Jizz and/or Gestalt

Earlier this summer, there was a discussion on an on-line ornithological bulletin board about the best word to use to describe how birders and ornithologists use their experience with subtleties of species to identify them.  The word that immediately came to mind for me was “gestalt,” which is a German word for “shape” or “form” that is associated usually associated with psychology.  It was the word I had heard growing up.  I specifically remember an ornithologist, Scott Mills, using it when he was talking to a Tucson Audubon Society workshop about identifying the various species of sparrows that inhabit the grasslands of southern Arizona.  Savannah, Vesper, Cassin’s, Botteri’s, Grasshopper, and Baird’s are all species of open grassland, and they can co-occur in southern Arizona at different times of the year, but when they are not singing, the usual view of them is of a flushed individual flying away from you.  Scott had some tips or what he called the “gestalt” to help determine what species they might be in these situations.  He described shape, color and behavioral elements.  Cassin’s and Botteri’s Srarrows are slightly larger and longer tailed.  These species don’t usually land on exposed perches like fence lines, but most frequently go back to the grass.  Vesper sparrows are longer tailed, and they have white outer tail feathers although you can’t always pick this up.  Savannah Sparrows are smaller and shorter-tailed.  Both Savannahs and Vespers often land on fences when flushed.  Savannah Sparrows are comparatively drab on their backs.  Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrow are both short-tailed sparrows, with distinctive back patterns that one can sometimes glimpse when they flush.  They rarely go to fence lines, preferring to dive back into thick grass. 

Before I responded on the bulletin board, I did a search on-line and could not find a reference for gestalt in relation to birds.  Others immediately mentioned “jizz” although there was an alternative spelling put forward ("giss"  for “general impression, shape and size”).  It turns out there is even a Wikipedia page for “Jizz,” so I guess that nails it down as the more widely accepted word.  The definition given on Wikipedia is “the immediately recognizable characteristics of a bird.”  I see differences in the definitions between the two words that are intriguing.  To me, “Gestalt” implies the sense of what might be; while the Wikipedia definition of “Jizz” implies what “is.”  There is a difference.

I was reminded about this in Manaus, Brazil last May.  On the morning after our annual NSF Dimensions of Diversity grant meetings ended, we were treated to being lead, before sunrise, into the forests north of Manaus by Dr. Mario Cohn-Haft, one of the most experienced ornithologists in the Amazon.  Mario has spent 30 years studying Amazonian birds.  In the pre-dawn, we climbed the famous INPA tower, a large metal structure that reaches above the forest canopy.  It is a spectacular place to watch birds.  We had plenty to look at close to us; a canopy flock came by with 10-15 species of birds that were at eye level from the tower, but that you usually are craning your neck to identify from forest floor.  Because it usually so hard to see many of these species well, the most experienced birders and ornithologists, like Mario, rely on voice for most of these species.

tiny_hawk_manaus.jpg

This distant Tiny Hawk, seen from a tower in Manaus, Brazil, was only correctly identified after it was studied for a long time.

  As the flock moved off we started scanning the distant trees for other birds.  I spotted a bird of prey sitting on an exposed perch far off, and the discussion started.  It looked big enough to me to be a forest falcon and it looked light breasted.  As we discussed the possibilities, I became satisfied it was a Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon (Micrastur mirandollei), which would be a nice record for the tower.  For me, the “gestalt” or “jizz” seemed right.  The bird seemed large, was sitting still, and its shape, and two-toned color (dark back and light breast) fit.  Mario kept looking at the bird.  He put it in a scope, and then took a few photos through the scope with a camera; the images were blurry and not yet conclusive.  It started raining and rained for 15-20 minutes, but the bird stayed put, not moving at all.  Mario kept his eye on it for some 45 minutes, the sun came back out and the light changed.  In the new light conditions, another photo through the telescope revealed the bird actually had lightly barred breast, and now we could see that its eyes were red making it a Tiny Hawk (Accipter supeciliosus).  This is a small hawk, much smaller species than a Forest-Falcon, and much smaller than I was convinced the bird was when I first spotted it.  I think I talked myself into shape differences based on my thought that it was bigger than it actually was.  So much for my sense of “gestalt” in this case.  Maybe the way to say this is that, for Mario, the “gestalt” initially said “Forest-Falcon,” the “jizz” did not?  I suspect the two words will continue to be used interchangeably, or “jizz” will win out (after all it already has a Wikipedia entry), but I like the subtle difference between being sure you are correct based on limited information (“jizz”) versus the potential of uncertainty allowed with “gestalt.”  In Manaus, I was reminded that whether you use either word, the more you look at something, you may see you jumped to incorrect conclusions based on the first sense you had.