BIRD IDENTIFICATION USING THE GISS TECHNIQUE
By Don Richardson
There is a term often used by birders to explain how they identified a bird. The term is "GISS," or
"Jizz" as written by most folks. It is my understanding that the term derives from the British system for
identifying aircraft in the Second World War. This system was called the General Identification Silhouette
System (GISS) and was pronounced like "jazz" with an "i," or "jizz." For this article, I'll use the word
"jizz," because that's how I see it most often.
To me, jizz is the use of a characteristic that is subconsciously recognizable and that leads to an
identification. Examples of this are common in everyday life. For example, imagine you have gone to the
mall with your best friend. You have gone your separate ways, and now you want to locate and rejoin your
friend. Climbing to a balcony at one end ofthe mall, you begin to search the crowd. Finally, you see someone several hundred yards away at the other end. Although this person is too far away to see facial characteristics, you still recognize your friend— from the walk, the way the arms move, or the way the head is
carried. You have used the jizz to recognize your friend.
As you become more experienced in birding, you develop a sense for more of these characteristics.
You see a bird fly across the road in front of you and note that it has black, white and a lot of gray. You see
it light on a fencepost in the corner of your eye as you speed by and say aloud, "Loggerhead shrike." "Why
wasn't that a mockingbird," your friend asks. "It's the jizz," you reply. But what did you see that told you
this was a loggerhead shrike?
Watch a loggerhead shrike fly to and land on a perch, then watch a mockingbird do the same thing.
Usually, you will see the loggerhead shrike fly toward the perch at an elevation lower than the perch. When
close, it glides up to the spot and plops itself onto it. The mockingbird, on the other hand, will approach
from above the perch, make a parachute out of its body, tail and wings, and float down to its landing. When
you have seen enough loggerhead shrikes and mockingbirds land, you will begin to recognize these movements, just as you recognized your friend at the mall.
Woodpeckers have a characteristic flight which is often called a "swooping" pattern. In flight, they
rise to a peak, glide downward, and flap and glide to a new peak. If you were to trace the pattern on paper,
it would look like the crests and troughs of waves in the ocean. A quick glimpse of this in the wild might
draw the comment, "I don't know what it was, but I think it was a woodpecker"— the woodpecker's jizz.
A tiny brown bird flies from high up on the trunk of a tree in the woods. It lands near the bottom of
a nearby tree and begins to move in spiral fashion upward, feeding on insects as it goes. As it gets quite
high, it leaves that tree, flies to the bottom of another and begins again. Even though you are too far to see
any brown and white patterns or the shape of its little curved bill, you know this is a brown creeper. Its
feeding behavior gives it away.
Orange-crowned warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets are often found near each other, but you know
that the bird that keeps flipping its wings is the kinglet. The brown thrasher and the hermit thrush both like
to scratch in the leaves as they feed, have warm brown in the tail, and spots or streaks on the front. But the
pudgier build and more vertical posture quickly tells you that this is the thrush.
There are many aspects of behavior and appearance not mentioned or only briefly mentioned in
field guides that are included in the tag of jizz. Having said all that, I would rather not use the word. If you
think about it, all these jizz things are describable characteristics. In my opinion, if you can identify a bird
and can verbalize how you identified it, you have done a better job than if you say, "I don't know what I
saw that makes it a goldfinch, but there's something about it and I know it's a goldfinch."
As you watch birds, certainly do try to identify them using the field marks you have read about in
field guides. Also, though, watch their flight, how they move, and how they stand. As you write these observations in your field notes or journal, you'll build an ever more helpful tool kit for identifying birds.
The tool kit will be filled with well described characteristics and not just a bunch of jizz jazz.
Don is a regular writer and lecturer about birds and teaches a beginning birding field course in conjunction with the
Houston Audubon Society. Contact him at (281)997-0485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.