Last week, I was happy.
I am happy most of the time, but last week I was particularly happy as I was particularly lucky.
My job required me to spend two days of solitude in nature, a most valuable experience, roaming a natural area that’s out of bounds for pretty much everyone but me and having nothing else to do but check what neat animals might be around.
As this was my job, I am sworn to secrecy and cannot tell you of the wonderful things I saw, like the Crested Newts that were so numerous it made me dizzy counting them, the Eagle Owl perched on a fence whose calls accompanied me throughout the night while counting the Newts, the Eurasian Woodcock I flushed or the flock of Common Cranes that flew over at sunset.
Nope, you’ll never know about these things – ever.
But what I may tell you about is what I experienced at the hotel I was staying at, during breakfast.
As I was working mostly at night, I slept in each morning and had a long and extensive breakfast at the hotel before heading out again (after a short after-breakfast nap).
During the first day of my staying at the hotel, there was some sort of business meeting and the hotel was packed full with … well … stereotype business men and women in their shirts, suits, ties and costumes.
On the first morning (I sat alone at a small table facing the room) I watched two businessmen at the table next to me having breakfast.
Now, before I continue I need to stress that even though I thoroughly enjoy talking about or making fun of stereotypes I have enjoyed a humanistic education, consider myself quite tolerant and would never, ever judge any person by the stereotype I think they might belong to but solely by their actions towards others. That said, I had a great morning of stereotyping with even a good lesson learned on why stereotypes are crap and what they tell you about birding.
So, there were these two men having breakfast right next to me. For the sake of better understanding, let’s call one BM (big macho) and the other LW (little wimp).
These two couldn't have been more different:
BM was not fat but a strong and big man, a typical “beef-eater” type. He had strong arms and muscles showed through his shirt at his chest, a thick neck and a powerful built in general. Despite being German, he was probably of Mediterranean origin as he had thick black hair and his skin was rather dark.
LW was very tall but exceedingly thin, his arms appeared to be made of straw and his legs that barely filled his trousers would have made a Black-necked Stilt feel overweight. He was blond and pale.
BM was sitting with both elbows on the table (this is not considered particularly rude in Germany as opposed to the US), had his legs slightly spread and when he was not leaning over the table, he was leaning back in a relaxed yet manly posture.
LW was sitting straight, his knees pressed together under the table and bent at a 90° angle, his elbows were off the table but tightly against his ribs (the posture deemed well-behaved in Germany) and he never leaned forward or backward but his torso was always straight.
BM was wearing a light blue shirt with a dark blue tie, no jewellery of any kind.
LW was wearing a pink shirt and a tie with a delicate pattern of pink and light grey, he was wearing a small diamond (or crystal) earring in one ear.
BM had apparently used a razor (wet, with foam and a blade, not sure how to describe it in English as opposed to an electric shaver).
LW had apparently used an electric shaver.
Even though it had already been a stereotype feast so far, it even got better when they both grabbed their breakfast eggs at the same time [In Germany, we usually eat boiled eggs, not fried / scrambled for breakfast, and we “open” the boiled egg at the top and use a small spoon to eat the insides, with the yolk preferably still being slightly liquid at the core]:
LW (we’ll start with him this time) placed the egg in one hand upright, took his breakfast knife by the blade using the knife’s grip as a club and hammered it on the top side of the egg about 30 or more times in very quick succession but with very little force. He then put the knife back on the table besides his plate, keeping the egg as it was in the other hand, and then started to peel off the very small fragments of egg shell very thoroughly one by one and with high concentration, placing the loose pieces neatly on the rim of his plate.
BM took the egg, placed it laterally onto the table and beheaded the poor thing with one violent yet precise blow of his knife.
I barely managed to control and suppress a spontaneous outburst of laughter and thought to myself that despite being something to condemn, there was possibly even a grain of truth in stereotypes.
But then it happened:
LW was apparently full while BM was still hungry (so far, so good), so BM got up again and walked over to the breakfast buffet.
There, he took a small bowl and filled it neither with cornflakes nor with yogurt (both marginally so but still acceptable for the real men out there) but with MUESLI, yes, muesli!
My stereotype world already began to crumble and I thus continued to watch in horrified surprise, but the whole picture I had constructed of him finally and completely imploded when he also grabbed a piece of fresh fruit, a banana, pealed it, cut it into very thin slices, all of the same thickness to which he paid a good amount of attention, and mixed it under his muesli which he than began to eat slowly with a coffee spoon.
Stereotypes, I tells you, stereotypes. They just aren't what they used to be.
So, what does that tell you about birds and birding?
First of all, birding is much more of a mindset than a hobby, it is about the way we see instead of look, are alert and under constant vigilance and always apply our keen and observing senses to the world around us. It is an addictive way of life, a path through the world that once taken will not allow you to stray even for one step and you can't help but observe always, everywhere and all the time.
This at least is the only way I have of explaining without loss of face why I spent so much time and energy watching two guys have breakfast.
But then, it also tells you something about birds.
When we identify birds, we have a firm and fixed image in mind, which is matching the image we see in a field guide.
This picture of a species however is not how each individual bird of a given species looks like, it is the grand average of all the birds of that species, the ... drum roll, trumpets ... stereotype image!
When we watch a single bird of a particular species, we can quickly check the important field marks and place it in a category, which is the species, sex or age the bird belongs to:
"This is a male adult ABC Warbler molting from non-breeding to breeding plumage"
The longer we watch this bird however, the more time we invest, the more details we will find in which this particular individual differs from the stereotype image, e.g. in subtle ways of its patterning or the progress of its moult.
In most cases, this will only lead to a more thorough understanding of variation within a species, but in some cases, the parting from a stereotype image is vital for the bird's identification.
A Common Redpoll not exactly matching the stereotype might end up being a sought-after Hoary/Arctic and the strange "ringtail" Montague's Harrier might actually turn out to be the vagrant Pallid we had hoped for so passionately. But if we just place each bird in a category according to the stereotype image that is dominating our mind after a quick glance and without ever giving it any more thought, these species will seemingly avoid our detection and be cursed as our Nemesis.
So there you have it: Stereotypes are crap and need to be eradicated in human interactions as well as birding.
It makes life better that way.