Memorising birds

chough-400

White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the smaller families. I am using landscape journeys to encode the larger families, like the 36 honeyeaters, thornbills, parrots and the eagles and kites.

side-view-lukasa

My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand

 

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A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 25 memory experiments.

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7 Responses to Memorising birds

  1. lynne says:

    What is it that you find valuable and want to memorise?

    I tend to use the common names for species and only the family names scientifically, because few birders use the scientific names in the field and I haven’t memorised them yet. I have noted if they are the same genus. I found that knowing the family name was useful to group them and give me a base level. Plus birders will refer to the corvids or accipitrids or …, so I use those.

    Common names are a problem as they are not consistent, so I made a decision to start with the Christidis and Boles taxonomy and then add little stories if I need more. So blue wrens are superb fairy wrens while spur-winged plovers are masked lapwings. If more than one name is used consistently by different birders, then I will add that to the story. I want to add the scientific names, but I am doing 33 different experiments at the moment that it hasn’t been a priority. On my master list I have all the scientific names so I can cross check if there is confusion. I don’t have elders to teach me, so I need to start with a written list.

    The difference in the field of having an exhaustive list really works for me because I can use the process of elimination. I then include in the stories only the details I need to tell them apart, not all the descriptive things in the field guide. So I remember nothing for the kookaburra, say, because I am never going to mix it up with anything else. For the honeyeaters, I group them into those which need to be distinguished in the field. For example, my story records the difference between the brown-headed, black-chinned and white-naped, but I only need to distinguish them from each other.

  2. Hi Lynne, I am trying to work out how you actually began the process of memorising the bird families and names of the species. I like the idea of the board but can’t find the exact method in your book. You add the objects to the board, 82? to represent the the family names? then create journeys/songlines for all the birds within each family? The total number of objects matches the highest level? Assuming you started with Emu as the first native bird in the Vic families and associated it with the very first bead on the upper left corner of the lukasa?
    Malt

    • lynne says:

      Hi Malt,

      Thank you for the interest and question. There is so much more to write that was simply beyond the word limit of the book.

      I didn’t add the objects to the board specifically to match the 82 families, although that probably would have worked better. I just added the objects and later decided to use it for birds. You would do better adding the right number if you are sure what you want. So for some families, I use a group of small beads. The way I move around the board was just what worked best when I tried it.

      I do start with the emu, that is Dromaiidae. That is the first small bead, top left, although mine has now fallen off and just left a sharp fragment. That works just as well as I press on it. There is only one bird in Dromaiidae, the emu so that is attached to the bead.

      I sing the families which has a rhythm and story linking them. I start by singing every fifth family, because that is only 16 and grounds the song. I then go back and sing the whole 82 in groups of five with a rhythm that just emerged with me saying / singing the scientific names. So I started by just singing each family name and touching the correct bead. I know the board so well now, that I don’t need it with me. Indigenous cultures build up their knowledge layer by layer, as we do, so the first layer is the family names.

      For the second layer, I attach the species to the family bead. The way I do that depends on the size of the family. Any family with less than 5 birds, I just make up a story and link it to the bead. Let’s bypass the second bead, Anatidae, the ducks and geese, for the moment and go to the third, Megapodidae – easy, one only, the malleefowl. The fourth bead is Phasianidae, the quails, pheasants and so on. There are four in Victoria: the stubble qail, brown quail, king quail and Indian Peafowl (or peacock). The word ‘Phasianidae’ sounds like fashion, so my story is about fashion. Clealy the peacock is the height of haute couture. The stubble quail doesn’t even shave properly – a slob. The brown quail is dull, dull, dull as a dresser. The king quail tries given his royalty, but he can never match the peacock. The story is something I mull about, even classify people as one of the four Phasianids.

      Slowly I made up stories for every family of less than 5 species and attached them to the beads. I could always find something to note about the bead. The Menuridae, for example, had a bit of glue dripped down, so I imagined that as urine from men urinating on a lyrebird mound – not an image I easily forget.



      Back to the Anatids. There are 16 ducks and geese. I attached them in 4s to a set of houses and a park I walk past on our daily walk. I am not sure why I did 4 not 5 for each location, but that is the way it happened naturally, so I did. Starting with the magpie goose at the first house and the black swan at the second, I decided on a football match between the magpies and the swans. Four of the ‘magpies’ come out of the first house, the ‘swans’ from the second. They swarm onto the park, where the match descends into a riot. The teals attempt to serve tea; one duck gets pink ears from the head butt of a hardhead; the musk duck is more interested in his cologne and attracting a mate for sex behind the bushes at the edge of the park. The shoveller buries the dead. And so on.

      

The Anatids story also indicates the way things can be adapted and higher layers of information added. Some taxonomers have the Magpie Goose as Anseranatidae. So in my song I have another voice which suggests, ‘answer-anatidae!’, to which I answer Anatidae. I hope that makes sense to you. It reminds me of that taxonomic difference. I also have a mnemonic to add in muscovies and greylags and Indian runners. It all just grows and grows while playing with it.

      The process of making up the stories really adds to the species becoming memorable. The stories have the species in the order of the bird list I used, so similar species are next to each other. I also have those of the same genus as brothers in the story – my clue to them being the same genus.



      I worked through all the families this way, not in any particular order but just depending on what bird was interesting me at the time or that we were seeing often and needed the ID. Consequently I started with the 36 honeyeaters.

      When the taxonomers combined the Cracticids (magpie, butcher birds and currawongs) with the Artamids (the woodswallows), I thought it was silly given how different they are in the field. So I added a story about the sweet little woodswallows overpowering the much stronger cracticids so I know they are all now Artamids, but it suits me to keep them separate as I already knew them that way. You can always add new knowledge once the stories are established.

      

Does that make sense?

      Lynne

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