticed that there was a being opposite them in the glass, and having perceived that the behavior of this being seemed oddly familiar, the babies would proceed to carry out clever studies of their own. Staring at their reflections, they would perform the same series of movements over and over again, each time watching intently to see if the strange creature in front of them would follow their lead correctly. They bobbed their heads up and down, bounced their chubby bodies enthusiastically, carefully waved their arms back and forth, all the while with eyes growing wide as they began to clarify and confirm the fact that they possessed a perfectly synchronous imitative partner who would do all that they did at just the same moment. These early play sessions seem to be a necessary first step towards claiming one’s reflection as one’s own.

(They are not sufficient, for it is possible to recognize that your movements dictate those of another without recognizing that the two are one and the same. The full understanding that the face opposite you in the mirror is your own does not generally arrive until late in the second year of life, according to subsequent studies. When that understanding comes, it can truly be described as self-consciousness. One common test of mirror self-recognition is to dab a spot of rouge on a child’s nose, then place them in front of a mirror. A sheepish, or frustrated, rubbing at the spot is the positive indicator researchers are looking for.)

But listen; am I the only one who is astounded by the canny, systematic tests those children conducted? Am I the only one who went straight to the mirror to reenact them, nursing a tiny thrill and half-hoping to catch my other self shifting her neck just a heartbeat too late? Because I’ll tell you what the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study says to me. It says that seeing yourself does not come easily.

Cloud Gate Shenanigans (2)

Let’s put it this way: to know an apple, say, is straightforward. Hold it in your palm; take in its dangerous crimson; scrutinize its glossy skin. It is entirely self-contained. Its apple-y nature is self-evident. To know your own face in the mirror is different. You have to slide into the apprehension sideways, gather together a body of physical evidence and reason your way towards the truth:

When I nod, she nods. When I stare, she stares back. Her arms follow my arms; her legs stretch as far as mine. This plant does not move when I move; it is not part of me. This other person moves without my say-so; he is not part of me. Only she, with her skin so brown and her feet curling under her like frightened mice—only she moves with me. So. This is who I am. These are the things I am made of. These are my boundaries in space.

I don’t remember collecting those proofs. I don’t remember building my sense of self like this, brick by brick with my baby-brain. But I believe that I did, and you as well. And I’ll tell you something else: I believe that we’re in good company. Elephants, apes, and dolphins can learn to see themselves through contingent play, too.

Also, robots. Robots can learn to see themselves. Are you smiling yet? Listen, at the very least, one robot can that I know of—its name is Nico. I read about Nico in this charming paper, published last year. In it, two Yale computer scientists show how, with the help of three algorithms that deftly compare data to experience, a robot “can learn over time whether an item in its visual field is controllable by its motors, and thus a part of itself.”

First, Nico spends some time—four minutes, to be precise—waving its arm back and forth and carefully noting the shape of its own movements. Then, it’s ready to look itself in the eye, so to speak. Nico is placed in front of a mirror, whose contents are captured in a streaming image by a wide-angle lens embedded in what would be Nico’s right eye. Carefully monitoring that video stream, the robot continues to motor its arm around in random directions, checking for precisely contingent movements in the reflected scene. It consults the algorithms in its memory, calculating the probability that what it sees is really Nico. Very quickly, then, the robot is able to accurately determine whether it happens to be looking at itself, an inanimate object, or an animate other.

Once it has understood the form of its own arm, learned the way in which its joints shift position—once it has traced the essential outline of its own metallic body—Nico can be said, in a very real sense, to recognize itself. And after that understanding has set in, no one (not even a sly researcher insinuating himself into the scene and painstakingly mimicking Nico’s movements) can fool it. Nico knows exactly what it is.

But achieving that knowledge demands two things, both of which are clearly spelled out in the title of the Yale paper: time and reasoning.

Seeing yourself doesn’t come naturally; it’s not fundamental to your understanding of the world in general. And it can’t be accomplished simply by having someone else tell you who you are in the glass; it’s not a fact you swallow, but a judgment you come to. At first—ask a baby; ask a robot—it’s not at all silly to narrow your eyes at that odd-looking stranger and wonder why they’re copying what you do. At first, surely it’s right and proper to be suspicious of the shade in the mirror.

When it comes right down to it, I mean, you might be wrong about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing: When I think of myself, what comes to mind is less a single clear and shining image of my own face than a shifting sensation of me-ness: a complex amalgamation of memories, ideas, and sensory impressions. I am the one around whom my husband’s arms wrap, the pressure of his musculature against my own clearly defining the shape of my body. I am the one who lay at the foot of my parents’ bed as a child, listening to the hum and click and drip of their ancient air-conditioner and imagining the sounds growing larger and larger until they merged with my own heartbeat. I am the one who frets for hours before phone calls, sweaty and pale, who dances while she cleans, who hates hair in her face and still remembers the sharp, dusty taste of the whiskey sours she used to drink because she liked the way they made her tongue twist up inside her mouth.

I am the one who feels the way I feel, thinks the way I think, not—or not just—the one who looks the way I look. And how do I look, anyway? No matter how many tests I run, no matter how much I grow to trust the image before me in the glass, the sight of my own face is always mediated through layer after layer of tin, silver, glass, copper, paint. I’ve never seen it without a mirror as middleman, without a bender and broker of light. What if the person I’m seeing isn’t who I think it is at all? Why should their mere resemblance to me be sufficient identification?

I live quite comfortably with this suspicion, of course; but not everyone does.

People with a extremely rare disorder known as Capgras delusion come to believe that those whom they love have been replaced by impostors. These strangers are identical to my mother, my sister, my brother, Capgras sufferers say, but they are not them. They are different people entirely. Their features—remarkably similar! The close resemblance is uncanny! But no; they are certainly not the ones I know. They are frauds. I do not recognize them.

The extent of the delusion is such that, confronted with their own reflections, Capgras patients are apt to startle violently. Why, I’ve never seen this person before! they may exclaim, in horror and disgust. Some engage in the same kind of contingent play that babies do, pinching themselves and waving their arms, keeping a chary eye on the ghoul in the mirror—but unlike babies, they will not be satisfied by the paltry evidence of their own eyes. And when repeated gazes into a mirror call up the same disagreeable stranger again and again, people with Capgras may accuse their likenesses of deliberately appearing in their lives solely to stalk and torment them. Capgras delusion steals a person’s ability to see their own true selves, and replaces it with an uninvited guest who cannot—will not—leave them alone. I confess, I sympathize.

But how exactly does this happen? Capgras patients are otherwise, for all intents and purposes, normal—whatever that means. Their vision is not impaired, and neither is their cognitive functioning; nor are any aspects of their memory. Their negative emotional response to their loved ones and their own reflections is bizarre, to say the least, but in some sense it’s also perfectly lucid and reasonable. It matches, after all, precisely the way you would expect someone to react if everyone in their inner circle of intimates had been replaced by an impostor. (And wouldn’t you yell if your beloved reflection suddenly turned into someone you knew, deeply and profoundly, wasn’t you at all?)

Mirrorbranch

So what causes this extraordinary disconnection between vision and belief, between seeing a person, recognizing their features, and correctly identifying them as someone whom you know and love? The inimitable UCSD behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has a lovely theory about this. Look, he says: Sensory information about objects the eye sees is transmitted from the retina into visual centers in the temporal lobes. Here, the object is identified: This looks like a teapot, this looks like a poodle, this looks like my sister. Capgras patients can accomplish this part of seeing perfectly well.

But after an object has been identified, the brain continues to work. It sends its decoded information to the limbic system, which is a complex network of brain structures that enables the perception and expression of emotions. One of the first places this visual information passes through is the amygdala (the name means almond-shaped, which it is). Ramachandran explains that the amygdala is responsible for labeling the emotional content of what the eye has seen. This object is beloved, the amygdala concludes, and should trigger affection; this one is despised, and should trigger hate.

This visual data, then, becomes colored with a layer of emotional interpretation; it travels on towards other structures in the brain. At its final stop, what began with a glance at a face sets in motion at last the physiological responses that enable a person to actually experience the appropriate emotion: things like a speedier heart rate, higher blood-pressure, and a light film of sweat covering the skin. (For what is emotion but the brain, talking to the body, talking to the brain?)

You might imagine that a rather odd sensation might occur if this process were disrupted somewhere after the point where an object is decoded and before the point where the emotion that ought to be associated with it is actually experienced. Ramachandran did. He asks:

Is it possible that in this patient there has been a disconnection between the face area of the temporal lobes and the part concerned with the experience of emotion? Perhaps the face area and the amygdala are both intact, but the two areas have been disconnected from each other. When (the patient) looks at his mother, even though he realizes that she resembles his mother, he does not experience the appropriate warmth, and therefore says ‘Well, if this is my mother, why is it I’m not experiencing any emotion? This must be some strange person.’

I think of a person like this, and how they must feel when they stare at the mirror, eyes fixed full upon their own faces and hearts as hard as stone. Do they never, now, experience the comfort of being alone with themselves?

It hasn’t been proven, so far, the hypothesis that the Capgras delusion is caused by the neurological disconnect that Ramachandran describes—but its elements catch at my heart. It’s not enough to simply identify a person in order to truly know them. The brain needs more. It’s not enough to match the movements of a reflection to your own in order to recognize it as yourself. The brain needs more. Seeing yourself does not come easily. It requires time. It requires reason. And, beyond all that, it requires some measure of affection.

Knowing this, I return to my counterpart in the mirror—the one who still seems so strange to me sometimes—and am moved to tenderness. I look on her for a long moment, studying the shape of her lips, the brown of her eyes. I forgive our separation, forget the times when her eyes have challenged mine or mine hers, and gaze.

Because if I do not see her, how will I love her?

And if I do not love her, how can I see her?

If you’re fascinated by reflections, I can do no better than to recommend the deep and intricate treatment of the subject in Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. I found my copy in the stacks of Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, on my honeymoon.