Sunday, July 02, 2006

Gestalt at 70 MPH

Zipping down Interstate 70 in western Washington County, Maryland, last weekend at 70 mph, I spotted and easily identified a Green Heron as it flew across the highway in front of my car and landed in a tree in the right-of-way. The small size and chunky shape, rounded wings, and especially the head-up landing posture and short-necked appearance of the bird--even as brief as the observation was--was all I needed to make the ID.

Yesterday, while zooming down a State highway in rural Allegany County, Maryland, I quickly identified a cuckoo as it flew quickly across the road. Long-tailed and slim-bodied, with short, rounded wings instantly spelled out cuckoo in my mind; which one, I have no idea (though I suspected Yellow-billed)!

Some would say that I employed GISS (pronounced jiss or jizz) to identify the bird, while others would call it gestalt, a term of German origin that means essentially the same thing (i.e., identifying a bird or other object based on shape, size, form, and movement). Being synonymous, which of the terms you use and how you pronounce them depends purely on your preference, with probably a great deal of influence from the people you hang out with and admire. Why gestalt has fallen out of favor among birders in recent years in preference to GISS or jizz, I don’t know. Perhaps gestalt is considered too much of a technical term.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, the reason for made up words such as GISS might simply be that some even rather famous book writers have not done enough proper research or had enough wide ranging experience.

I remember my first Cuckoo id by gestalt rather fondly. Like you I remember thinking what a distinctive bird in flight it was.

Perhaps the first use of gestalt by many people is the point where beginning birders quit putting their binocs on every vulture in the distance in hopes of seeing hawks. That gets pretty tiresome and leads to telling vultures from hawks by their gestalt pretty quickly.

Nice memories.


July 03, 2006 1:26 PM  

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