Another short passage that was edited from the final book…
There is another aspect to this bird sense that manifests through the art of guessing and analogising. It seems like the more time you spend looking at, and counting large flocks of birds, then the more adept you start to become at approximating their numbers; often with reasonable success. I have a silly theory for this skill which I call my ‘Magpie Analogy’. It works like this – you’re walking with someone who is not a birdwatcher, and you’re both sharing a leisurely countryside stroll. A right-hand turn into a footpath takes you along the edge of a stubble field, where there are several Magpies lounging in the cropped crop.
You turn to your associate and ask them how many Magpies they think there are. As an experienced birdwatcher, not only are you able to scan the field and instantly pick out the structure and colouration of individual birds, but realistically a split-second scan can raise a pretty accurate guess – there are eight birds. However, it takes your friend the time to count each single bird and to recognise each one individually in order to reach the same conclusion.
I’ve been out with birdwatchers, who seem to be able to look at a flock of Golden Plovers in the sky, that to my eyes, just appear like a whirling, shimmering mass, that’s moving and glittering in unison. To them, there’s 350 birds – just like that – scanned and noted. It’s an amazing skill to witness, and one that clearly develops over time, but I’m still working on it myself. I’ve been out with people and we’ve counted the same flock of wildfowl, but our approximated counts are always different. It may take me a little longer to achieve the same, accurate count, but if I take the time to count the birds methodically then I usually get there in the end.
The trick is to divide a large flock into smaller groups of the same number and size. I’d suggest grouping ten birds, then scanning across and accumulating these clumps into the full flock-size. I’ve tried this a few times with large flocks of waders, pigeons and finches and it works well. This flock of Linnets, I estimated at 200 birds and minus the few out of shot – it’s not a bad guess!