Monday, July 30, 2018

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Birding by Flavor Profile

Sibley uses words like "neat, clean, striking" to describe Buller's Shearwater. Dunn uses "gleaming, graceful" and..."striking". All of these descriptions are true, and in the case of "striking", double true, but what if I told you that this bird could be described in an entirely different way? The depth of this bird's nuanced but definitively unsubtle visual flavor profile is nothing short of bottomless. The mellowing effects of the strong vanilla notes fades before the abrupt finish, as the bird disappears into a trough forever, never to be seen again...and you are left needing more. The aftertaste? A hint of calamari and a whole lot of desire.

The foodie. The wine connoisseur. The beer sommelier. The cicerone. The coffee cupper. I don't have a whole lot in common with these people. I still eat Top Ramen with rigor, even though I am 13 years removed from college. I hardly drink wine at all, and I will drink Tecate or Pabst or Hamm's just as happily as most (not all) other beers. I do love good coffee, but there is no way I would ever pay to go cupping. However, there is something that all these food and drink snobs have in common with one another, and with order to be so in enthusiastic abound indulging themselves in food and drink and trying to convey that to people, they also need to have a love of the language that comes with the territory.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, here are excerpts from a (which has some great content if you like your bourbon...and you know how BB&B feels about bourbon) review about Sazerac's 2013 George T. Stagg Straight Bourbon. To wit:

"Sitting with this bourbon for the first time you're instantly hit with a sense that this is a sophisticated bourbon. A smell of aged wood, raisin, caramel and a hint of corn dance across your nose, transporting you right to the middle of an aging warehouse on a warm spring day in Kentucky. While the alcohol wants to overpower the senses, overall the balance of the wood smell evens this bourbon out nicely. Let this one sit for a few minutes, and the smell just keeps getting more and more delicious...Initially a sweet taste of caramel hits your tongue that instantly is replaced with a taste of all-spice and leather... As it mellows, you get hints of candy corn and rubber, finishing on a note of wet wood and tobacco."

Fascinating. Now I'm not familiar with this particular bourbon, but this is a very interesting description, fanciful as it may seem. Candy corn? Rubber? I've consumed a lot of bourbon and those tastes have never entered my mind. It's ridiculous and whimsical but people really get off on this sort of thing. As easy as it is to just call "bullshit" on this sort of thing, I think it's fantastic that folks are being so creative and enthusiastic in describing something that a lot of consumers put no mental effort into characterizing whatsoever...i.e. a lot of people relegate coffee to being either good or bad, hot or cold. Nothing more. But there is so much more!

And now to finally bring this post around to at the Human Birdwatcher Project, we firmly believe that "birders are people too!", and in the last decade a whole lot of people have bought in to the foodie treatment thing. I think it is time that birds get the same sort of attention to detail that so much of the nonbirding world has been delving into. All too often a bird is described the same way over and over again...beautiful, bright, cute...striking...or on the other end of the spectrum, dull, plain, or even than repulsive cliche that never seems to die, "little brown job". These abundantly used descriptors are ok for field guides, which have little space available and require utilitarian phrasing regardless, but what about all the other bird books? The magazine and web articles? The blogs and the trip reports? We can do better, bird writers! What would it be like to apply these foodcore descriptions to a bird's appearance...a visual flavor profile, so to speak? Well, there is only one way to find out...

Yellow-billed Magpie. This endemic demands your attention. To look away when a magpie is near is to do your eyes, heart, and visual palate injustice. Most of what this bird has to offer, strictly in terms of looks, is a sudden blast to the retinas; it is superbly balanced, with strong notes of oak and dried grass. You see what you get very quickly, though this is a bird that needs to enjoyed both while it is perched and in flight. When seen close up and in good light, you will notice a salty but wet taste - these are the tears flowing down your face, which the magpie's incredible iridescence has triggered reflexively.

Before we go on, all of these food and drink items that get critiqued are typically assigned some sort of score, mostly because people really like to rank things. With that in mind, and because birders still mercilessly use the word "jizz" seriously (birders are still clueless, apparently), I will now introduce the Bourbon, Bastards & Birds Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™! The magpie gets an 8/10 on the scale, with the only significant mark against it being that much of it appears identical to Black-billed Magpie.

Lewis's Woodpecker. Few birds taste as utterly a Lewis's Woodpecker. This bird is sherbet for your eyes, but also so much more. A big woodpecker almost the size of a crow that is black, green, gray, red and pink...what? How can that be? But just like Jagermeister and soy eggnog sound absolutely incomprehensible together, we know it somehow works. And unlike Jagnog, encountering a Lewis's Woodpecker will never fill you with pain or regret the next day. Your soul will be full, though you may have an undeniable urge to track down some rasberry sorbet.

A criminally underrated species, Lewis's Woodpecker gets the high marks on the BB&B Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™: 9/10

House Finch (juvenile). Not only do species vary in their visual flavor profiles from one another, a single species can vary significantly in plumage as well. Take the House Finch. Despite seeing thousands of House Finches every year, every once in a while I will still be struck by a particularly bright male beaming his cranberried colors into my eyes. They are visually a mess, like they fell into some strawberry compote, but you can't deny that berry-colored birds are well received no matter how sloppy their attire. This juvenile House Finch, on the other hand...well, this just doesn't inspire the visual taste buds. It is overall bland but slightly tart, with textures of dead leaves and clay-laden soils. The more of these you see, the quicker the bitterness accumulates. Looking at this bird reminds me of eating a stale saltine...a stale saltine with no salt. Some of the fresh browns are warm and mellowing, sure, but there is no other shortage of brown birds that are far more inspiring. It doesn't help that the species is also ubiquitous (much like corn syrup and palm oil) and nonnative to much of the country. This particular bird gets points for fresh plumage and not much else; if most birds looked like this, there would not be birdwatchers.

The juvenile House Finch gets a 2/10 on the BB&B Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™.

A harsh review? Perhaps. I have no animosity toward House Finches, but we need to be true to our tastes, true to ourselves, and true to the birds (not to mention the jizz). Like food and drink, birds cannot be savored equally.

How about a couple more? I will now hand over the blog reins to my co-blogger Cass for some additional species, to get his take on birding flavor profiles.

Blue headed vireo. Maybe it’s just the eye ring but this bird inspires a deep lust for rolls. Sushi rolls to be exact. An understated blend of subtle flavors and textures, wingbars and flankwash, covert edging and vent glitz, this vireo was built with the same ethos that went into the architecture an 8 piece Kappa maki….HARMONY. As with most things Japanese, an element of  asymmetry is found in the final analysis. Chaos, i.e. nature, must have the final edit. With this bird it is that hooked crab-cracker glued to the front of its face. The bill is the bite, the wasabi punch that carries the vireo through is flirtation with mundanity and buries its memory deep in your stomach. A point blank viewing will make your eyes water and your grip on reality will be touch and go. As with sushi, the viewer is satiated with surprisingly little, as the visual nutrition is so dense. A gastronomical bonus; the blue headed vireo’s casual foraging speed, somewhere between the boorish/jolting sit-then-sally Empid and the frenetic wood warbler, also promotes proper digestion. Itadakimass!

Wood Duck (female). Belonging to the forgotten 3rd tribe of anatidids, the lurkers (the other two being, of course, the dabblers and divers), this backwater beauty is the chic, ice-veined femme fatale to her overblown, coked-out counterpart in the 80’s power couple known as Aix sponsa. Even the scientific moniker smacks of a New Wave band name.

Now to assess this birds flavor profile. For starters, resist the temptation to pick up this F%#*ING PERFECT duck and stuff it in your pocket. If resistance proves futile then bury your face in her neck and inhale the heady top notes of fermenting algae. Next, place her feet in your mouth in the hopes of ingesting a rogue toad egg she has caught between her toes. The numbing effect of the bufotoxin should kick in shortly, just in time for you to offer her a mouthful of mosquito larva that she will most likely attack with fervor and violence. The feeding will leave you with hideous face scars you'll carry with you for the rest of your days. Though you won’t feel a thing due to the bufotoxin, your heart will soar as you add another tick to your animals-that-have-eaten-out-of-my-mouth list.

Whoa. Well, this just goes to show you how many ways the visual flavor profile can go...who knew things would veer toward Nyotaimori? Birding by flavor profile isn't going to revolutionize the arcane genre of bird writing, but I think there are avenues of perceiving and describing birds that birders should be open to exploring.


  1. Mmmm, all of a sudden I am craving some Peking Duck.

  2. I know I’m a few months late, but I was just rereading this one and it’s fucking hilarious. Genius.