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Bias difficult trait to overcome in approach to outdoors

Greater yellowlegs are not well studied on their nesting grounds due to the habitat the birds prefer.

There is a reasonable and valid explanation why Lady Justice is often depicted wearing a blindfold in addition to hefting the scales of justice and brandishing a sword. It's to proclaim to the populace the idea that the law will be meted out objectively and without prejudice; a noble ideal indeed and one difficult to fully achieve in practice.

There are other areas beyond law that spend considerable energy trying to rid bias from their midst. Science comes immediately to mind. Studies done in the name of science go to great lengths to nullify the influence of human prejudices. Or at least they should. Yet, even such grandiose steps as peer review quite often miss it.

It turns out prejudice is one of those pesky little characteristics that dwells firmly in the human psyche. I'm no psychologist but I don't think we can truly rid ourselves of it. Even the way we view our world is rife with it.

A PowerPoint presentation I put together some months ago deals with the theory behind finding rare birds. One area I touch on is the bias that creeps into how we approach the outdoors generally and bird watching specifically. Recently, I got a nice illustration of it.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned watching hawks from a certain vantage point south of Fargo. I was at it again one day last week. While monitoring the sky, many raptors made their way along the Red River. In one instance a kettle (word used to describe a gathering of hawks) of broad-winged hawks appeared, numbering about 35 individuals. Keep in mind this occurred high above the heads of many thousands of Fargo-Moorhead inhabitants, yet very few, if any, knew it was happening.

What had taken place was an example of how we see our surroundings with a certain bias. That is, we tend to look ahead of us in a relatively small cone relative to eye level. Things above our heads mostly go unnoticed. Without making the effort, I certainly wouldn't have been aware of the rather large group of migrating hawks overhead.

The greater yellowlegs is a common migratory shorebird locally and a common nesting species not too far north into Canada, yet its breeding habits are little understood. Why? Because the bird nests mostly in muskeg, a peat bog habitat considered inhospitable and mosquito-infested. And biologists, in my opinion, show their bias by avoiding this physically uncomfortable situation.

The desire for that physical ease causes many instances of bias in the biological data, I feel. Bird counts to be conducted a certain calendar day are cancelled quite often because of weather. Winter causes a measurable drop in bird study as folks find more comfort from a warm fire than from walking through snow with binoculars. And few of us are willing to stray far from worn paths. It seems the desire to keep ones boots dry trumps the gathering of data when it may entail a muddy shoe or a sweaty scramble through prickly weeds.

There's also the night-day thing. Owls and other nocturnal critters are not nearly as understood as diurnal ones. We humans usually find it easier to function during daylight hours and tend to want to sleep at night. This is perfectly normal, but it does illustrate another prejudice in our knowledge base.

We can even go so far as to claim partiality as it pertains to the days of the week. Unless we are employed to carry out biological surveys, most of the amateur contributions to science take place on weekends. It's because our culture is weighted toward a five-day workweek, leaving only Saturday and Sunday for such pursuits.

Awareness of our surroundings is an issue we've addressed before in this space. This time we're talking about awareness of ourselves as we relate to our world. It was Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) in the 1973 movie, "Magnum Force," who uttered the phrase, "A man's got to know his limitations." All well and good but merely knowing of them is one thing, overcoming them is quite another.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.