Black-thighed Grosbeak. On a recent Costa Rica trip, one of these was called out while an epic mixed flock was demolishing the forest around us. Seagull Steve, being a tropical birding noob, completely froze…his brain could not process this information. It was, as they say, a “brainbird”. This cost him the bird, and he had to wait until 2013 before his Leicas collided with this enormous-billed behemoth. Photographed at Volcan Poas.

Brainbird: A species of bird that one has not previously heard of. Upon hearing, seeing, or learning of a completely unfamiliar species, the observer can consider the formerly unknown species ticked as a brainbird. This can be achieved either in the field or simply by perusing a field guide.

Brainbirds can be obtained in two ways. The first way is by simply hearing of the bird mentioned, i.e. “The guide said that bird was a Thrushlike Schiffornis, but John said it was a Gray-headed Piprites. I can’t say I know either way…both species are total brainbirds for me”.

The second way a bird can be ticked as a brainbird is in the field. The brainbirder can listen to a completely unfamiliar vocalization, or better yet, see a bird so unfamiliar that they cannot even come close to putting a name on it.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph

This female Violet-crowned Woodnymph clicked as a brainbird when Seagull Steve first saw it; it was completely unrecognizable to him. Ironically (and perhaps sadly), he had already seen a male of this species just a few days before. Photographed at Virgen del Socorro.

Crimson-collared Tanager

Even cripplers like Crimson-collared Tanager (Photographed at Sarapiqui Eco-Observatory) can be brainbirds for the ill-prepared. Costa Rica offers so many amazing birds that even birds like this, which can change everything for a birder, can take one by surprise. The mind reels…

During a recent Costa Rica trip, I accompanied a number of pathetic birders who practically needed to look at a field guide for every single bird they saw. While there were the usual announcements like “that’s a life bird” and “that’s a year bird” being made, one heard the confused yelp of “brainbird!!!” over and over again. This is what happens when you don’t study before a big birding trip, people.

That said, a brainbird in the field is always an interesting sighting. The old twitcher saying “familiarity breeds contempt” certainly holds true to this day, so get out there and look for that next bird that will put your mind on total lockdown…Costa Rica is a good place to start.

Written by Felonious Jive
The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive is indisputably the world’s greatest birder. As a child, Felonious was involved in a tragic accident that left him blind and crippled. Miraculously, he began regaining his faculties while parked at a window that faced his family’s bird feeder. Following his full recovery, he continued his pursuit of birds past his family’s yard and out across the globe. Now, his identification skills are unmatched by anyone living, dead, or unborn. Although considered a living deity in the birding community, his avian abilities have made him critical of his comparatively inexperienced peers. This has won him no popularity contests, although he remains much sought-after by birdwatchers of the opposite sex. His close colleague Seagull Steve writes of his exploits at Bourbon, Bastards and Birds.