Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 15


A WEST Coast Irishman was familiar with the wild creatures which dwelt on or visited his rocks and shores; at a glance he could name them, usually correctly, but if asked how he knew them would reply, "By their 'jizz.'"

What is jizz? The spelling is uncertain; probably its author could not have informed us, whoever its inventor was; it is certainly not in most dictionaries. Possibly the word has never before been written, so that we are justified in spelling it phonetically. We have not coined it, but how wide its use in Ireland we cannot say; it may have origin in this one fertile Celtic brain, or it may have been handed down from father to son for many generations. One thing is certain; it is short and expressive. If we are walking on the road and see, far ahead, someone whom we recognise although we can neither distinguish features nor particular clothes, we may be certain that we are not mistaken; there is something in the carriage, the walk, the general appearance which is familiar; it is, in fact, that individual's jizz.

Jizz may be applied to or possessed by any animate and some inanimate objects, yet we cannot clearly define it. A single character may supply it, or it may be the combination of many; it may be produced by no one in particular. As a rule it is character rather than characteristics, the tout ensemble of the subject. Perhaps the outdoor naturalist, and in particular the field ornithologist, realises the full value of jizz better than most people. At a distance, too far away to see details of form, colour, or pattern, so precious in the eyes of the systematist, he sees a bird and recognises it. He says that it is a chaffinch, a lark, or a sparrow; but how does he know? Shape, size, manner of flight, or maybe note, is the reply. Yes, but there is something more; something definite yet indefinable, something which instantly registers identity in the brain, though how or what is seen remains unspecified. It is its jizz.

That mental picture recorded through the eye is accurate in proportion to our familiarity with the species; the more familiar we are the less we note except the jizz. The passing curlew may have a long curved bill, a pale lower back, a strong distinctive flight; we knew these characters were present, but we did not actually see them; we saw a curlew. Curlew flashed into the brain without pause for mental analysis, for we noted the jizz. I am often asked the question which the Irishman was asked; I know of no better answer than his.

Personal experience has proved that a skin, a cabinet skin, may be more difficult to recognise than a living bird. In the skin we see certain patches of colour, markings, or patterns with which we are unfamiliar on the bird in the field. They are described in the textbooks it is true, but they are not the points which catch the eye when the bird is alive. In addition all the pose, attitude, and habit-character is lost when bird becomes specimen. Its jizz is gone. The systematist, used to handling these specimens, contends that identification by impression is less sure than by study of detail, which is in the main true, but then, even if an error is made, the bird is still alive! That to the field naturalist as well as the humanitarian is an important point.

How often we hear disputes as to the value of the drawing or the photograph as the more satisfactory portrait of the bird; how futile is much of this discussion! The taxidermist, too, is accused, often with reason, of presenting an effigy devoid of character. But there are pictures and pictures, photographs and photographs, stuffed birds and stuffed birds; it is not the drawing, the negative, or the set-up skin which shows the bird, but the ability of the artist, whether draughtsman, photographer, or taxidermist, to catch the jizz. I have in mind some slight pencil sketches by Mr. Archibald Thorburn, one of a tawny owl, one of a pintail; there is little detail, but a world of jizz. In my room is a print from a photograph taken by Mr. O. J. Wilkinson; it shows a bird perched on a stump, nothing more; yet in every curve and detail we see at once a living spotted flycatcher. In the "Sportsman's British Bird Book" are a number of illustrations photographed from specimens mounted in Rowland Ward's studios; I have not seen the originals, but whoever mounted some of these birds was an artist; he knew how to record jizz.

Jizz, of course, is not confined to birds. How do we recognise the bank vole, seen for a second in the lane, the long lean rat which appears and vanishes like a grey streak, the pipistrelle flitting in the dusk round the barn? How do we know the daisy in the field, the sturdy oak? Is it by colour, size, length of tail, or shape of wing, by petal, form of leaf, or fruit? No; the small mammal and the plant alike have jizz. We do not stop to look for detail, to ask ourselves what we saw; We know. Jizz may deceive us; that is our fault, for each and every thing has its distinctive jizz; if inexperienced we may fail to discern it.

To learn the jizz should be the object of every field naturalist; it can only be learnt by study of wild creatures in their natural surroundings. The seagull in the aviary, the lark in the cage, the rabbit in the hutch have lost more than half their jizz; the specimen in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases has lost it all. The representation, whether drawing, painting, or photograph, is not faithful according to the artist's skill in registering what his eye sees, but in reproducing that mental picture which exists in his very soul. Ability to portray jizz is a psychic gift.

Since the publication of the first edition, a friend pointed out that in Webster's Dictionary both "gis" and "jis" are given as obsolete varients of guise, and this seems to he the origin of the expressive ward.