Saturday, December 23, 2017

Bird Ornament Detective

Happy Holidays nerds! One of the nicest things about the holiday season for your amateurnithologist is the prominent placement of birds in decoration and festive embellishment around this time of year. Whether they're adorning your Christmas Tree, Hanukkah Bush, or your Kwanzaa Kinora, these birds embody the spirit of peace and love the holidays are meant to represent.

But what are they though? A question only asked by the most compulsive of birders, sure, but one still worth considering, at least academically. Could a bird ornament be IDed? It turns out there's a lot of variety in how much veracity these ornaments have. The core philosophies of creation seem to range from extremely intentional recreation of a specific species to "make a bird". Today we're going to be looking at a couple of examples. Pull a cozy chair up to the fireplace and sip your hot cocoa as you join us for this pedantic holiday exercise.

As a fun bonus we're going to be running the very impressive Merlin Bird ID app through its paces to see if it can offer any additional insights beyond my own arcane system.

Key Features: Drab coloration, rufous crown, brown streak across chest, sparrow-shaped
Best Guess: Bachman's SparrowMerlin says:  Brown Thrasher
illustrated images copyright

I feel it's clear they were going for a certain type of bird at least, but how much further they went than that is anybody's guess. There are a few defining features that could be used for identification, but sadly most of them rule out real birds. The yellow eye is most damning, but the small black beak also doesn't help. At this point it's worth noting that many bird ornaments don't have feet, but rather flexible wires, which to my knowledge is not consistent with any known bird species. Still, the red crown and brown streaked breast make me fairly confident of my identification. This raises another question however- why would anyone make an ornament that looks like a Bachman's Sparrow?
Ornament Rating: 🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Prominent red coloration, black features including crown, chest, eye stripe [left]
Yellow head, black, curved bill, blue wing spot [right]
Best Guesses: Cardinal [left] Yellow-headed Blackbird [right]
Merlin Says: Northern Red Bishop [left] Yellow-throated Toucan [right]

Terrible, just terrible, in both cases. The red bird, to me, is clearly meant to represent a Cardinal (the crest really gives it away), a really Christmas-y bird. However, it's got these needless features that make it completely incompatible with any real bird. If you were already 90% of the way to making a serviceable cardinal, why would you make a black crest and eye stripe? The other bird is just as bad, having a combination of colors and body shape that make it mostly impossible. The most prominent feature is the yellow head and dark body, which rules out pretty much everything other than the Yellow-headed blackbird all by itself. You could be extremely generous and assume that the blue wing is a kind of opalescent sheen that you can sometimes seen on black birds. I did find some examples of budgies with yellow heads and blue bodies, but the tail and beak take this too far away from the essential shape of the bird to be what they intended.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦 (each scored half a bird, together they get 1)

Key Features: Owl shape, prominent white mask, black eye ring, dark wings
Best Guess: Northern Saw-whet Owl
Merlin Says: Northern Saw-whet Owl (We got one!!)
"What if Bratz, but an Owl" a criticism of this ornament (which may or may not be a promotional item from the ill-fated owl adventure, Guardians of Ga'hoole) might go. But then you remember that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl is actually a thing, and that this looks almost exactly like it. While I'm not fully convinced that they thought they were making anything other than a cute owl, this ornament gets high marks for accuracy. Needs a little more streaking and a lighter breast, but the face is pretty darn close.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features:  Bluish back, yellow belly, white eye mask, upturned tail
Best Guess: Blue Tit 
Merlin says: Bananaquit (?!)

Blue Tit Body Illustration
This is really close, in my opinion, to a real Chickadee or Nuthatch of some type. The only issue is really the shape of the white eye mask. The shape of the bird is just right, and for the most part the colors are all within throwing distance of the real thing. In fact the ornament's so detailed that I'm almost feeling like my ID is the problem, and there's some real bird that looks just like this.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Silvery-grey, prominent tuft, black beak, darker wing
Best Guess: Black-crested Titmouse
Merlin Says: Black-crested Titmouse!

Apologies for the very bad photo, call this one a #worstbirdornamentpic. To be honest, this ornament is just about perfect. The only criticism that I'd make is that as a group of birds, the titmouse family is not particularly distinctive, with really only the crest and overall shape being what clues me in.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: White, crested, black ring around the neck, spotted wings, striped tail
Best Guess: Leucistic Bluejay
Merlin Says: Mourning Dove

This is undeniably a leucistic Bluejay, and was clearly made either by someone with an obsessive knowledge of birds or someone who was trying to make a bluejay, but ran out of blue dye. That black necklace really is what gives it away. Either way, a brilliant post-modern deconstruction of our ideas about the bird ornament genre.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦🐦

There you have it birdfans. Now you have all the example you need for how to irritate your friends and relatives by flailingly 'identifying' the birds hanging on your own tree at Christmastime. And I was pretty impressed by Merlin as well, although it's got a long way to go before I can start using it to identify pokemon and stuff.

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