I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s remarkable book, Blink, subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s writing really is sensational. This particular work addressed the psychology of first impressions and split-second decisions, choices that need to be made in, as he says, the blink of an eye. Though his journey through the applications of instantaneous, unconscious observations takes him through emergency rooms, military theaters, and cola wars, he finds time to visit with bird watchers too. After all, out in the field, we birders have to muster identifications based on the merest fragments of information. No less a luminary than David Sibley describes the delicate process for Gladwell:
Most of bird identification is based on a sort of subjective impression — the way a bird moves and little instantaneous appearances at different angles and sequences of different appearances, and as it turns its head and as it flies and as it turns around, you see sequences of different shapes and angles…
All that combines to create a unique impression of a bird that can’t really be taken apart and described in words. When it comes down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you don’t take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and this; therefore it must be this species. It’s more natural and instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You know what it is at a glance.
This avian essence, the Platonic ideal of a species that shines through despite the lighting, weather, or intervening obstacles is called the bird’s “giss” alternately spelled “gizz” or “jizz.” Considering this provocative, some might say pornographic term, I’ll have to check with the censors to see if I can explain it further some time in the future.