In praise of mystery

Unidentified Elaenia, Chicago, IL. April 2012. Photo copyright Ken Koontz, used by permission.

The still-unidentified Elaenia, found by Ethan and Aaron Gyllenhaal in Illinois, has provided one of the most exciting and interesting bird identification challenges in recent years. It is either a first North American record of Small-billed Elaenia, or second North American record of White-crested (or third if an earlier record from Florida was White-crested).

Both species nest in southern South America and spend the austral winter (our summer) in northern South America. Like Fork-tailed Flycatcher, occasional misoriented migrants can show up in North America, and identifying Elaenias here offers new challenges. It’s one thing to identify the species where they are common, in familiar surroundings, and usually calling. Identifying a silent Elaenia in Chicago, where neither the bird nor the observer has any familiar point of reference, is another matter.

The Chicago Elaenia never called (which would have solved the mystery easily). As the days went by there was increasing interest in trying to catch the bird, primarily to get a feather for DNA testing. A firm diagnosis would have been nice, but the discussion was so good that I voted against trying to get a DNA sample.

That’s an easy position for me to take, being a thousand miles away with no investment in the outcome of the ID discussion. But the idea of testing a DNA sample felt a little bit like cheating. It was as if we were all working on solving a difficult puzzle, and someone suggested turning to page 57 to peek at the answer.

I’m not against the use of technology in birding. DNA testing is an incredibly powerful tool and will undoubtedly lead to many more surprising discoveries (like the Illinois Rufous Hummingbird last winter). I’m just suggesting that we stand to learn more from the intellectual curiosity that will now be focused on identifying the photos of the Chicago Elaenia, than we would by just running a test and knowing the answer.

In the words of Isaac Asimov:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”



Discussion of the Chicago Elaenia, 16 pages and growing on the Illinois Birders Forum:

More of Ken Koontz’s photos:

Discussion of the Chicago hummingbird, Broad-tailed or hybrid then confirmed by DNA as Rufous:

10 thoughts on “In praise of mystery”

  1. Hi, David! But if we never know the answer for sure, how can we learn from the photos? 😉 Having said that, I do anticipate that we can find some field marks that will allow us to identify the bird with only the photos. I imagine this is what it was like when trying to identify silent empids decades ago. I think the wing formula holds promise in this case; we shall see.
    Also, I wanted to add that the main focus of capturing the bird was to get in-hand measurements/photos. DNA testing was going to be a side benefit. At least, that was always my take on it!

    1. Hi Nick, I think we’ve seen a tremendous amount of learning, or at least information exchange, already just based on the photos. More than if the bird had called or dropped a feather for DNA testing the first day. And my thought is that leaving the ID unresolved will inspire people to do things like travel to South America to look specifically at silent Elaenias in worn plumage, which will lead to discoveries. It’s not that I’m against getting measurements and DNA from in-hand study, just that I see the silver lining and long-term benefits of these kinds of mysteries. It forces us to question and search to meet the more difficult identification challenge.

      I understand that Illinois birders might have some “trust issues” 😉 after the surprise results of last winter’s hummingbird ID, but I have faith that all of these birds can be sorted out eventually by careful field study.

  2. Hi, David. Hehe, I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, I was just playing devil’s advocate a bit. In the long run, I do hope that this bird will inspire much better study and understanding of silent elaenias, as you said. In the short term, now that we *have* intensely studied and learned a great deal from the photos, I want to know the answer! 🙂 But now I guess I’ll have to wait a while for the knowledge base to build. Oh well! More learning ahead, just no instant gratification. 🙂

  3. Has anyone raised the “birders effect on birds” question? It’s one thing to catch one of a thousand to do a study, but to catch a bird and handle it that is potentially alone and very far from its range? What kind of stress might this interruption induce? Is it worth the risk to the bird just to know its (ours for it) name?

    1. Yes, that’s definitely a concern, and there was some discussion of it on the Illinois forum linked above. It’s definitely harder to justify trapping and banding when you’re going after one specific individual bird, especially one that hundreds of people have developed a relationship with! It’s better at the more anonymous “population level”. That said, I definitely understand the desire for knowledge, and the potential for all kinds of unexpected discoveries when we simply follow that quest wherever it leads.

  4. Hear, hear! I agree netting this bird for no other reason than definitive identification seems ethically (for lack of a better term) ill-advised. I’m fine with such actions in the context of a larger scientific or ongoing study, but to settle mere curiosity around a lone bird, uhh not so much… who knows what indignities this avian has already suffered just to arrive in Chicago!
    In that regard, I’m surprised (as I’ve voiced elsewhere) that no one has raised the issue of the bird’s means of arrival… I’m not convinced it got there of its own accord (as opposed to hitchhiking via a vehicle), but of course there is no way to know for sure. Sighters will tick this bird off their list without much thought, while we yet ponder the Tenn. Hooded Crane with much debate (for now). In the end, it could be that THIS bird had help along the way, and the crane is true vagrant…

    1. Hi Cyberthrush, I think there’s a very very low chance of assisted passage for the Elaenia, but it can never be completely ruled out. There’s been a lot of discussion about that issue around the Tropical Mockingbird currently in Texas, with the idea that there is a big gray zone of assistance, and getting bigger. Possibilities include (arranged from least “acceptable” to most): the Mockingbird was carried across the border in a cage; it was trapped in a container on a ship or truck and escaped when it reached Texas; it flew onto a ship and rode across the Gulf; it flew north into the Gulf and was able to complete the crossing only because it landed on one or more oil drilling platforms; it traveled by land around the Gulf or flew across under its own power. And suppose on its travels it stopped to refuel at a bird feeder or a garden with exotic fruit trees, is that human assistance? This is a very complex question.

  5. Alan Wormington


    Re your second paragraph:

    Fork-tailed Flycatchers also show up occasionally in Canada as well!

    1. Hi Alan, switched to “North America”. I thought about saying “can show up in the US, and even as far north as Canada” but I went with the shorter summary. 😉

  6. seriously, I think someone should do a rough study of how many birds get trapped in long-haul (and even short haul) truck trailers… many yrs. ago when I worked for UPS one Xmas I was surprised at how many little brown jobs (mostly sparrows & wrens) were flying in and out, or often in-and-NOT-out, of the trailers as we were loading/unloading them, attracted by the light or flying insects.

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