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September 28, 2010


People often see and hear what they want to see and hear. It’s one of the hazards of birding. Hoping to find a rare bird can sometimes lead to misidentifications. I’ve done it myself.

            There’s a famous story about Margaret (Iron Pants) Thatcher in this regard. At a meeting she once claimed to have heard a nightingale singing on a February night outside her prime ministerial residence at 10 Downing Street. An underling meekly challenged her identification skills by pointing out that nightingales migrated to Africa in winter.

            When Maggie insisted that she could not have been mistaken, the underling tried to suggest other possibilities until his boss, a cabinet minister, took him outside and sharply castigated him. “If the prime minister says she heard a nightingale in February, then by Jove she heard a nightingale!”

            We don’t have any amateur birders in Manitoba with quite the clout of Maggie T, but at this time of year people report seeing Whooping Cranes here. It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible. Whooping Cranes have been known to stray from their normal migratory route from Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories to the Texas coast and back. They have been positively confirmed here. But not very often.

            More likely what people see are American White Pelicans. In the air pelicans can look surprisingly similar to whoopers. IF!

            If the observers mistake the pelican‚s long bill for the whooper’s long neck, and if they don’t bother to check for the whooper’s long, trailing legs. And if they only look at the white body and wings and the black wing extremities.

            People don’t expect to see pelicans in Manitoba. They think pelicans are ocean birds, coastal dwellers. In fact, pelicans are pretty numerous on Manitoba’s lakes and rivers. They’re so numerous that they are periodically slaughtered by fishermen who erroneously believe that pelicans and cormorants are responsible for fish-stock depletions.

            Pelicans are among my favorite local birds. To see a dozen of them appearing and disappearing and magically reappearing as they soar in languid arcs high above a prairie lake can distract me even when I’m fiercely concentrating on a golf green. To watch as a small group works together to herd fish and then grab them and let them wriggle in their rubbery bill pouches can make the kid in me rise again to the surface.

            I’m in good company in my fascination with pelicans, and mis-identifiers are not alone in their mistakes. Aristotle “studied” them and concluded that they swallowed shells whole, cooked them in their pouches and then vomited them up to feed on the exposed and cooked flesh.

Great philosopher, Aristotle. Bad ornithologist!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 6:04 pm

    Pelicans on the Slave River, Fort Smith NWT, Canada

  2. October 1, 2010 12:31 pm

    Very funny! I’m passing this story on!

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