William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan priest, wasn’t a birder as far as I know. He was a philosopher. He is known for what has come down to us as Ockham’s razor: the answer that requires the least speculation is usually better. This is a handy birding tool.

 

It came to mind this morning when a friend sent another set of junco photos taken in his yard. He is puzzling over identification. I suggested including range maps in his consideration, introducing him to Ockham. Range can simply the question.

 

Razor, in this use, according to an Oxford dictionary, came from the French. In Middle English it could refer to a critical decision.

 

There are, of course, many out-of-range birds that visit MInnesota, requiring careful and determined critical decisions.

 

Aside — There seem to be more out-of-range birds now than remembered from my early years of birding. Perhaps there are more birds that wander. Oakham’s razor tells us that it far more like an ever-growing number of birders, not birds. We have more younger birders, enormous communication improvements, and improved identification references.

 

But Oakham’s razor has its place, perhaps when ID is a private matter, your birding reputation not at risk.

 

Addition to the discussion: My friend with the junco problem just sent me this: "Francis Crick has commented on potential limitations of Occam's razor in biology. He advances the argument that because biological systems are the products of (an ongoing) natural selection, the mechanisms are not necessarily optimal in an obvious sense. He cautions: "While Ockham's razor is a useful tool in the physical sciences, it can be a very dangerous implement in biology. It is thus very rash to use simplicity and elegance as a guide in biological research."

 

I'm uncertain of the danger to be found in using Ockham to satisfy a backyard bird ID question. But the caution is good to know.

 

Aside -- the next electronic gadget useful in birding will be a device that when pointed at a bird reads its genetic code, then offer sa comparison with genetic codes stored in The Cloud. The ID problem will disappear with the tap of a finger.

 

 


 

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