Let’s Get Metaphysical

There are some great birds on this week’s Arizona RBA, everything from Sinaloa Wren to Yellow-throated Vireo, from Ruby-throated Hummingbird to Plain-capped Starthroat; but what has most caught the eye of discerning locals is the report of a very young juvenile Short-tailed Hawk above Madera Canyon. This is still a very rare species in the southwestern US, and the thought that this bird might have been hatched in the Santa Ritas is an exciting one, potentially extending the breeding range of the species quite a ways north and west from its strongholds (a relative term in connection with a bird this scarce!) in the Chiricahuas and Huachucas.

There can be no doubt about the identification, of course (the observer is one of the very best), but it is nice that he was able to photograph the hawk, too. And here’s where things get interesting, to me at least. The RBA, well and conscientiously crafted this week by a couple of excellent and thoughtful birders, pronounces this photograph the first “physical documentation” of the species in the Santa Ritas.

Wait a minute. “Physical”? Did Dave shoot the poor thing?

Of course he didn’t. What the compilers meant to do here was to contrast photographic documentation and written documentation. I won’t belabor the fact (as I usually do) that photographs should be viewed as only supporting material for written documentation, but I will point out that there is nothing “physical” about a photograph–or a sound recording–or at least, that whatever “physicality” those forms of representation participate in is shared by written documentations.

What’s “physical” and what’s “immaterial” in this photo?

It’s my belief, my assertion, my unyielding insistence that only the paper-towel-shrouded corpse (a House Sparrow that gave its life, reluctantly, for science) is ontologically “superior” to the written documentation, and that the photo on the cd and the image on the slide and the recording on the cassette tape (remember cassette tapes?) are in fact less “physical” than any of the other objects and artifacts they share the screen with.

Anyone who disagrees with me is, hm, wrong.

Obviously, I hope that my readers (both of them) are skilled at detecting irony and (slight) overstatement; but I’m equally hopeful that someone “out there” will propose a better, more precise formulation than “physical documentation” for the sorts of evidence represented by photographs and sound recordings. Be prepared: I’ve already thought of the obvious alternatives, and am ready to reject them all with vehemence.

A big smile for the rest of the weekend!