Why is Color Our 1st Instinct for ID?

One of my first “slap on the wrists” as a birder was to look at color last, whereas it seems we want to look at it first. Why is that? Our processing of color begins in the retina, whereas we don’t process form of what we’re looking at until the visual cortex!

“Many cells in V1 respond to some parts of the spectrum better than others, but this “color tuning” is often different depending on the adaptation state of the visual system. A given cell that might respond best to long wavelength light if the light is relatively bright might then become responsive to all wavelengths if the stimulus is relatively dim…Red–green cells compare the relative amounts of red–green in one part of a scene with the amount of red–green in an adjacent part of the scene, responding best to local color contrast (red next to green).” – Color Vision

There is also a fair bit of subjectivity in color perception. Assuming, though, that we have fairly comparable color perception for our intents and purposes, maybe it’s unrealistic to tell new birders to “ignore color.” Perhaps it’s too ingrained in our evolutionary perception of our environment. Also, color isn’t inherently an unreliable ID characteristic; it’s just subjective. In fact, it’s often relieving to get a glimpse of color on a back-lit bird we’re observing from afar, to help clinch our ID. I think we’d also agree that color is one of the most exciting features to observe on a bird. The question we should probably instead ask is: “how reliable was our color perception?”

  • what was the time of day/lighting?
  • was the bird out in broad daylight, or sitting in a shadow?
  • how long did you see the bird?
    • was it moving?
    • if so, how quickly?
  • what angle were you looking at the bird?
    • what was its position relative to you (overheard, perched in front of you)?
    • was it back-lit?
  • how far away was the bird?
  • what was the main “background color” (e.g. were you looking at it against green trees or a blue sky)?

Two other color “tricks” that come to mind are reflections and “dyes.” For the former, maybe the bird is perched on or near something that is reflecting color onto it. For the latter, birds can obtain artificial colors in several ways: intentional feather dying for research/tracking, getting into pollen, tree resin, etc.

I posit that one of the earliest lessons we can teach new birders is to assess the reliability of color perception from a sighting. My ultimate goal is to work toward the most realistic framework for allowing people to work with their natural perceptions to identify birds, instead of setting unrealistic expectations of “perfect perception” which we’ll likely never achieve. I don’t think that we ever truly learn to ignore color at first blush (pun intended). Also, in better understanding our innate observation biases, we can better assess what we did or did not see in the field.

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