What Birds Teach Me about Medicine

uvmmedicine blogger Miles Grunvald '18
uvmmedicine blogger Miles Grunvald ’18

It’s not unusual for medical students to experience periods of painful self-doubt, unrelenting exhaustion and, at times, shear disappointment. I, like many of my colleagues, have occasionally experienced such emotions and have been fortunate in their brevity. During these low times I would often cope by making the facetious claim to my significant other that I was going to drop out of medical school and become a birder.

For those of you who may not know, birding is a hobby in which enthusiasts attempt to find and identify as many species of birds as they can. The activity has been popularized by movies… rather a movie, The Big Year (starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black) and is practiced all over the world. Birding is not to be confused with ornithology or bird watching; the former being the scientific study of birds and the latter being the enjoyment of viewing birds without much consideration or care for their identification.

After repeatedly suffering my empty threat of becoming a birder, my partner gifted me a book, Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley. This present was given in equal parts jest and sincerity, knowing full well that I would read it cover to cover. Having never approached birding with any seriousness I was curious to know where this text fits into the birding literature and, from what I can surmise from my cursory Google search, it is one of the premier introductions to birding.

This short read contains easily digestible and succinct information on birding practices, bird identification, and birding ethics/stewardship. Mr. Sibley’s own drawings of birds are used in the text and are absolutely stunning, in some cases comparable to the work of John James Audubon in quality if not entirely in style. The instruction in his book makes it easy for any individual with a pair of binoculars to delve into the activity of birding and enjoy it! Indeed, this is what I did during a recent trip to Costa Rica where I was able to identify over 30 different species within a week’s time.

A Quetzal
A Quetzal

However, birding was not quite the reprieve from clerkships that I was hoping for. Throughout Sibley’s text I could not help but notice the absolutely undeniable parallels between birding and medicine. Good birders are diagnosticians and good diagnosticians would make excellent birders. Just as a doctor will be concerned with the history, physical exam, imaging and laboratory findings, a birder is interested in the bird’s size, shape, behavior, color, habitat and field markings (specific coloration and patterning based on anatomic feather groups). At this stage in my medical education I am developing a sense of comfort for some of the more common diagnoses. Appendicitis, a common URI and asthma flare are the mallard duck, great blue heron and Canadian goose of Vermont bird identification. Many other diagnoses are still very difficult for me to discern and might be compared to the passerine species of Central America (passerines or Passeriformes are a large and diverse order of birds usually characterized as having a small body like that of a finch or titmouse and can be very challenging to identify).

Sibley writes: “It can be difficult to accept the fact that a lot of birds have to be identified as ‘possible’ or ‘probable.’ There is nothing to be gained by convincing yourself that you have seen a certain species.” It is my hope to take this mentality into the fourth year of my medical education and beyond. Allowing oneself to be uncomfortable with a diagnosis creates a desire for more historical information, more specific physical exams and an increased ability to understand laboratory and imaging results, a scenario ripe for learning and improvement. I expect this year to be filled with opportunities to hone my understanding, interpretation and ability to illicit my patient’s “field markings,” so many more of their ailments can move from “probable” to “definite” identification.

For colleagues and those interested in picking up a new hobby I would highly recommend birding. It is a fantastic way to get outdoors and enjoy nature. Even if you are not interested in birding I would still encourage a quick read of Birding Basics. It might even serve as a suitable companion to your favorite medical text (Cope’s Early Diagnosis of the Acute Abdomen for me).

What are your thoughts about this topic?