I’m sure you have found, just as I have, that when you try to learn every living thing’s name in your backyard [or region!], your brain fries or turns to the consistency of grits. But never fear! I have noticed a little trick, probably well-documented in a psychology journal with a technical name and all, that somehow keeps your brain on task. This trick is used so much that I am sure you’ve heard of a nature catch phrase at least once in your life. “The sun rises in the East, sets in the West” is a ubiquitous one, though I’m not sure how people remember it!
I think the problem lies with the brain’s craving of structure. Unless your name is Carolus Linnaeus, you may not be able sort animals by orders and families, let alone genus and species, so you rely on the common name. The tricky thing about common names is that sometimes they vary by region [what I call a garden spider is called a writing spider down here]. Probably the most problematic feature of the common names is that sometimes they seem to have nothing to do with the actual animal or plant!
Take for instance the lightning whelk. I see nothing that really strikes me as electric about that shell versus the shell of the knobbed whelk, but someone clever said that lightning whelks open on the left, so alliteration helps one differentiate between these two similar species.
I remember in college hearing my first mind-altering catch phrase, something to help you tie the name to the plant or animal. This one was quite the doozy since it worked slightly the opposite–upon hearing the phrase, your brain would object, but you’ll never be able to rid yourself of ‘burnt potato chips’. We were walking somewhere on a field trip in my field ecology class, the place wasn’t so important as the trees and my interesting professor’s take on them. When passing a massive black cherry, whose bark is difficult to assign any descriptor, she noted “It looks like burnt potato chips” and then walked on. After a few quiet steps she said that was the worst description in the history of man, because of course that bark doesn’t look like carbonized potato chips, but, she said matter-of-factly, you’ll never forget that tree. Oddly, she was right…
There are some more intuitive catch phrases for trees, like red oak species have pointed lobes on the leaves, as if they could draw blood, whereas the white oaks have rounded lobes. So the catch phrase would be something like Point = Blood = Red Oak.
I think these catch phrases work best when someone you perceive to be more knowledgeable than yourself is standing there when you see the species. Once they blurt out a phrase, it seems to get stuck in your head associated with the sight of that species until you have enough observations of your own to replace that phrase with other facts. Several of mine recently have come from coworkers. We watched some birds ride thermals so high up that we had trouble identifying them. They were elegant fliers, noted my coworker, so probably wood storks, but they are not the most elegant-looking while on the ground. So beautiful in flight, so ugly on the ground. A catch phrase good enough to remember them by, until you learn that they are the only breeding stork member in the United States.
Catch phrases can get you into trouble, though. A coworker mentioned that Mississippi kites have a very distinct pyramid-shaped tails. With this catch phrase embedded in my head, I spotted a bird that wasn’t a kite, but assumed it was because I could only see the tail well. I’m still not sure what he is; I guess northern harriers are gone for the summer. Catch phrases can be great learning tools, but they can limit your brain and lull it into patterns, barring you from IDing that one oddball that comes your way.
So while catch phrases are helpful, they aren’t the means to an end. They are just the beginning of cracking open field guides and reading up on natural histories.
Those were some of my favorites, share some of yours!