Canyon Towhee — Lesson Learned

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I freely admit that I’m not the most accurate when it comes to species identification. Part of my problem is that I frequently view my subjects burdened with preconceptions about what I should be seeing. In other words, sometimes, I see what I want to see rather than what is there.

This is a bird that I photographed while at the Elkhorn Guest Ranch a couple of weeks ago:

Often, I can identify a species simply by looking at it through my camera’s viewfinder, but that wasn’t the case with this bird. It certainly wasn’t anything that I’d seen or photographed recently.

I knew from the shape of its beak and the bird’s overall size that it was in the broad category of birds that includes sparrows. But, it definitely was not a sparrow. That led me to conclude that it was a related species, perhaps a towhee.

Towhees are sparrow cousins and there are four towhee species that are common to southern Arizona: Spotted, Green-tailed, Canyon, and Abert’s. I knew immediately that this wasn’t a Spotted Towhee or an Abert’s Towhee.

That should have led to an obvious conclusion but it didn’t. I’ve seen Green-tailed Towhees on many occasions at the Elkhorn Guest Ranch and so I concluded that this bird must be a member of that species. Except that it bears little or no resemble to a Green-tailed Towhee. I kept poring over images of that species, looking for one that resembled my bird. I couldn’t find one. I decided that, perhaps, this bird is an immature Green-tailed Towhee.

I was all set to write a post today about the “immature Green-tailed Towhee” that I’d photographed. But when I prepared the image for posting a thought occurred to me. Could this bird be a Canyon Towhee? I picked up a field guide and looked at the drawing of this species contained there and . . . . Bingo! My towhee has all of the field marks of a Canyon Towhee.

I had been led astray by a preconception. There’s a lesson in this — never start with a conclusion and force the facts to justify it. That’s true not just about bird identification but about almost every situation one faces in life.

Image made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5=7.1 IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 800, f7.1 @ 1/1000, -1 stop exposure compensation.

3 Replies to “Canyon Towhee — Lesson Learned”

  1. Sherry Felix says:

    I’ve had the same thing happen when identifying Birds or other wildlife.

  2. rebelbreeze says:

    an accent philosophical caution. I’d say that it’s natural to categorise and probably a survival trait but better to be prepared to question the assumption.

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