Biggest, smallest, fastest, slowest....

July 9, 2009

Why are we so obseesed with “ests”?

Recently, on a birding egroup I belong to, there’s been a discussion on what the smallest bird in India is. I don’t know if the

Fire-Breasted Flowerpecker

and the

Tickell’s (Pale-Billed) Flowerpecker

are ever likely to meet each other, and if they do, whether they will start a fight over who’s the smallest bird in India…but their fans are certainly slugging it out, one putting forward the claims of Mr FBFP, and the other, those of Mr T(PB)FP.

As usual, Shyamal made a sensible observation, and here’s my response to him. The words within double asterisks are his:

The idea of smallest, strongest etcetera are ill-defined concepts whose main purpose seems to be for National Geographic and their ilk to make long-winded episodes on.

Thank you, Shyamal. I was just thinking out something along these lines and as usual, you said it much better!

What I was thinking was, suppose I sight a VERY fat Firebreasted Flowerpecker, or a Pale-Billed Flowerpecker which has just paid its income tax ( interesting, the contrast between the fire and the paleness in these two tiny birds!) r, the former would be bigger than the other…so I personally prefer to leave these “superlatives” to the experts…and that was before you let us know just how a bird is actually measured:

The length measurement as most of you will know is based on putting the fresh killed specimen on its back and stretching its head back and measuring the bill tip to tail tip, depending on how this is done, the position of the spine and the state of tail moult, it can vary a fair bit.

Ooh, what a terrible way to measure a bird! I am certainly glad the height of human beings is not measured this way, after killing them…

** it is probably not worth attempting to determine this to great surety when any defining measurements can vary so much.**

Reminds me of the Afro-haircut-sporting young man who was asked his height, and he said,” Before haircut, or after?”

**To see how “iffy” most of these “records” are, see a scientific attempt to settle such questions with regard to the insects


Those links show just how interested human beings are with superlatives…it’s interesting to speculate why we are so interested in what the ultimate form of something is. Even when an aircraft crashes, the headlines always like to say “the worst in recent aviation history”…and often, it’s accompanied by a list of crashes, often rated by magnitude! And how they rate the crashes is anyone’s guess.

I was asking my knowledgeable friend, AMS, of Delhi, about these birds, and his words made a lot of sense to me: “Flowerpeckers are amongst the smallest birds in India.”

…And who knows… suddenly another

Ramana Athreya

will arise, and discover a bird that’s half the size of the flowerpecker…so, let’s say, “flowerpeckers are amongst the smallest known birds in India, and leave it at that!

Here’s one photo I took of the Pale-Billed Flowerpecker, I haven’t seen the other one!

pale-billed flowerpecker devarayanadurga 050408