COLOUR BLINDNESS AND BIRDWATCHING

By Garry Wilkinson, NIOC Charman

October 2011

I've been birding now for over 45 years and discovered I was colour blind when I was ten years old.  I did a test at Downey House Primary School and was told very seriously that I could not be a pilot!!!  Flying a plane thankfully was the last thing on my mind at ten; I wanted to play for Manchester Utd and then Chelsea.  It was when I joined the Belfast YOC and went on many birding trips with Norman Adams that I realised the significance of my impaired colour vision.  Greenshanks and Redshanks legs all looked green to me and the subtle differences in warbler and wildfowl plumage were not apparent to me.

 At twelve I visited the Science Museum in London with my parents and took part in a very comprehensive colour blind test that was conducted by some scientists at the museum.  Of the forty or fifty separate colour sequences, only the hidden circle in the black an white dots was visible to me.  The young woman conducting the experiment had never seen colour blindness so complete.  She informed me I was colour blind in all the major colours and not just reds and greens which is the norm.  She told me it was hereditary but only on the male side and that if I lived locally she would have liked to conduct further tests.

Colour blindness is often misconstrued by the un-initiated.  I can see all the major colours on their own.  It's only when they are mixed together in certain circumstances the difficulty arises, therefore when colouring in at a young age, red, green and brown pencils looked the same, as did blues, greys and pinks.  A bemused Natural History teacher displayed my picture with green tree trunks and red leaves to an equally incredulous class, amidst a certain amount of teasing and ridicule.

Birding as my main hobby started to present a number of challenges.  In my teens and into my thirties I was visiting Norfolk, Shetland and the Isles of Scilly on  regular basis and thanks to the expertise and great deal of understanding and patience from the birders there, acquainted myself with other identification points that I could regularly use in my observation of British Birds.  Flight pattern and songs were particularly important and I started with the more common species such as Mistle Thrush and Garden Warbler.  I learned that Great Spotted Woodpecker has an alarm call similar to Blackbird but subtly different in tone.  Behaviour was another aspect that I learned to observe, such as calling in a Cuckoo, or that Barn Owls on the mainland usually hunted an hour before dusk.

I also realised that my colour blindness was compensated by sharp long range sight.  Indeed I learned that during the Second World War, colour blind people were used to spot camouflaged emplacements from planes, such was their awareness of sharp detail changes and minute movement.  This came to light on my first NIOC outing to the Antrim Plateau to look for Hen Harriers.  The males of course being very obvious to me even at great distance.  I think the then Committee thought they had an incredible spotter, as close on fifteen individuals were seen during the day. 

So now my birdwatching has continued into my fifties and I get the same pleasure seeing a wintering Black Redstart as I did when I was fifteen.  I look upon my colour blindness, not as a disability or deterrent for my birdwatching, but more as an inconvenience and an inducement to learn more about the species I observe than just the standard colours.

Garry