1501353357, 9781501353352

Table of contents :
Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 1: Put a Bird on It
Chapter 2: The Hater’s Guide to Birds
Adélie Penguin
Amazonian Umbrellabird
Andean Cock of the Rock
Bee Hummingbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Carolina Parakeet
Reddish Egret
Common Guillemot
Crimson Fruitcrow
Dusky Seaside Sparrow
Gouldian Finch
Chapter 3: The Buoy Bird
Chapter 4: The Hater’s Guide to Birds
Himalayan Monal
Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Kirtland’s Warbler
Lake Duck
Lesser Snow Goose
Magnificent Riflebird
New Zealand Bell Bird
Peregrine Falcon
Orchard Oriole
Passenger Pigeon
Purple Martin
Chapter 5: What a Name Can Do
Chapter 6: The Hater’s Guide to Birds
Pygmy Kingfisher
Red-billed Quelea
Stephens Island Wren
Rhinoceros Hornbill
Southern Cassowary
Spix’s Macaw
Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise
Tyrannine Woodcreeper
Wandering Albatross
White-fronted Bee-eater
Chapter 7: There Never Was a Bird

Citation preview

The Object Lessons series achieves something very close to magic: the books take ordinary—even banal—objects and animate them with a rich history of invention, political struggle, science, and popular mythology. Filled with fascinating details and conveyed in sharp, accessible prose, the books make the everyday world come to life. Be warned: once you’ve read a few of these, you’ll start walking around your house, picking up random objects, and musing aloud: ‘I wonder what the story is behind this thing?’” Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas

Come From and How We Got to Now

Object Lessons describe themselves as ‘short, beautiful books,’ and to that, I’ll say, amen. . . . If you read enough Object Lessons books, you’ll fill your head with plenty of trivia to amaze and annoy your friends and loved ones—caution recommended on pontificating on the objects surrounding you. More importantly, though . . . they inspire us to take a second look at parts of the everyday that we’ve taken for granted. These are not so much lessons about the objects themselves, but opportunities for self-reflection and storytelling. They remind us that we are surrounded by a wondrous world, as long as we care to look.” John Warner, The Chicago Tribune

“ “ “ “ “

For my money, Object Lessons is the most consistently interesting nonfiction book series in America.” Megan Volpert, PopMatters

Besides being beautiful little hand-sized objects themselves, showcasing exceptional writing, the wonder of these books is that they exist at all. . . . Uniformly excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, and informative.” Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, Washington Independent Review of Books

. . . edifying and entertaining . . . perfect for slipping in a pocket and pulling out when life is on hold.” Sarah Murdoch, Toronto Star

[W]itty, thought-provoking, and poetic. . . . These little books are a page-flipper’s dream.” John Timpane, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Though short, at roughly 25,000 words apiece, these books are anything but slight.” Marina Benjamin, New Statesman

The joy of the series, of reading Remote Control, Golf Ball, Driver’s License, Drone, Silence, Glass, Refrigerator, Hotel, and Waste . . . in quick succession, lies in encountering the various turns through which each of their authors has been put by his or her object. . . . The object predominates, sits squarely center stage, directs the action. The object decides the genre, the chronology, and the limits of the study. Accordingly, the author has to take her cue from the thing she chose or that chose her. The result is a wonderfully uneven series of books, each one a thing unto itself.” Julian Yates, Los Angeles Review of Books

“ “

The Object Lessons series has a beautifully simple premise. Each book or essay centers on a specific object. This can be mundane or unexpected, humorous or politically timely. Whatever the subject, these descriptions reveal the rich worlds hidden under the surface of things.” Christine Ro, Book Riot

. . . a sensibility somewhere between Roland Barthes and Wes Anderson.” Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania:

Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past


A book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

Series Editors: Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg

Advisory Board: Sara Ahmed, Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Johanna Drucker, Raiford Guins, Graham Harman, renée hoogland, Pam Houston, Eileen Joy, Douglas Kahn, Daniel Miller, Esther Milne, Timothy Morton, Kathleen Stewart, Nigel Thrift, Rob Walker, Michele White.

In association with

BOOKS IN THE SERIES Bird by Erik Anderson Blanket by Kara Thompson Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow Bulletproof Vest by Kenneth R. Rosen Burger by Carol J. Adams Cell Tower by Steven E. Jones Cigarette Lighter by Jack Pendarvis Coffee by Dinah Lenney Compact Disc by Robert Barry Doctor by Andrew Bomback Driver’s License by Meredith Castile Drone by Adam Rothstein Dust by Michael Marder Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton Egg by Nicole Walker Email by Randy Malamud Eye Chart by William Germano Fake by Kati Stevens Glass by John Garrison Golf Ball by Harry Brown Hair by Scott Lowe Hashtag by Elizabeth Losh High Heel by Summer Brennan Hood by Alison Kinney Hotel by Joanna Walsh Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee Luggage by Susan Harlan Magnet by Eva Barbarossa Ocean by Steve Mentz Password by Martin Paul Eve Personal Stereo by Rebecca TuhusDubrow

Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly Pill by Robert Bennett Pixel by Ian Epstein Potato by Rebecca Earle Questionnaire by Evan Kindley Refrigerator by Jonathan Rees Remote Control by Caetlin Benson-Allott Rust by Jean-Michel Rabaté Shipping Container by Craig Martin Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton Silence by John Biguenet Sock by Kim Adrian Souvenir by Rolf Potts Traffic by Paul Josephson Train by A. N. Devers Tree by Matthew Battles Tumor by Anna Leahy Veil by Rafia Zakaria Waste by Brian Thill Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz Fat by Hanne Blank (forthcoming) Fog by Stephen Sparks (forthcoming) Gin by Shonna Milliken Humphrey (forthcoming) Office by Sheila Liming (forthcoming) Signature by Hunter Dukes (forthcoming) Snake by Erica Wright (forthcoming) Wheelchair by Christopher R Smit (forthcoming) Bicycle by Jonathan Maskit (forthcoming)


BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Inc 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in the United States of America 2020 Copyright © Erik Anderson, 2020 Cover design: Alice Marwick All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Inc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Anderson, Erik, 1979- author. Title: Bird/Erik Anderson. Description: New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. | Series: Object lessons | Includes index. | Summary: “We tend to have romanticized and sentimental ideas about birds. But what is it about birds that so captivates us? And what does this captivation, in its various forms, say about us humans?”–Provided by publisher. Identifiers: LCCN 2019037280 (print) | LCCN 2019037281 (ebook) | ISBN 9781501353352 (paperback) | ISBN 9781501353369 (epub) | ISBN 9781501353376 (pdf) Subjects: LCSH: Birds–Anecdotes. Classification: LCC QL795.B57 A53 2020 (print) | LCC QL795.B57 (ebook) | DDC 598–dc23 LC record available at LC ebook record available at ISBN: PB: 978-1-5013-5335-2 ePDF: 978-1-5013-5337-6 eBook: 978-1-5013-5336-9 Series: Object Lessons Typeset by Deanta Global Publishing Services, Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit and sign up for our newsletters.

In short, survey it as we will, nothing can be more astonishing than the spirit of reflection evinced by these feathered beings, and nothing surely can be better calculated to elicit reflection in every well-regulated human intellect. EDGAR ALLAN POE



1 Put a Bird on It  1 2 The Hater’s Guide to Birds  17 3 The Buoy Bird  41 4 The Hater’s Guide to Birds  67 5 What a Name Can Do  95 6 The Hater’s Guide to Birds  107 7 There Never Was a Bird  131

Acknowledgments  145 Index  147



The black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae) is a tiny bird, about the size of my thumb, yet its skinny tail, reminiscent of the trailing fabric suggested by its name, is dramatically out of proportion—I’d say several times as long. Like its green-tailed cousin, Lesbia victoriae is a hummingbird with a needle-like bill and a flat crown, indiscernible from its crest, and although the front of its body is clearly adaptive— how else to suck the nectar from flowers?—the purpose of its train, which does not fan out like a peacock’s, is less immediately apparent. I first saw it in the basement of our local museum— the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—perched in one of the many glass cases in the public specimen collection, which consists mostly of taxidermied birds. From one perspective, the situation was unreal: the trainbearer’s carcass was preserved well beyond the time when its matter should have cycled through the stomach of some other animal, or else been reabsorbed by the earth. I found the idea of a room of such carcasses, and the peculiar impulse that led to gathering them there,

baffling: Why attempt to preserve something as fleeting as a bird’s life? Is this curiosity, or are we holding on too tight? A few days later, I wrote to the museum’s education director to ask how the bird got there, but after consulting the collections people, she could tell me only that the species is native to South America and that the specimen dates from the turn of the nineteenth century. The museum has no record of where, or when, or by whom the bird was collected, or how it came to the museum, which wasn’t even built until 1953. Because the nineteenth century was the heyday of the amateur naturalist, I had no trouble imagining some local gentleman, a true Victorian enthusiast, marching off through the high meadows, gun slung over his shoulder—but in South America? That was tougher to picture. Before I go any further, I have a confession to make. I’m not all that interested in birds. It’s not that I don’t like them. I simply lack the enthusiasm others possess. I’ve heard friends declare their love of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) or goldfinches (Spinus tristis), watching these birds alight on the dogwood outside our dining room window, but whatever connection they feel is lost on me. I admire the birds, find them lovely, but am no more attached to a splash of yellow or red plumage than to the summer chorus of crickets and cicadas. If anything, I’m more attached to the noise, given its soothing constancy. So why all the fuss about a tiny bird that has been dead for more than a century, a member of a species in no immediate 2


threat of extinction? For one thing, the brilliant patch of iridescent green extending upward through its throat from its breast (the gorget, it’s called), shining even from a dark basement corner, caught my eye. It was somehow unlike anything I had ever known. Seeing the bird stationed next to a greater bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda), with its puffy white plumes, I realized that the scintillating green patch— like the tail, maybe—must have evolved to attract a mate, might be, in fact, evidence of its power of attraction. But I also suspected that our so-called connection to nature means little, and that the species we single out for devotion signal only our longing for that connection—either that or our unspeakable grief, the unspoken admission that we cause more sorrow in the animal world than celebration. Our supposed love of nature so often seems to mask or compensate for an underlying disdain. On the shelf above the trainbearer, for instance, a couple of sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) sat displayed in various stages of taxidermy, a process that, in all of its stretching and pinning, appeared to be alternately a form of torture and a kind of disregard. And though the birds were of course dead by the time they were prepared and stuffed, I still rue, for their sake, the indignity of their demise. The natural world may be endlessly fascinating, but never more so, for me, than in its intersections with the human one, which is—in all of its creative and destructive power— an extension of the former. If individual birds intrigue me, I’m even more beguiled by the figure just out of sight, PUT A BIRD ON IT


binoculars in hand. It’s incredible to me—as in, I cannot give it credence—that one would fly to Papua New Guinea just to see birds. I marvel at the dedication, or obsession. And I long to understand it. The North Museum, just a five-minute walk from my house, is an incarnation of the now defunct Linnaean Society of Lancaster County, active from the 1860s to the 1920s. Sometime around the year 1900, the college where I teach, Franklin & Marshall, acquired the society’s collection, and its papers are stored in our library. In late May of 2014, not long after meeting my trainbearer, I spent an afternoon scouring them for evidence in reports and lists dating back to the Civil War, many of them written on the backs of receipts and stationery, some bound together in twine or purple ribbon. Much of the society’s work was shouldered by one Simon Snyder Rathvon, an unhappily married and impecunious tailor, also an amateur naturalist. Although he dedicated his days to work as a matter of course, he pursued his second life often until two or three in the morning. “Occupation! That is the grand redeeming secret,” Rathvon declares in his essay on the origin, objects, and progress of the Linnaean Society, delivered on its fourth anniversary, February 24, 1866. While he envisions an institution to rival the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANSP), he also frames the pursuit of natural history as a refuge from “the fascinating haunts of vice”: “the gaming table,” “the death infecting brothel,” and “the street-corner carnivals.” The “riches enjoyed by the truly 4


scientific mind,” he continues, are “not purchasable with the mere ‘coin and currency’ of a mercenary world.” Science, in his view, is one of “those investments that, although not always manifest in a pecuniary light . . . may ultimately ‘pay.’” For all of Rathvon’s optimism about its mission, the society appears to have been chronically short of funds and other resources, dependent on specimens gathered or donated by its members and friends, and Rathvon’s writing for the group is often saturated with his melancholic suspicion that their work is going nowhere. In a curator’s report from 1869, Rathvon doubts that the period in his lifetime will arrive “when the various natural objects that are being brought together in this society, will be properly classified labeled and arranged, according to the most approved modern systems.” But if the present members of the Linnaean Society cannot carry out that work, they may at least construct “a material chaos .  .  . out of which something more orderly and symmetrical may be developed by future explorers and collectors.” In the meantime, he concludes, “it more the less [sic] behooves me to continue on collecting material.” It was a pleasant afternoon in the reading room, light streaming through the windows, but I found no reference to the black-tailed trainbearer in the society’s records, or any sign that they had access to, or means to procure, specimens from beyond their immediate surroundings. Given the attention he lavished on the local birds that passed through his hands, the trainbearer would not have escaped Rathvon’s enthusiasm. I found only one reference in PUT A BIRD ON IT


his prose to hummingbirds, an entry from June of 1884, in which he notes keeping “a specimen in a small glass case at home, that remains intact, although it was put there more than fifty years ago and without any preserving preparations whatever—being literally an unembalmed mummy.” It’s as fine a metaphor as any for the past, the persistence of which, in the present, is often no less of a marvel or a fluke. We gather around it, as though around a stuffed carcass. Is it bizarre, or are we? Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman, on the other hand, put birds on things. Dressed in coordinated outfits (polka-dot bow tie for him, polka-dot blouse for her), the two stencil images of birds on a teapot, a tote bag, and a greeting card as a shop owner happily watches from behind the counter. They sew a bird into a pillow, carve one into a piece of toast, even paint a tiny bird on a carved wooden bird. But when the shop owner opens the door and a pigeon flies in, Bryce and Lisa are disgusted. They try to shoo it out, trashing the place in the process, breaking nearly everything in sight. The obvious irony of the skit, from the show Portlandia, is that the characters cherish nature’s “prettiness” even as they keep it at arm’s length, both physically and metaphorically. But if “putting a bird on it” is one of the guiding clichés of hipster culture, it nonetheless belongs to a timeworn tradition of fetishizing birds. Say the year is 1521 and the emperor’s aviaries, ornate palaces with latticework ceilings, are burning. The birds 6


are screaming in the flames, or else flying for the hills. It’s psychological warfare on Cortes’ part, intended to distress Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants, who raise the birds for their feathers, incorporating them in headdresses, robes, tapestries, and more. The barbarism is appalling, but then— never mind how well they were treated, how carefully they were plucked—what were the birds doing in the cages to begin with? Or say instead it is early 1779, some 3,500 miles to the west, in the middle of the Pacific, and the Hawaiian king Kalaniʻōpuʻu presents his returning guest, James Cook, with an elaborate cloak and ceremonial helmet, symbols of enormous power fashioned from the feathers of native birds for the island’s elites, the ali‘i. It is a fleeting friendship, and Cook will be murdered on the island within a few short weeks. The king will live for several more years. In the wake of his death in 1782, his son’s brief rule will give way to the rise of his nephew, Kamehameha the Great, famous for uniting the islands and for his splendid yellow cloak, made up of feathers from tens of thousands of now extinct birds. In the nineteenth century, throughout Europe and the United States, people of means often built aviaries on their estates, large cages where captured birds, some of them exotic, might fly freely and where, in some cases, their owners might sit and observe them. For those less wealthy, or with other appetites, like Simon Snyder Rathvon, it was fashionable to keep a cabinet of mounted birds, a tradition indebted to the Renaissance Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, PUT A BIRD ON IT


early collections of miscellaneous and esoteric objects that can be seen as the forerunners of the modern museum. Whereas the objects contained in the Wunderkammern often defied categorization, and indeed were included for precisely that reason, the nineteenth-century viewer’s sense of wonder at a bird whose tail was much longer than its body was tempered by the era’s classifying spirit, as filtered through the binomial system devised by Carl von Linné, or Carolus Linnaeus. Although our rage for order, and for the names that would seem to provide it, has not abated in the two-and-a-half centuries since his death, our rage for taxidermied animals has, at least in most circles. This change is due in part to regulations such as The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made illegal without a permit the capture, trade, and even possession of almost all migratory birds, their parts, nests, and eggs. If I were to inherit a mounted specimen of a black-tailed trainbearer today, I would probably have to surrender it to the authorities. If I were to find and pick up a feather from even the most common bird—say, the American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos—and take it home with me, I’d be breaking the law. (Invasive species, like the English sparrow, Passer domesticus, may be collected freely.) Rather than run afoul of the law, many early twentiethcentury collectors donated the contents of their cabinets to local natural history museums, among other places. Prior to examining the Linnaean Society’s archives, I had been operating under the assumption that the trainbearer at 8


the North Museum had been purchased or donated in the early days, during Rathvon’s lifetime. I imagined tracing the provenance of the bird back to a local traveler, or a welltraveled friend of a local, who had killed it somewhere in South America. But then I began to wonder whether the absence of any catalog information stemmed from another source: maybe the person who donated the bird didn’t want to be found. “A good wildlife photograph or film,” writes Jon Mooallem, “or at least a marketable one, does just this: shows us an image of nature that’s already lodged in our heads.” But I might substitute story for image here, since what I initially imagined about Lesbia victoriae was both the story of an individual collector and that of the scientists and institutions complicit in his activities. “We exert our power,” Mooallem continues, “but are then unsettled by how powerful we are,” and I suppose I’ve turned this whole thing into a parable about that contradiction. For this reason, and maybe a few others, I want to reverse perspective. What does any of this look like to a bird? Beyond concern for its immediate safety, a living bird must view me with some indifference. Even if it’s eating from my feeder, the bird likely thinks nothing of me, though by feeding it I may become entangled in its ongoing evolution—and it in mine. For as rapacious as humans can be, we are also in thrall to nature. Even a tiny South American hummingbird, dead for more than a century, can exert a tremendous influence. PUT A BIRD ON IT


It may appear to revolve around our needs, but ours equally revolve around its. Consider the factory farm, where conditions have more in common with a concentration camp than with the barnyards of children’s books. To call these animals livestock (a cow is never or rarely Bos taurus) is the beginning of the abstraction that allows us to slaughter them en masse. It may appear that we care nothing about these animals, yet the opposite is also the case: we care so much about them, and about what they offer us, that we construct massive edifices, whole economies even, dedicated to their power. Make no mistake: in a slaughterhouse, an individual cow has no power. Its sacrifice is absolute. But taken as a whole, cattle—and their accompanying euphemism, beef—have tremendous power. We offer our bodies up to them, as at an altar, much as in the ritual of the natural history museum, in the ritual that is “nature,” we turn animals into idols. We prize them for what we need, including their indifference. Because at the same time that we want a world in which we are the undisputed masters, one that glorifies our mercenary egos, we want another world that is autonomous and wild, one that doesn’t care about us, one that confirms our insignificance. And so, on a balmy June day in 2014, I followed the trainbearer’s trail (or at least my version of it) into a small back room at ANSP. There I watched the collection manager, Nate Rice, skin a crow as two assistants assailed their own. Lying on the bloody table was a pair of crow’s eyes, looking discon10


certingly like blueberries. A starling in a plastic bag on the table was clearly next. This task would fall, after I’d gone, to the illustration student interning for the summer. Also on the table were scalpels, pens, thermometers, tiny scissors, rulers, viscera, wire cutters (for breaking bones), and a toothbrush (for smoothing out feathers). As there are shoe stores and bookstores and jewelry stores, Rice told me, there were once bird stores. You could pick up a pair of oxfords, go next door for Moby-Dick, then, on a whim, buy your wife a mounted Lesbia victoriae. Rice’s hypothesis was that at some point a well-to-do Lancastrian put together a cabinet or what he called a collage: a group of mounted birds assembled, maybe, on a side table. Eventually the specimen tag was lost or removed, either when the bird was purchased or when the collection it was part of was broken up. There was a year in the 1800s, he said, when more than 100,000 hummingbirds were shipped to England (there were many such years, I later learned, and Rice’s estimate was conservative). What he didn’t say—what his good manners may have prevented him from saying—was that, like most needles in haystacks, the futility of my search was part of its meaning. Mounted on a branch in the basement of a provincial museum, separated from others of its kind, my trainbearer radiated significance. But when Rice pulled open first one drawer of tagged and stuffed trainbearers, then a second, I could only ask why the academy needed so many. We are documenting variation through time and space, he said. One PUT A BIRD ON IT


sample does not a species make, and if you wanted to know what humans were like in the early twenty-first century, you wouldn’t collect just the two of us standing here. You would need breadth. Depth. Scope. I snapped a few photos of the specimens all lined up in a row. Here was one tray among dozens in this particular cabinet. Here was one in a long row of such cabinets. There were dozens of rows, each on rollers to maximize space. Such a collection is part archive, part morgue. Death is a precondition of admission and at the same time held in suspension. The birds are not allowed to die, and yet they have to. The skinners, meanwhile, were industrious. They worked steadily, but even as they sifted through the contents of the birds’ stomachs (smells like pecans, one woman said), they told stories and jokes. Rice, a dynamic man in his early forties, was the affable head honcho, interrupting his memories of collecting in a marsh full of saltwater crocodiles to point out that females have only one ovary, the left one. It saves precious space in a tiny body. Later, I learned that birds’ eyes have bones in them. Their vision zooms in and out, a function of the muscles attached to something called the sclerotic ring, which is big enough in owls, Rice said with a smile, that you could do shots from it, were you so inclined. My eyes focused on another sort of shot, the tiny #6 pellets the skinners had removed from the specimens, which lay next to the dislodged eyes and something that, considering they came from a farm in Georgia, could have been soybeans. 12


Rice grew up in Wisconsin, he told me, fishing and hunting. He even wanted to be a professional hunter as a kid, but it was a tough racket to get into. Hunting and curating seemed like opposite tracks to me, but to Rice they were the same. He would be shooting birds either way. And it suddenly became plain to me in the tiny back room, evidence lying openly on the table, that we are descendants of those Victorian naturalists, plain that preservation is inseparable from eradication. If we weren’t eliminating something, why would we have to work to keep it around? In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for at the academy either. I’d hoped to come across some definitive evidence of how one tiny bird made it from South America to Lancaster. Instead I met a retired cardiologist, a donor to the academy also in the skinning room that day. He had been in the Peace Corps in Malaysia as a young man and discovered a love of birds there by watching a pair of spoonbills. And there were others: a species that was silver on the bottom and turquoise on top (the silver-breasted broadbill, Serilophus lunatus). When a flock turned mid-flight, a wave of color passed through the air. He studied Malay each night and soon grew fluent. He started to dream in Malay, to think in Malay, and the world became stranger and more beautiful because of it. And of course, he said, because of the birds. What he didn’t say, the question he struggled to answer, was why the birds fascinated him, why they have continued to in the four decades since. But at some point we got to PUT A BIRD ON IT


talking about bird brains and I started to see the outlines of an answer. We spoke, in particular, about the encephalization quotient (EQ), which measures the ratio between how big an animal’s brain is and how big, based on its body size, scientists would predict it to be. The usual suspects—chimps, dolphins, humans—have a high EQ, which is not the same as a simple brain-to-body ratio, in which ants, rodents, and birds rank far higher than, say, elephants, whose EQ is nonetheless quite high. Though neither ratio correlates exactly with intelligence, whatever that is, the dramatically higher EQ in humans (human brains are not only big, they’re bigger than they should be) seems to confirm what we already know: we spend a lot of time in our heads, including the time we spend thinking about our brains. We spend comparatively less time thinking about the heart, if my Google search later that afternoon was any indication. Charts of brain-to-body ratios are easy to come by, but charts of heart-to-body ratios are harder to find. If you dig a little you can learn that the blue whale’s heart is as big as a Harley, that dogs have a higher heart-to-body ratio than any other mammal, and that, filed in the category of the truly strange, octopuses have three hearts (a central one and two accessories). With their high metabolic demands, birds have the largest hearts relative to body size, however, and among them the hearts of hummingbirds, which often beat about a thousand times a minute, are particularly large. I imagine we’ll always fetishize birds. They fly, for one thing, and for us ground-bound mammals, all gangly 14


limbs and big brains, their flight symbolizes something like freedom. The bird on a wire can depart. Excluding those ungainly emus and ostriches and great auks and penguins, birds combine grace with a delicate strength, and one may even be the product of the other, whereas human life, or so it sometimes feels, is gawky and inelegant by comparison. But I wonder if we, in elevating birds, so to speak, to a privileged position in the animal kingdom—if I, in pursuing the blacktailed trainbearer down one dead end after another—haven’t intuited, or projected, something that has less to do with the mechanics of flight than with the energy it requires, less to do with the physics at play than with the metaphysics it inspires. Humans may be all brain, but birds are all heart.





Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae On October 28, 1996, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, an international group of scientists perched on Cape Bird, at the northernmost extremity of Ross Island, witnessed an extraordinary sight. First, as is their habit, the penguins bowed deeply to one another. Then one lay down in the other’s nest, ready to be mounted. When the two were finished, a short forty seconds later, both stood, bowed deeply once more, and switched places. From a distance, the researchers recorded how the semen from the first male was deposited around the cloaca of the second, how this second male then contracted his cloaca, as the females of the species do, in order to accelerate the passage of the ejaculate through the reproductive tract. The researchers responded coldly and clinically, simply noting what they observed without comment.

There have been other cases, some famous. Inca and Rayas faithfully building a nest together for six years straight at Faunia Park in Madrid. Roy and Silo and—after their failure to incubate a rock—the birth of their adoptive daughter Tango in Central Park. There is also the story of Dr. George Murray Levick, a surgeon and officer on Captain Scott’s 1910–1913 Terra Nova Expedition. Levick was so scandalized by his observations of Adélie penguins at Cape Adare that he encoded his notebooks in Greek. When, a hundred years later, the material he had excised from his published natural history, a short paper bearing the title “The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin,” was uncovered at the Natural History Museum in London, the authorities reported that the suppression of Levick’s work had undoubtedly been a product of what was “for the times, challenging and graphic content.” The implication is that when Levick published his more palatable material in 1915, the lenses through which people saw the world limited the degree to which they actually could. More interesting, to my mind, is to consider our contemporary responses to the Roy and Silos of our world. How to read, say, the researchers’ statement that the penguins on Cape Bird engaged in an activity with “no adaptive value”? How to read the search for a “gay gene,” let alone the claims to the contrary that preference is a choice? If Levick’s times were limited by their overriding prudishness, perhaps our own are limited by our need to scientifically explain every quickening of the heart. 18


One can only guess what our successors will think. Perhaps we ought to apologize in advance: we, too, were short-sighted. We just didn’t get sex, much less love. In fact, we didn’t really get nature, or our place in it. And maybe a century hence we still won’t.



Amazonian Umbrellabird Cephalopterus ornatus One of the hallmarks of animal nomenclature, even if it’s not always applied, is a variety of literalism in which species are named for analogous forms. Thus, Henry Walter Bates, an early traveling companion of Alfred Russel Wallace, describes “the rare and curious Umbrella bird” in his 1863 book The Naturalist on the River Amazons, as “decorated with a crest of long, curved, hairy feathers having long bare quills, which, when raised, spread themselves out in the form of a fringed sun-shade over the head.” In this case the tendency extends to the Latin name, Cephalopterus ornatus, or “fancy head.” It would seem we resort to such plainness in the face of creatures that refuse it: “fancy head” and “umbrella bird” may be two different ways—different in their use of figurative language, if nothing else—of finding recourse in description. So often the natural world flies in the face of the words we apply to it, which is to say in the face of our comprehension. Confronted with the long, dangling wattle that hangs from the umbrellabird’s throat, naturalists have equally resorted to words like bizarre. The appendages are truly strange, even more so in person, when the males inflate them both to amplify their booming calls and to attract the females lounging nearby. To the early explorers who first described such species, like Wallace and Bates, it must have felt as though the world 20


were not only populated with pushmi-pullyus but that to explain them was to be stretched in opposite directions: the world without and the world within. It’s a crisis to which the naturalist responds as well as he can, seeking in approximation (e.g., umbrellabird) the kind of exactitude his experience denies him. It may not be poetry, but it will do. And if the strategy were only more portable, we might get a better handle on those states of being that continue to confound us: infatuation, say, or grief. Perhaps these names are no less arbitrary than “fancy head,” placeholders for the real ones, which, being unknowable, are nothing if not a testament to the inadequacy of our instruments. Rather than name our wonder—or anger, or sadness—thereby risking the very literalism at issue, one might invoke a stark black bird, wattle about to inflate, as it assumes its conspicuous perch.



Andean Cock of the Rock Rupicola peruvianus Picture spring in a wooded, rocky ravine. Maybe ten bright birds with reddish-orange crests shaped like fans begin to hoot and bob, flap and strut, bow and jump. Soon enough the group divides, here and there, into pairs. Now they add to their display an element of conflict, squawking and snapping at each other. From their nearby perches, similar birds, with the same crests but both smaller and duller, observe the proceedings. They approach the noisemakers in turn, pecking at one or the other. And when it’s done the showmen come back for another round while the quieter, pickier ones retreat to the rocks, finished for the year with the rowdy display. These leks are not unlike watching evolution in motion. Females select certain traits while disregarding others, which does not, paradoxically, have the effect of eroding the gene pool. Where their preferences should diminish genetic variance, the opposite appears to be true, and in this way evolution can be seen playing out one of its familiar motifs: for all of its apparentness, its stunning visibility, much remains hidden, either by the scale on which it occurs or the obscurity of the mechanisms that drive it. The noisiest bird at the lek might, in spite of itself, sire quiet offspring, and perhaps its noise was only masking some deep, genetic silence, now emerging from the shadows of the dominant alleles. Without 22


imitating its father, however, whom he will never meet, the introverted hatchling will be doomed to failure at the only thing that matters to the male of the species, the end toward which all of his activities are directed: mating with as many females as possible. For while the sensitive-souled bird might possess some poetic quality, the females choose as mates, almost without fail, the biggest, loudest, most aggressive males. Restraint won’t serve the hatchling well. As for its rather distant human relations, we “might be described,” writes John Steinbeck, “as a two-legged paradox.” While we trumpet the nobility of “wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility,” we continually reward “cruelty, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity.” Socially and economically, these otherwise undesirable traits are the preconditions for success while their virtuous counterparts are the “invariable concomitants of failure.” It isn’t simply that we’re hypocrites, but that our biology has outpaced our judgment. And so we favor ruthlessness, again and again. But as lek derives from the Swedish word for play, perhaps the whole frenzy is nothing more than a game—albeit one with a practical purpose. Perhaps the cock of the rock, in all of its hooting and strutting, is a creature merely playing at life, on one of the innumerable fields where the game occurs. Human agency may be something else entirely—in which justice, counter to much evidence, may have a place—but what, then, to make of my squawking?



Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae But say you have money to burn. Why not spend the night, and it will cost you thousands, in the small villa in northern Jamaica, perched on a cliff overlooking a private beach, where Ian Fleming wrote each of the novels for which he became famous? An amateur birder, Fleming kept a copy of the authoritative work on local avifauna, Birds of the West Indies, at the estate, and when in 1952 he began writing the first of his books, Casino Royale, he turned to the exhaustive guide for inspiration. “It struck me,” he later wrote, “that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name”— the name of the book’s ornithologist author—“was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.” Other than a protracted bachelordom lasting well into his fifties, the real Bond had little in common with his fictional counterpart. If anything, he was a lot like Fleming, born into a life of privilege and ease. Although he officially served as a member of the scientific staff at ANSP, where I first learned of him, he held no advanced degrees and drew no salary. As one eulogist wrote, he was the last of a dying breed: the gentleman curator, driven by curiosity but sustained by old money. It’s unlikely that Fleming, at his estate on Oracabessa Bay, ever saw many of the more than 400 birds described in Bond’s 24


book, and among the least likely visitors, should you decide to visit, would be the bee hummingbird Mellisuga helenae, which rarely strays far from the orchids and bromeliads and flowering vines of its native Cuba. With a nest no bigger than a quarter and eggs no larger than peas, the zunzuncito, as it is also known, is the smallest bird in the world. It’s so tiny that the tag Bond affixed to the only specimen I’ve seen is larger than the bird itself. Scale changes everything, of course. Reduce a bird to its minimum and the largeness of the endeavor—the enterprise of natural history—becomes either clearer or more absurd. Maybe it just emphasizes the dimensions of the stage on which it plays out, (dead) bird by (dead) bird by (dead) bird. Dwarfed by the curator’s hand, in which it lies belly-up in my photo, the zunzuncito appears fragile, even precious, caught in the painful contradictions of our care. There are no heroes in this story, much less villains in secret lairs. The plot is as formulaic and predictable as any Bond film, no matter the novelty of the setting. After a long drought, Cuba is reopening to vast wells of American money, and in the mountains to which Fidel Castro fled after his failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, the bee hummingbird looks increasingly threatened. In the absence of any real duty or honor or valor, in the absence, too, of any true nefariousness, one can only hope it won’t become a dying breed.



Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major Given that nature often “fills the husband and father with so much affection and solicitude,” Audubon called the absence of nesting males a “strange arrangement and singular,” but it isn’t, as he suggested, a sign of any moral failing. The birds simply have a different social structure, what experts label harem polygyny, in which only the oldest, highest-ranking males have access to the colonies of females. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway, one way of assigning agency. Suppose, on the other hand, the colonies represent a feminist utopia in avian form: the alpha males (the strongest, best-looking) who gain favor have robust sex lives, but they also have the responsibility of defending their so-called harems. And it turns out that at least half the time the alphas don’t sire the offspring they protect: the females are promiscuous, conducting their trysts away from the colonies, out of sight of their keepers, who are none the wiser. It would seem the females have decided, over countless millennia, that keeping one strong male around to guard the nest (and, say, fix the faucet) is as good as keeping several. It’s a bit like a car-share, banding together to divide costs rather than everyone wasting their resources. In the absence of demanding or distracting mates, the females can devote themselves to their broods in clusters of marshy nests, lavishing attention on each stage of 26


development, even on the formation of their eggs, which are covered in black or brown stripes reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting. As the egg passes through the oviduct, tiny glands, like miniature brushes, dye the surface with scrawling lines (curiously, in other birds the same glands produce more pointillist works). The patterns deter predators, some researchers say, others that they ward off brood parasites. Still others suggest the lines make the eggs physically stronger, or else signal the strength of the mother or incubating chick. Whatever their adaptive purpose, they do meet at least one definition of art, formulated by biologist John Endler: “the creation of an external visual pattern by one individual in order to influence the behavior of others.” Endler had in mind the elaborate theater of objects painstakingly collected, arranged, and maintained by male bowerbirds in order to woo potential mates, but his definition proved too wide to be useful, at least to him. Surely some nests met this criteria, as well as some webs and eggs. These were all functional objects, he argued, and fine art, however persuasive, wasn’t functional. But that the nest and the web and the egg are forms associated with the feminine suggests Endler was privileging maleness, however unintentionally, much as researchers describing the sexual behavior of the boat-tailed grackle do when using the word harem. Originating from the Arabic harima, meaning forbidden or unlawful, the word was adopted into Turkish during the Ottoman empire, where it was first used in the sense familiar to English readers: that part of the household reserved for THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


women, restricted to outsiders, but open to male members of the family. The sexual connotation developed later, in the eighteenth century, and the scientific one later yet. An early usage comes from the phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall, who wrote in 1835, “The stag leading along his  harem, with a proud step and a firm look, seems to threaten every one that would encroach on his rights.” As one historian, Tabea Cornel, has shown, Gall’s claims about differences between men and women, and between males and females of all species, may have been wildly misogynistic, but they were also a product of a time in which “the concept of women as imperfect men was prevalent in social, religious, and scientific discourses.” Females were regarded as weak and irrational, whereas males were considered protectors, possessed of sound judgment and, therefore, of rights. Even biology, it would seem, is written by the victors.



Carolina Parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis

Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens “It is no small irony,” Bill Bryson writes, “that for the longest time those people who were the most interested in the natural world were also so skilled at exterminating it.” Consider the sheath of calcium carbonate, forged within the uterus of a reddish egret, with John James Audubon’s signature on it: the eggs, he claimed, “afforded excellent eating.” Some fifty years after Audubon’s 1832 visit to Florida, the reddish egret was in precipitous decline, as the millinery trade, hungry for exotic plumes, nearly extirpated the bird from the Gulf coast. He can hardly be blamed for the avidity with which hunters sought the birds, but in his striking pictures, as on fin-de-siècle women’s hats, beauty and use collide to disastrous effect. Perhaps to conflate aesthetics with purpose is always to risk obscenity, but there is seldom any way, at least in this country, to divorce the economic question from the creative one. Audubon’s work is a lesson, couched in scientific curiosity, in that marriage. “So anxious am I to promote your pleasure,” he writes, that he turned his attention to our parrot, the vivid beauty THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


of which is preserved in the accounts of those who had the fortune to observe and, so often, to shoot it. Many recorded that the birds—bright and showy, loud and conspicuous— were easy to kill, and in his entry on the Carolina parakeet Audubon notes that “eight or ten, or even twenty” could be killed with each discharge of the gun. This was due to their lamentable habit of never fleeing from fire but rather, “as if conscious of the death of their companions” and attuned to their distress, remaining near their wounded conspecifics. He records having “seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner” from which he “procured a basketful of these birds” so as to “make choice of good specimens for drawing the figures . . . now under your consideration.” The bird’s ultimate eradication, Daniel McKinley concluded in a 1960 paper, is a mystery, and in the halfcentury since we have come no closer to solving it. In all likelihood, it was a combination of factors, compounding stressors that ground the birds’ numbers down over time, including competition for nesting sites; the pet and plume trades; shooting by, among others, collectors and farmers (who considered them pests); and a range of possible diseases that, given what must have been their closely knit social structure (though we learned almost nothing about the bird before it disappeared), may have spread quickly through the dwindling population, eventually dealing the final blow. But to return to your pleasure, dear reader, in fulfillment of which, like Audubon before me, I wish to spare no labor: in the case of the Carolina parakeet, it derived, I would argue, 30


from the bird’s immoderate appearance—beauty being that to which, as Nobel Prize winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar writes, “the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound.” I would only add that the story of this particular bird suggests something urgent about our pleasures, about our mind at its most profound: could it be, if only in some unintentional way, that every time we say beauty we mean death?



Common Guillemot Uria aalge Upon his retirement from the navy in 1911, Robert E. Peary was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, even though he had been on a leave of absence for nearly twenty years and had never commanded a vessel. Two years earlier Peary had achieved worldwide renown for becoming the first person to reach the North Pole, an accomplishment, he claimed, that stood “for the inevitable victory of courage, persistence, experience over all obstacles.” But in the hundred years since his death in 1920, at the age of sixty-three, historians have come to believe that Peary never reached the pole, that his calculations were as faulty as his virtues, in which case the discovery could be said to stand for the failure of immodesty, imposture, and vainglory—momentary rewards notwithstanding—to overcome the obstacles of time. Peary’s first expedition to the Arctic had taken place more than twenty years earlier, and during an ill-fated 1891 trip to determine whether Greenland was a continent extending to the pole, he had broken his leg in two places, spending six months recuperating at a makeshift camp. Although he would later father a child with an Inuit woman, the 1891 expedition was touted in the press for the presence of Peary’s wife, Josephine, who, The New York Times reported, was “the first woman to brave the hardships of an arctic expedition.” The paper’s announcement of the so-called 32


Peary Relief Expedition the following year is as notable for the many named members of the crew (including Peary’s later adversary, Frederick Cook, who falsely claimed to have reached the pole a year ahead of Peary) as it is for its mention of the expedition’s unnamed “colored servant,” Peary’s devoted friend and assistant, Matthew Henson, the only other American—and the least likely, perhaps, to contest Peary’s claim—present at the time the explorer purportedly reached the pole. Whereas Peary was voluble, even bombastic about his experiences—contending that he had “written the final chapter of the last of the great geographical stories of the western hemisphere which began with the discovery of the new world by Columbus,” thus closing “the book on four hundred years of history”—for thirty years “unavoidable circumstances” prevented Langdon Gibson, the ornithologist on the relief expedition, from preparing his notes for publication. His account of their stay at “Red Cliff House,” so named for the “iron-stained cliffs” that rose behind it, only appeared after Peary’s death. Maybe, as he suggests in his “Bird Notes from North Greenland” (1922), it was Gibson’s thriving career with General Electric that kept him from putting pen to paper, or maybe it was the dour landscape, the broken rocks punctuated only by “long grass and the omnipresent Arctic Saxifrage, with its pretty little purple flower.” Gibson ends his report of the many owls and plovers and sanderlings and loons and puffins and guillemots he shot THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


during his stay in the “wedge-shaped gash” of McCormick Bay with the story of “a fiendish device,” a noose for capturing birds fashioned out of an Inuit’s hair. “When the Eskimo returns,” Gibson writes, “he ends the struggle by biting off the bird’s head and stripping the feathers from the breast,” after which he “eats with a relish the little tender body that still runs a temperature.” If this was, for Gibson, evidence of man’s “brutal nature,” what must he have made of Peary and his illegitimate son Kali, or of Matthew Henson’s own halfInuit son Anaukaq? Perhaps they confirmed the suspicion that had kept him quiet for three decades: that all nature is brutal, but human nature most of all.



Crimson Fruitcrow Haematoderus militaris Some forty miles north of the Brazilian city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, a bright red bird puffs up his feathers and moves his head side to side before going slack. He repeats the cycle several times over the next ten minutes. Soon, for the benefit of his audience, a nearby female, he is smoothly soaring above the canopy before coming to rest, feathers erect, on a prominent tree. It is the mid-1980s and the surrounding rainforest is decreasing each year, on average, by an area roughly the size of New Jersey. It is a large, intractable problem that will persist through the rest of the century and into the next, as the Brazilian economy becomes the second largest in the western hemisphere, an astronomic rise that nevertheless leaves, as such trajectories do, whole swathes of the country behind. By 2012, Brazil will have the seventh largest economy in the world and the eighteenth highest murder rate. Poverty and crime will be rampant, and carjackings and kidnappings will be common, as will gang violence and drug trafficking. That year Forbes will publish a list of 79 Brazilians whose net worth will exceed a billion dollars, and the World Bank will declare that the country has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. Back outside Manaus, a tower rises above the canopy. The bright red bird, a member of the showy Cotinga family, has completed his display and returned to a habitual perch. THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


The bird is so poorly known, writes one researcher, that any observations significantly increase our understanding. Another, perhaps feeling jilted after days of waiting in vain, singles out the bird’s display as a prize awaiting some future ornithologist. While there can be little doubt that the young men who eventually claim that prize, first witnessing then describing the fruitcrow’s vivid display, are working against time—while their observations are nothing if not an attempt to preserve the bird, if only in the written record—their efforts cannot be separated from the gaudy Teatro Amazonas in nearby Manaus, let alone the nineteenth-century rubber barons who pushed for its construction. It was only after rubber was discovered that the industrializing world had any use for the Amazon, and commodification, or the tension between it and preservation, has shaped the region ever since. But nature makes for a tricky commodity: it’s tough to extract, or cordon off, with impunity. While one may want to frame the ornithologist’s prize in loftier terms, as deserving as it is, there is the nagging sound of chainsaws in the distance.



Dusky Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens The dusky was a fuscous little bird with an extremely limited range: it lived, past tense, within ten square miles of Titusville, Florida, otherwise known as Space City. It was an idyllic spot for the duskies, full of salt marshes and cordgrass, but beginning in the 1950s, as NASA took root nearby and the human population soared, the birds’ numbers declined. People had always considered the area a backwater, so overrun by mosquitoes it was practically uninhabitable, but then the marshes were drained or impounded, and the local watershed was transformed by urban and agricultural growth. DDT took care of the rest. During the year of the first manned spaceflight, 1968, there were close to 2,000 duskies living near the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, but by the time the Challenger disintegrated seventy-three seconds into its flight in early 1986, there was just a single dusky left. “Orange Band,” as the bird was unfortunately known, on account of the tracking ring around one of its legs, was slightly fat, blind in one eye, and exhibiting signs of gout. He was living out what remained of the long life of his species—perversely, it now seems—as part of an attraction called Discovery Island at Disney World, which had agreed to take in the beleaguered bird, generously hosting a costly and ineffective breeding program whose chief success before throwing in the towel THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


was to produce a bird, as The New York Times reported, that was 87.5 percent dusky. “Just moments away from the mainland by motor launch,” reads one old brochure, “Discovery Island is a fascinating kingdom where Nature reigns and you are its honored guest.” Or so Disney wanted its visitors to believe, until the company abandoned the island in late 1999, having relocated the remaining animals either to another part of the resort or to nearby zoos. At that point, it had been more than a decade since Orange Band had died, but it would be another decade before the space shuttle program, having achieved its aims, was finally discontinued, albeit too late for the sparrow. These days Discovery Island is more or less inaccessible, although for some reason—maybe to give the illusion of activity or, more fancifully, as a tribute to the dusky’s demise—Disney keeps the dock lights on.



Gouldian Finch Erythrura gouldiae When Elizabeth Gould died of puerperal fever in August of 1841 at the age of thirty-seven, her husband, John Gould, was well on his way to becoming Australia’s Audubon or, more grandiloquently, the father of Australian ornithology. If only the doctor delivering the couple’s third daughter had washed his hands—a gentleman’s hands, in spite of what he may think, have never been any cleaner than his servant’s—perhaps Elizabeth would rightly be remembered for her talented illustrations, not simply as the wife of John Gould. As it was, she died having finished only a fraction of the lithographs, based on her drawings, that would feature prominently in John’s monumental, seven-volume Birds of Australia. She is honored in part by the exuberantly colored tropical finch, also a popular pet, that bears the Latinized feminine form of her husband’s last name. While human history seems, in this way, to select predominantly for males—and while males have, often disastrously, shaped civilization—in the animal world females write the record, selecting certain traits in their mates and rejecting others. If our modern history has been decidedly misogynistic—for example, the gentleman doctor’s hands—the living world is more gynocentric by comparison. And it just so happens that Mrs. Gould’s finch provides an elegant demonstration. THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


Female Gouldian finches, you see, choose the gender of their offspring based on the color of the plumage (yellow, red, or black) on their partners’ heads. Unlike mammals, in birds the male’s sperm does not determine gender, so the female finches—using head color as a measure of genetic compatibility (birds with the same colored heads are most compatible), and somehow knowing that less compatible matches will produce fewer viable female offspring— choose to release a male or female egg based solely on the appearance of their mates. Exactly how the females make that choice, what mechanism causes it to function, has yet to be determined, but to discover whether such selection was occurring, researchers dyed the males’ plumage, effectively tricking the females and proving their hypothesis. Considering that six of their children lived into adulthood, Elizabeth Gould may have chosen well in marrying John, but that she didn’t live long enough to produce the plate of the bird that now memorializes her is only part of a larger story, both human and not—a story that also emerges at the bottom left corner of plate 89 in volume III of The Birds of Australia where, along with the name of her husband, “H.C. Richter,” that is, Henry Constantine Richter, is printed in place of her own.




We were three hours off the coast of Louisiana, swaying with the boat and slathered in mud. The mud, more precisely, was the seafloor, and the boat was the Research Vessel Acadiana, a blue and white sixty-footer rented by my friend and colleague, paleontologist Paul Harnik, and operated by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) out of the bayou hamlet of Cocodrie. We were busy sieving sediment, a process that began when the crew winched down a box corer—a large, weighted scoop—and then reeled it back up to the deck, where it emptied with a splash into one of a number of brown plastic tubs, the sort cafés use for dirty dishes. These were then emptied into small buckets with fine mesh at the bottom, which were emptied, in turn, into even smaller sieves. What remained was dumped on a tray and separated with tweezers into live and dead specimens, most no more than a centimeter across. The Gulf was a sauna that day, and while the stillness of the air meant the seas were calm, the absence of any breeze compounded the swelter. The work was slow and tedious and messy. Paul and his team of students were plastered with mud

and sweat within minutes. I would say we were in the middle of nowhere except we were surrounded on all sides by the offshore apparatus of the oil industry, much of it unmanned and pinging loudly at regular intervals, apparently, or so one deckhand told me, to keep fishermen—drawn to the artificial reefs the rigs created—from coming too close. The platforms were everywhere, and a veritable highway of ship traffic passed through the region, mostly tugboats pushing or pulling barges full of equipment, one of which seemed to contain most of a deconstructed platform, the underwater portion covered in barnacles. It would be easy to note the irony of conducting research encircled by the activities that necessitated it, but it is much harder to make that irony meaningful, to say how or why, beyond the self-evident reasons, it is noteworthy. Perhaps it merely reinforces my conviction that nature does not exist, properly speaking, at least not in the romanticized sense of pristine, untouched, original. Instead, the questions that had drawn both Paul and me to the Gulf dovetailed in the global sweep of their combustible origins. Even where there is no rig, a giant, figurative one covers the entire globe. Back in January, Paul had told me over lunch that he would be collecting samples of small mollusks called nuculanids that make a living by scraping deposits off the seabed where, buried in sediment, they live their sedentary lives. He planned to measure and interpret the effects of excess nutrients and the corresponding decrease in oxygen levels. (This “nutrient loading” occurs primarily through 42


the use of synthetic fertilizers, which drain off of farms into the Mississippi River, creating phytoplankton blooms in the Gulf.) Are the mollusks more or less abundant than they have been in the past? Are their eggs larger or smaller? And can one conclude, by comparing live and dead specimens (the oldest of which date back several thousand years) that these processes are accelerating? The findings would tell scientists how and how quickly these organisms respond to particular stresses in their environment. His invitation to tag along, and my subsequent baptism by mud, came in the middle of a quite different investigation, although the latter may have engendered the former, given Paul’s familiarity with what might generously be called my research. Maybe Paul knew, knowing me, that I wouldn’t really write about mollusks, or would only write about them obtusely, at an angle, and in a way that would connect them to birds. As I kneaded the mud, swirling it around the bucket to break it up, separating the shells from the sediment while one of Paul’s students, Talia, sprayed a hose at my hands, I pulled something long and stringy out of the mixture, like a tiny charm bracelet made of shells. Kneeling there on the boat, mud and water splattering on my arms and face and torso, I held it up to Paul, picking through a sample at the table nearby. He was fittingly the filthiest of all—his white shirt and salmon shorts now a deep brown. With the sides of his sunhat, also filthy, snapped in place above his ears, he looked



ever so slightly like a cowboy, in keeping with his occasional rabble-rousing woohoos. It’s a polychaete worm, he said. See the red tube down the middle? You can throw it back. My formal science education concluded during my junior year of college. Arguably the most important lesson I received at the time had less to do with twentieth-century concepts of time and space, the course’s subject, than with the enormous investments pharmaceutical companies were making in the University of Michigan hospital. It seemed to me that the curiosity and play that drove Einstein didn’t drive contemporary research, and, from a certain standpoint, I suppose my mistake was excusable. I was enrolled in an experimental liberal arts program started in the 1960s, an underfunded utopian project that didn’t believe in grades. I studied literature according to an erratic, self-designed curriculum, and when I graduated in December of 2000, I had written a tremendous number of awful poems (most of which, still awful, I’m able to find on my computer, two decades later). The following fall, I asked my undergraduate mentor, the poet and letterpress printer Ken Mikolowski, about avantgarde—I think I used the term cutting-edge—MFA programs. He chuckled at the joke I had inadvertently made, one it would take me years to understand. He suggested the school founded by the poet Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado. Given its countercultural ethos, an extension of the spirit that informed my undergraduate education, Naropa was a strange 44


place to have a scientific awakening, but that’s what happened one Friday afternoon in June 2003, when, as part of the school’s annual Summer Writing Program, I attended a lecture entitled, simply, “Symbiosis.” The speaker, Peter Warshall, was a rogue scientist with a Harvard pedigree, and he introduced his lecture as a presentation of the Maniacal Naturalist Society, the primary tenet of which was the idea that “all beings are equally evolved,” that there is no hierarchy between humans and bacteria and everything in between. We all have an equal right, and equal evolutionary footing, to be here. Over the ten years I lived in Colorado, I spent hundreds of hours sitting in the converted gymnasium—aggrandizingly called the Performing Arts Center—where Naropa may still hold its events. I have plenty of sharp memories, many of them fond, of sitting on black plastic chairs with shiny metal frames arranged in rows facing the stage, but few with consequences as enduring and, at the same time, as indirect. Warshall said nothing that had any immediate bearing on my subsequent education, and it would be almost ten years before I began regularly thinking and writing about science. What affected me was his approach. In the middle of those four grueling weeks, Warshall quoted Lynn Margulis: “Symbiogenesis was the moon that pulled the tide of life from the oceanic depths to dry land and up into the air.” He spoke about mitochondria and spirochetes and undulipodia, but he also quoted Kafka and Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Disciplinary boundaries weren’t interesting to him. Everything informed everything else. THE BUOY BIRD


In the broadest sense, the talk was about creativity. Warshall argued that we are all “mutualists in training,” and that creation does not happen through violence alone but through receptivity of the sort observable in the symbiotic relationships of present-day lichen and in the cyanobacteria that, around two billion years ago, invented photosynthesis, paving the way for all complex life on the planet. In order for my work to be of any creative value, he suggested, I had to find new ways to be receptive to the world. I had, first, to find a world to receive. We had been idling through the channel for no more than ten minutes when I spotted it: a large pink body briefly rising above then sinking back into the bevy of shore birds along a low embankment. What was that, I asked Claire, the biology student sitting next to me at the bow. Could it have been a flamingo, she wondered, but the only flamingos I could think of (the lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor) lived in the caustic lakes of East Africa. I suggested the other pink bird I knew, the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), but knowing no more about birds than I did, she shrugged. No one else, not even Paul, had seen it, and soon we were out of the marshes, moving quickly through Terrebonne Bay. A group of dolphins began breaching in the boat’s wake, and everyone gathered along the starboard side, taking pictures and shooting videos. But even as I joined in the fascination of it, I wondered why, when dozens of gulls had followed us earlier—looking, I imagine, for fish churned up 46


by our engines—we hadn’t done the same? What gave one species a power the other lacked? And how conscious were any of us in meting out our affections? Dolphins can be real assholes, I said, but the group was in thrall to the charismatic mammals, the sound of slapping dolphin flesh in their ears. Soon after, the students fell into miraculous forms of sleep in all corners of the boat: one with his head on a table, one on a tangle of rope. They’ve entered full torpor, Paul joked, and the two of us, riding out the three-hour cruise on the front deck, marveled at the novel adaptations of this peculiar subspecies, the American college student. We were still chatting on the deck when the Acadiana reached the first site, and the students, who in several hours had been briefly roused by the smell of bacon, eggs, and biscuits cooking in the galley, joined Paul and the boat’s crew at the back. Over the next six hours, as the vessel rocked continuously back and forth, the crew lowered the box corer more than forty times, and though gradually the emergence of new samples became rote, Paul’s excitement over the first was contagious. He slid a tub under the corer, the crew put their weight on it, and the silty sample plopped down. Given how sleepy the students had been, I was surprised to see, as Paul shifted into high gear, how hard they worked. Dressed in sporty shorts and T-shirts, baseball hats and sunglasses, they were methodical, and, even as the horizon bobbed up and down and their arms and legs and clothes became increasingly covered in mud, they pushed through whatever discomfort they felt. Paul, for his part, was focused on THE BUOY BIRD


processing the samples, moving them from the largest tubs to the smallest: the Tupperware containers and Ziploc bags in which they would eventually travel, frozen, back to his lab in Pennsylvania. The group worked for three hours straight as I watched and waited, taking notes. When they broke for lunch—frozen pizzas heated in the boat’s oven—Paul continued working, stopping briefly to pick some pepperoni off a couple slices before returning to the deck. And how were the samples, I asked, finally getting dirty after lunch, scooping handfuls from a tub into a sieving bucket. There were very few live specimens, Paul said, and though the death assemblage—the taphonomic term for the accumulation of dead creatures gathered together, across various timescales, in one place—was large, it was still poorer than the sites they’d recently sampled in Alabama. We were in the heart of a hypoxic zone, he said, one of the many regions in the Gulf starved of oxygen but rich in the nutrients (synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous) our agricultural economy had loaded into the ecosystem. And what did the quality of the assemblage mean for the bivalves, I asked. This could be one of those cases, he said, bent over the specimens, tweezers in hand, in which the absence of data is data. Meaning that the ecosystem had either become so degraded that it could no longer support much life, or that the sediments had been so disturbed, as by trawling, that it was no longer possible to accurately assess them. The afternoon heat was searing, the boat kept rocking, and I was grateful, now that I was also working, that the cabin 48


was air-conditioned. Paul was diligent about encouraging breaks, drinking water, snacking, even though he did none of these things. I admired him for making the most of his time in the field, pushing the crew to pull up samples until the very last possible minute, when, around 4:15 p.m., we had to turn back to shore. Even then, Paul worked through the final samples as the Acadiana began to move and one of the deckhands, James, began pushing the day’s thick layer of accumulated mud off the back of the boat, first with a weathered broom, then with a hose. Dinner on the boat that night was red beans and rice, to which the captain, a solid man with a thick layer of black stubble named Jordan, had added sausages carefully cut into half-moons. There was also a side of salty green beans and leftover biscuits from the morning. Paul and I returned to the front deck, near the bow, and drank cold coffee from his thermos. And that’s when I saw it again, rising above a scrap of land to the east, pink wings extended over the mass of wholly dissimilar birds on the shore. By the time Paul turned in its direction, the bird had disappeared. I wondered whether I’d imagined it, whether I was looking for what I wanted to see. I watched the pelicans glide low over the water, not to search for fish, as one might expect, but to fly more efficiently, reducing drag. The gulls soon returned to our wake. There were two heroes in Warshall’s talk, and it matters that both were women. Beatrix Potter may be best known for THE BUOY BIRD


her famous series of children’s books, but in keeping with her Victorian upbringing she was also a nature enthusiast, broadly interested in scientific questions of all sorts. Potter was particularly engaged in mycology, the study of fungi, and she honed her talents as an illustrator by producing specimen drawings. There are different versions of what happened to her hobbyhorse, but in the one I first heard from Warshall, Potter submitted a paper to the Linnaean Society of London in 1897 confirming the findings of the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener, whose theory that lichens were symbiotic (first announced in 1867) was widely rejected by the scientific establishment. Submitted through a proxy (as women would not be accepted into the Linnaean Society until the twentieth century), Potter’s paper was rejected and subsequently lost. Not long after, she gave up on mycology and focused her attention on the work for which she is loved. She had been treated poorly, Warshall argued, dismissed because she was an amateur and a woman, but, more importantly, the rejection of her work, assuming it contained the content Warshall believed it did, also amounted to a rejection of symbiosis itself. According to him, the prevailing conceptions of the natural world at the time could not accommodate a more receptive, cooperative view. Nature was “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson had written, and the idea that two organisms might work together to survive, rather than compete with each other, was anathema. While others have since argued that Potter did not propound symbiosis, and that her work was rejected not because it was 50


controversial but because it was amateurish, the Linnaean Society nonetheless issued, eventually, a public apology for its sexist treatment of Potter. Like many apologies, it came too late to be of any use to its recipient, arriving posthumously in 1997, exactly a century after the paper’s original submission and more than fifty years after its author’s death. Whatever the contents of her research may have been, what Warshall seems to have gotten right is that the establishment wasn’t receptive to information that arrived from novel sources or that offered novel views, which was also true of the second hero in Warshall’s talk, a woman I had never heard of, whose life and work had been eclipsed by those of her famous first husband. Lynn Margulis married Carl Sagan when she was just nineteen. The marriage didn’t last long but produced two sons, one of whom, Dorion Sagan, became her longtime collaborator and coauthor of many of her books. Whereas her former husband focused on the very large and published what was at the time the best-selling science book ever, Cosmos, Margulis directed her attention to the very small, and her most important book, in what must have been a dig at Sagan, was titled Microcosmos. Although in her later career she argued that cooperation, not competition, was the primary driver in evolution, as a young scientist she proposed that the nucleated cell, or eukaryote, originated with the symbiotic relationship of two nonnucleated cells, or prokaryotes. Her work never yielded a television show, and while Warshall claimed she deserved a Nobel Prize, he also said that she, like Potter before her, had THE BUOY BIRD


been dismissed at least in part because she was a woman. Unlike Potter, however, Margulis stood by her work, and by the time of her death, in 2011, her ideas about the origins of complex life were widely accepted, even if her broader view of evolution was not. There was a moment on the boat that first day when everyone was a little delirious from the afternoon heat, then at its peak, and the crew—James, Jordan, and Carl, from youngest to oldest—were sitting on coolers under the boat’s rear awning, having hoisted another round of samples. All day I’d been curious about these men, who listened to country music nonstop in the wheelhouse. Their conversations seemed to relate primarily to fishing, shrimping, and YouTube videos of people falling off boats. Is it always this hot? I asked. Always, the oldest man, Carl, told me. And this isn’t even the worst of it, Jordan added. For that, you need to come back in August. Carl said he’d been born and raised five miles from LUMCON and had worked as a shrimper for much of his life. He had never left the bayou for long. It had given him everything he felt he needed. Delivered in the region’s thick cadences, the sentiment was as endearing as it was preposterous. Passing through southern Louisiana it looked as though the residents had abandoned more terrestrial 52


forms of life, or as though these forms had abandoned them. I had felt, driving down state highway 56, that coming here meant giving something up, leaving it behind. Or maybe abandonment is the wrong word. Maybe the word I mean is loss. Southern Louisiana loses sixteen square miles of land every year, and if current rates of sea level rise and land subsidence continue, this bayou, and thousands of square miles like it, will be under water by the end of the century. Dozens of places have already been removed from official government charts, and I have to pause at the quiet, unremarked horror of that erasure. The country is disappearing in plain sight, albeit on the margins. Because the industry most responsible for the vanishing Mississippi delta (burning fossil fuels is not only the driver of sea level rise, but oil companies have extensively dredged and damned the delta, starving it of sediment) is also the economic lifeblood of the state, it seems unlikely that trend will be reversed. In the meantime, the vanishing region is a textbook case of the phenomenon known as shifting baselines, wherein a new generation’s version of nature is subtly or sometimes dramatically different than the previous one’s. A person born on the bayou in the 1930s grew up in a different landscape than a person born in the 1970s, and one completely unrecognizable to a person born today. Where there was marsh, there’s now water; where there was land, there will be open sea. I had wanted to know, on the boat, what the men thought of us and our expedition, whether they could make sense not THE BUOY BIRD


so much of the mud they were hauling up but of why anyone would want to sift through such volumes of it. That night in the cafeteria, typing up my notes, I remembered an obvious but indispensable lesson, one that had both so little and so much to do with the polychaete worm I had found in the mud and thrown over the side earlier in the day. The subject is never really the subject, not entirely. Paul was interested in the species he collected, but the mollusks were a pretext for asking questions about the patterns he could identify in them, through their shells, over time. I wondered whether the men understood this. I wondered if, on the deepest levels, I did. Lightning strikes from an incoming thunderstorm flashed across the horizon, which stretched far and flatly. The sky was accordingly large and beautiful but, like so many American landscapes, diminished—ravaged in this case not by sprawl but by the extractive and chemical industries that predominated. I didn’t want to see the bayou this way, arguing with myself about it there in the empty cafeteria, a bottle of “Louisiana” hot sauce (“The Original,” “The Perfect,” “One Drop Does It”) before me. Along the road were enormous white tanks with “Crude Oil” painted on their hulking sides. Columns of natural gas flared in the distance. Back in the apartment, the students were watching Shark Week and Paul was photographing the lightning from the small patio, where I joined him until the rain fell more heavily, driven sideways into the building by the wind. In bed that night, I listened to the heavy rain and was rocked 54


to sleep by the lingering sensation of the waves. I dreamed that the storm had dislodged LUMCON from the land and that the station had floated off into the Gulf. So real was the threat, if not the dream, that I was surprised to see dry land through the curtains the next morning. The question was when LUMCON would disappear, not if, but the even more pressing question, for me, was what the point had been in seeing it. I no longer remember where or when I first read Microcosmos, but it might have been in the Boulder apartment building, The Evergreen—a three-story stucco affair dating from the early 1970s—where my wife and I lived when we were first married. I remember fondly the big bank of sliding doors that ran along the back of the apartment, opening onto the small private patio, not much more than a concrete slab, that terminated in a runnel of a creek. I then owned—this was summer of 2003—a reading chair that my wife hated, upholstered in gold fabric and no doubt built in the same era as the apartment, and it was in that chair, situated by those sliding doors, looking out now and then at the tall willows lining the creek, where I believe I first read Margulis’s book. The initial layer of prefatory material, a foreword, was written by someone I’d never heard of at the time, a former president of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center named Lewis Thomas. In it, he suggested that, “As a species, we are juvenile, perhaps just beginning to develop, still learning to be human.” And in the second such layer, a preface appended THE BUOY BIRD


in 1997, more than a decade after its original publication, Margulis and her coauthor/son put forward the disarmingly simple question, “What is the relationship between humans and Nature?” In their original introduction, they had only hinted at an answer: “When people look at life on Earth, it is easy to think we are supreme,” but their primary argument is that such arrogance is misguided. We are a product and expression of historical biochemical developments, and where humans generally assert the primacy of the individual, and by extension the primacy of the species, Margulis and Sagan insist on a much broader collective, the network of life as a whole. Where others seek to divide and delimit, they want to expand and include. In Margulis and Sagan’s view, “no clear line can be drawn between organisms and their environment, between what is ‘natural’ and what is not.” Life, they argue, is “a watery, carbon-based macromolecular system.” It is “reproducing autopoiesis” in which “the individual is something abstract, a category, a conception”—and in which thought may be “a collective phenomenon.” Or as Thomas puts it, “separateness is out of the question.” Few books I had read up until that point, few books I’ve read since for that matter, impacted me as deeply. I had been raised to like hiking and the outdoors, although not, and this is important, to learn the names of things I encountered there. I had always thought of nature as something a person entered and moved through or even, in the case of snakes and bad weather, avoided. Human life had always been one 56


thing and natural life another. It never would have occurred to me that to love nature was, in some fundamental way, to love myself, any more than it might have occurred to me that to hate myself was, in an equally fundamental way, to hate the natural world. Microcosmos rewired my consciousness. I was twentyfour years old, and I had never considered that I might be subordinate to a larger biological system that doesn’t have much use for me, much less my neuroses, a system in which I am primarily a vehicle for passing along the genetic material that has been constantly evolving for more than four billion years—a system in which humans are neither “above” nor “below.” Nuculanids aren’t exactly homely, but they lack the charisma that brought even the queasiest of students to attention when the dolphins arrived. That you have to dig through the seabed to find them only makes physical the fact that even if they weren’t buried below twenty meters of ocean, the naked eye could almost miss them, or at least not register them as organisms. Their asymmetrical shells are, along one axis, round and clammish on one side and elongated on the other, tapering to a point. They look a little like cartoon teardrops. It would seem to be high times for the nuculanids in the Gulf, who, given the recent algal blooms, fueled by agricultural runoff, must be feasting on the dead phytoplankton that sink to the bottom, but whether they experience the excess as boon or stressor is a key question of Paul’s research. THE BUOY BIRD


It wasn’t much of a life, I suggested, our second day on the boat. Well, from our perspective, Paul said, maybe it’s a lousy existence, but who knows what the nuculanids feel? We had eaten our rations of eggs and biscuits, served much earlier that day, and I was again scouting the marshes for a glimpse of my pink bird, which I had decided, after some internetting the night before, was a roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), probably a vagrant, removed as it was from the gregarious flocks of its nearby range. The size and coloring were right, but the only problem was that I hadn’t caught a glimpse of its long, bizarre bill, flattened at its end into the shape of a 1970s style tennis racket. Paul was skeptical. Had I really seen what I thought I had? The second day’s agenda was different. We would be sampling at multiple sites, arranged in a loop around the first. Paul had traded his bright shorts from the day before for darker ones, but, as though to balance things out, he wore an orange shirt instead, which like the shorts the previous day immediately turned brown after the first sample was drawn. I grasped at once the rationale behind the multiple sites. The quality of the sediment was markedly different than at the first site, grainier, less silty, and the death assemblage was also larger, though not as large as some we would see that day. Because there were considerably more live and dead specimens to sort through, processing the samples took far longer. This reaffirmed Paul’s suspicion that yesterday’s lack of data was also data. Today, he was seeing more species, more diversity, and he tentatively linked this to the fact that 58


we were sampling in slightly less hypoxic areas, zones that were a little less dead. As the team worked that morning, I sat first on a counter, surrounded by empty Ziploc bags and plastic containers, then at the table, typing up my impressions not in the blistering sun but in the air-conditioned comfort. The crew was, with the exception of James the deckhand, entirely different, and the captain in charge, Joe, ran a much tighter ship. The same country music streamed from the wheelhouse, however, and it seemed to me these men also spoke mostly about boating and fishing. I looked out at the increasingly filthy deck. Orange gloves strewn about and stained with sediment punctuated the blanket of mud. The Acadiana, I noted, was a sturdy boat but a weathered one. The flooring and wall paneling were chipping and peeling, and someone had used duct tape to seal certain windows and upholstery. The following week, LUMCON would be welcoming a new director, and one of the crew expressed his hope that the boats would at least get a fresh coat of paint. After lunch—cold cuts and American cheese set out on the counter with condiments and bread—the students’ fatigue was plain, particularly in Gabby, whose prescription strength antiemetic, worn as a patch on her neck, wasn’t helping. I again joined in the sieving. Although still focused on the work before him, I could see the tedium wearing on Paul, as when, sorting through a particularly large sample, he lifted up another polychaete worm with his tweezers and accidentally tossed both off the boat. Thankfully, the work THE BUOY BIRD


offered its consolations, the surprise of a large shark’s tooth, for example, around which, resting flat on Paul’s palm, the team briefly gathered, reviving. The live samples were still smaller than Paul would have expected, but they included more of the brainless, sessile creatures he had traveled more than 1,200 miles to collect. All of the ideas we have about the world, Paul had said to me months earlier, in the comfort of his office, are models—simplified versions of what we think are the relevant processes at work. Numbers, he continued, are just one way of formulating one’s ideas explicitly and making clear one’s assumptions. I remembered something the physicist Richard Feynman had said, that “a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature” is inaccessible to “those who do not know mathematics.” “If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature,” he wrote, “it is necessary to understand the language she speaks in.” Feynman’s sentiment wasn’t Paul’s, though, which in its open-endedness seemed to revise, maybe even upend, a tradition dating back to Galileo. While few contemporary scientists would agree that, as the writer Edward Dolnick puts it, “[e]very aspect of the world—why there is one sun and not two, why the ocean is salty, why lobster is delicious and deer are swift and gold is scarce, why one man died of plague but another survived—represented an explicit decision by God,” if we were to substitute other causal agents (e.g., “a specific adaptation”) for “God,” then many of those dissenters would 60


find themselves in agreement. One could argue the formula hasn’t changed, only the values that populate it. Then again, “every era lives with contradictions that it manages to ignore,” Dolnick writes. “The Greeks talked of justice and kept slaves. The crusaders preached the gospel of the Prince of Peace and rode off to annihilate the infidels. The seventeenth century believed in a universe that ran like clockwork, entirely in accord with natural law, and also in a God who reached down into the world to perform miracles and punish sinners.” Primary to our own era’s contradictions may be the way in which science has displaced religion, while nonetheless maintaining a religious certainty. Paul’s understanding was more fluid and uncertain. His discussions of his research felt invitingly literary, as though he were reading the world, which was a living text both constantly changing and forever incomplete. Science, Paul said that day in his office, long before we would set foot on the Acadiana, is a way of generating new knowledge about how physical systems operate, and though he wasn’t willing to agree with Carl Sagan’s assertion that science is the best instrument for knowing the world, he did suggest that other modes of inquiry probably don’t require the same ability to think sequentially or logically through the mechanistic processes at work. Flawed as our scientific models are, they are the models we have for, say, determining on a purely physical level how often a bird’s heart beats, and why. Instrument, he said, may convey some of the sense of structure inlaid in pursuing science, but when it comes to THE BUOY BIRD


questions about conservation and stewardship, when it comes to people’s agency in the natural world, how we value or act in our physical surroundings, he thought the vehicle of literature might prove more effective. By mid-afternoon on the second day, the clouds had turned thick, and on the horizon almost stratigraphic layers of moisture piled on top of each other in dark creases. The patterns were gorgeous and threatening, but I only noticed them when James emerged from the wheelhouse and began taking pictures with his phone. The rain wasn’t coming down that hard when we reached the fifth and final site, but the crew were still covered head to toe in rain gear. The boat rocked more violently, and I worried that one of the young men might slip off the edge. By the time they had brought five tubs of sediment to the surface, the rain was pelting the Gulf and Paul was rushing to process the sample. I stood watching under the boat’s awning, thinking that, having seen the conditions, I would have said fuck it and skipped the final site. I found myself both admiring Paul’s discipline, how he was making the most of his time, and resenting him a little. Later, when the shoddy sample— the poorest we’d seen—had been processed and the rains lightened, he held up his tweezers. Pinched between its two prongs, as though to prove the site had been worth it, was a live nuculanid. Dinner was spaghetti with meat sauce, rolls, and a green salad, after which, during our final confab on the deck, I 62


pointed to the island where, the previous day, I’d seen what I thought was a spoonbill. At its northern end, I spied a patch of color, almost light enough to be pink. Was that it, I asked, lamenting for the first time in my life the fact that I didn’t have binoculars. We squinted and, as the distance closed, I grew optimistic. Then we were passing it. A buoy, Paul said, laughing. You’ve spotted a buoy bird. Later, as a bright red sun sank through a sliver of clear sky along the horizon and the Acadiana moved through the clear, glassy waters in the channel, I considered that maybe it was better that I hadn’t identified the spoonbill, if that’s what it was, as I could now claim to have identified a new species of bird, emblematic of misprision, whose description I could claim. The buoy bird, hereby christened Laevitavis mirabilis, might be any object confused for a bird, or one member in a new genus of such objects. In its capacity to reflect altered ecosystems, its importance as a bioindicator is tough to overstate, and in terms of my purposes here, it is also the ideal bird to demonstrate the human tendency to see in the natural world what one wants to. There on the deck I no longer wondered, as I had the day before, what the point of coming to the Gulf had been. The buoy bird, however ironically, was enough to justify the trip. I said none of this to Paul, of course, but instead teased that having persevered in the torrential rain he too could claim membership, as perhaps I could as well, in the Maniacal Naturalist Society. THE BUOY BIRD


Careful, he said, grinning. I would like to think, looking back, that the origins of my interest in science reside in a beautiful idea, or set of ideas, and to some degree this is true. I was, and am, captivated by Margulis’s rigorous, alternative vision. But I know myself well enough to acknowledge that, as much as anything else, it was the story Warshall told about an outsider’s challenge to the mainstream that appealed to me. I’m not drawn to crackpots, per se, but where I encounter an orthodoxy, my first impulse is to overturn it, to situate myself in opposition to received wisdom—even if, as has happened with certain practices I once rejected (marriage, home ownership, parenthood), I wind up accepting it in some form. Warshall’s appeal, in the context of a program whose purpose was to foster young writers, lay in his suggestion that creativity was not a matter of expressing oneself, and it certainly wasn’t a matter of writing. After that day in Naropa’s Performing Arts Center, I never saw Warshall again. I only learned, in preparing to write about him here, that he died of cancer a few years ago, in April 2013. I cannot claim to have met him, much less to have known him. Beyond complimenting him on his talk, I don’t believe we spoke. In almost no way does it matter that he never learned how he affected me. For the longest time, even I didn’t understand it. And while I probably should be careful not to make too much of something that seemed intriguing but not exceptionally important at the time, I had, as I’ve 64


said, little interest in science until I heard Warshall speak. That changed in the years after, not consciously, and not immediately, but like a crack in an ice sheet, it started small and imperceptibly grew larger until it became impossible not to see, until it became such a dominant feature that one couldn’t help but wonder where it had begun, what had caused it, what it meant. Nearly a year after our trip to LUMCON, Paul sent me an email to say he had news. When we met the following week, he told me he had just returned from a second trip to Louisiana, where an old friend of his is now the director of the consortium. It had been much the same as before, sampling sites, gathering evidence. Some of the students from the previous year had even returned. One day the Acadiana had been motoring through Terrebonne Bay when Paul began to wonder if his eyes were playing tricks on him. Were those pink wings stretching over the mess of white and gray birds off the port side? His students saw them too. Back at the field station that night, Paul asked his friend whether he knew of an island full of birds on the route through the bay, whether any pink ones could be seen there, and if so, what they were. The director knew the place, Rock Island. He knew the birds, too. They were roseate spoonbills. So you were right, Paul said over coffee, less chagrined than delighted. It wasn’t a buoy. You saw that bird. THE BUOY BIRD


Did this invalidate what I’d written, I wondered, or did it leave everything pretty much as it was? If my argument was that we don’t get nature right, what to make of the fact that, in this one small way, I had? Even misprision has its limits, and wanting to see something in the world sometimes means that you will, whether or not you can confirm it, whether or not you can shift it from the realm of bias to that of fact. We may not know what we’re looking at when we study our surroundings, but in time, with patience, we may be able to say with a degree or two of certainty what it is. As a new and emblematic figure, I had thought the buoy bird could be playful, the kind of joke that, because it echoes through one’s life, resounding through one’s foibles and failures, hurts a little. But what I’m left with is more complex than the gag I’d constructed at my own expense. Laevitavis mirabilis isn’t just a buoy in a busy shipping lane, a tattered kite in a tree, a red shirt stuck on a riverbank, although it’s those things too. These days, when I think about swaying with the Acadiana, elbow deep in mud, I remind myself of how, at one point, Paul looked at me and asked how it felt to be doing science. It felt, I said, like one line of inquiry leading to another. It felt like we didn’t know what we were going to discover, about the world or about ourselves. It felt messy. It felt human. Our respective instruments may fail us, I now think, but the vehicle gets us there just the same.




Himalayan Monal Lophophorus impejanus A man walks into a museum and he is a long way from home, even if the apartment where he now lives is only a short drive away. When he presents his ticket, a gift from the resettlement campaign, the woman at the desk asks him a question he doesn’t understand, although he does understand it’s a question, that the woman wants something from him, his reason for being there, maybe, which is an answer he can’t quite give in any of the languages he knows. He drifts from display to display, gathering from the bones spread out around the mounted models that they come from the sorts of dinosaurs indicated in the pictures that accompany them. Later, he moves through a room filled with living butterflies, maturing chrysalises. He has found Americans to be strange—their endless frozen food aisles, their excruciating kindness—but the butterfly room is

surreal: he cannot fathom its purpose. Stranger yet are the dioramas of posed animals in painted settings, morbid in a way that clarifies for him what is bizarre about the butterflies. By the time he reaches the Hall of Asian Animals on the second floor, he is feeling unsettled. He gets that the campaign people, in their charitable American way, were trying to do something nice for him, but he is a refugee, a Nepali man born and raised in Bhutan, expelled from one country, and refused by the other. He is a stateless person, beyond politeness, beyond favors, and he wonders, moving through the dimly lit rooms of the hall, whether he isn’t going a little crazy, whether this attempt at assimilation is having the reverse effect, whether he is also behind the glass, enclosed in a seminatural environment that will never be his own. And then he sees it, in all its prismatic iridescence, the showy bird with wiry, spoon-shaped feathers sprouting from its head. Set against an alpine backdrop painted to give the impression of receding into the distance, the bird seems in that moment to be a symbol of all the man has lost, and perhaps all that can yet be saved, though it is also, he knows, only a bird. A stuffed one, he thinks, how silly. Maybe it’s just the diorama’s trick of perspective that has turned it into something more. He feels the tears on his cheeks then, but it only registers that he is crying, sobbing really, when a woman in a museum uniform gently places her hand on his shoulder. She speaks softly, comfortingly, though he doesn’t know all of what she’s 68


saying, it sounds slurred to him, and now he is pointing through the glass at the bird, repeating a word over and over as he gestures toward it. The woman knows a different word, printed there on the placard. She points to it, he points to the bird, and there is so much the two of them share, each thinks, so much the other will never know.



Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin The smell is a mystery. Or not the smell exactly, but where, evolutionarily, it came from. Looking over the branches of the phylogenetic tree, it isn’t easy to locate the so-called stinkbird’s perch. Historically it was placed with the pheasants, much later with the turacos, a frugivorous African family whose members include a few noisy birds named for an alarming cry that sounds like go away. More recently, fossil evidence has turned up a Namibian ancestor for this South American bird, from the extinct genus Namibiavis, but the problem of how the hoatzin became the only extant species in its family and order—let alone how its ancestors came to straddle both sides of a formidable ocean—is unresolved. But back to that smell, redolent of cow manure or fresh hay. This part of the mystery has proven easier to sort out, even if the conclusions are no less bizarre. The hoatzin is exceedingly rare among birds—it’s the only one like it—in that when it comes to diet its closest relatives are ruminants: cows, sheep, antelopes, deer, and even giraffes. Like other animals that chew the cud, hoatzins have evolved organs—in this case, a dramatically enlarged crop—where the otherwise indigestible (and nutrient-poor) leaves on which they feed ferment before, having been broken down by bacteria, they pass through the rest of the esophagus, the gizzard, the small intestine, and, eventually, out through the cloaca. The 70


process is long and the birds—as a result both of their slow digestion and the smaller flight muscles necessitated by their enormous guts—are sluggish much of the time. As disagreeable as their odor may be, their physical appearance is equally striking, even off-putting. Some might say the hoatzin is an ugly bird, but perhaps its spiky Mohawk and blue eye shadow are just more punk rock, less repulsive than in your face. And to be sure, the hoatzin is an antiestablishment bird, refusing, according to one ornithologist, to follow the rules of evolution. Even the chicks buck convention, hatching with a pair of incongruous claws on each wing. These they use to climb up and down trees, shedding them only when, as adults, their clumsy, cape-like wings are strong enough to fly, if not fly well. Good punks that they are, hoatzins aren’t poseurs. They don’t care what we think of them, their smell or their style or their hoarse, grunting calls. Least interesting of all, to the true stinkbird, are our explanations, the reasons we give or derive or imagine for its mysteries, the billions of base pairs of its DNA we sequence. Because really, when the meltdown is coming and the wheat is growing thin, what’s the point? Your cities are drowning and I, croaks the hoatzin, I live by the river.



Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis Some calls are more like rumors, as with the bird Audubon described, in keeping with his aestheticizing temperament, as “very closely allied to the style of coloring of the great VANDYKE.” Although ivory-billed woodpeckers were once so abundant that “entire belts of Indian chiefs [were] closely ornamented with the tufts and bills” and a traveler could pay a quarter for “two or three heads,” by 1905 the birds were rare enough they were selling for fifty dollars apiece. By 1948, there were so few remaining in the wild that, in northeastern Louisiana, the last ever substantiated photo was taken. These days, as with its more infamous associates—Bigfoot and Elvis and Nessie—a significant list of uncorroborated sightings, both in the southeastern United States and in Cuba, attaches to the bird. It is as though the list engenders the sighting, and vice versa: the sighting only becomes one when it joins an established body of putative incidents. Equally important is the spirit of aspiration that accompanies the tally: “We can only hope for documentation,” writes ornithologist Jerome Jackson, as though invoking pilgrims to Graceland, “that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is yet with us.” It would appear that it is not. And those nineteenthcentury tourists are only partly to blame. The real culprits, Jackson reports, were the logging interests who snatched up enormous swaths of virgin pine forest in the wake of the Civil 72


War. The two world wars that followed delivered the coup de grâce, as the native forests were patriotically leveled to fuel the nation’s foreign affairs. While the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, the location of a widely reported sighting in 2004, might resemble those forests, they have become, to paraphrase Helen Macdonald, imaginary places, landscapes constructed from memory and desire and remorse. We are bad at scale, Macdonald writes, bad at time: “We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not.” And so the ongoing tragedy, or perhaps farce, of the ivory-billed woodpecker is distinct from its historical one. Combing fragments of forest for a bird we know has gone extinct may be more like scanning that deep lake in Scotland for its mythical inhabitant than the searchers are ready to admit. “I wish,” Macdonald concludes, “that we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are,” but it is not entirely clear, in pining for this bird, who that is. Perhaps we want to believe that we are not what our forebears were, but we may also need to accept, for the sake of life itself, that we are the monsters we sometimes suspect.



Kakapo Strigops habroptilus Some 800 years ago, the group of early Polynesians who became the Maori brought rats and dogs to New Zealand. The Europeans who later followed carried even worse predators, among them cats and stoats, introduced to manage a runaway rabbit population. Defenses adapted with one predator in mind (birds of prey) were useless when new ones arrived. Populations plummeted. And the flightless, nocturnal parrot called the kakapo went from being one of the most common birds in New Zealand to extinct in the wild throughout its historical range. As of this writing, a fragile population of 150 clings to life on predator-free, outlying islands to the north and south. Some argue we’re wasting precious time and resources, that the roughly $1 million annual cost of the Kakapo Recovery Program might be better spent, that in the triage of conservation, there must be higher priorities than managing the nesting practices, including the hand-rearing of chicks, of a bird unlikely to survive evolving conditions without intensive human intervention. But there’s a mundane logic to this argument that has nothing to do with how we choose which species to “save.” In that messy, emotional business, the accountants rarely win, in part because the story they tell isn’t the one we want to hear. The tale of the charismatic underdog is more compelling 74


than that of the homely workhorse, which is why when male kakapos dig out their meticulously kept, bowl-shaped nooks, inflate their thoracic sacs, and make their signature series of loud booming calls, it is not only the females of the species who listen.



Kirtland’s Warbler Setophaga kirtlandii Native to the northern reaches of my home state of Michigan, “this lemon breasted little songster,” as one 1964 article called it, has staged a dramatic comeback from a dismal 1987 census of 167 singing males in the wild: according to recent counts, there are now more than 2,000. The warbler nearly perished at the intersection of parasitism and mismanagement, both brought on by humans, but in curiously opposed directions. Prior to the spread of Europeans across the continent, the range of the infamous brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and leaves the host to incubate and rear them (generally at the expense of the host’s own young), had been limited to grassy plains, but as forests were cleared in the east during the nineteenth century and the west in the twentieth, new habitats opened up and, with them, new hosts. Whereas maybe 4,000 Kirtland’s warblers remain in the wild, experts guess that the population of cowbirds, though too large for a truly accurate census, is somewhere between 20 and 40 million. As for mismanagement, blame Smokey the Bear. The well-intentioned fire prevention program, begun in the mid1940s, and the forest management policies that went with it, had the unintended consequence of creating older habitats than the warbler requires. The bird thrives in dense, young 76


stands of jack pine, the kind that emerged, after a few years, in the wake of the 1980 Mack Lake wildfire, the result of a controlled burn in the Huron National Forest that went awry, consuming 25,000 acres, destroying forty-four homes, and claiming one life. By the late 1980s, the population of Kirtland’s warblers was exploding, thanks to those flames that jumped the fire line running along highway M-33. If one mistake, fire suppression, caused the birds’ population to plummet, another one led, albeit inadvertently, to the birds’ recovery. But considering the care that now goes into setting traps for cowbirds and the intensity of the management program that keeps the forests as the birds prefer them (large plantations of jack pine grown on a fiftyyear rotation), it is a qualified success, as perhaps, having set the extinction wheel in motion, all of our successes will be.



Kiwi Apteryx australis It’s true that Ben Franklin preferred what he saw as the turkey’s (Meleagris gallopavo) courage to the bald eagle’s (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cowardice, true that he thought the latter was lazy and unjust. But what he actually said— prematurely, it would now seem—was that the bald eagle was “by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country.” The symbol didn’t match the symbolized, Franklin believed, but his objection assumes that such correspondence is possible—that character traits we describe in humans can be ascribed to birds. Consider the burrowing, nocturnal kiwi, a bird that makes its living by sniffing out worms and insects in the soil with the highly irregular nostrils in its outsized beak, a bird sometimes said to resemble a large, hairy pear. While Americans can only be metaphorically confused with our avian emblem, New Zealanders identify with theirs so thoroughly that kiwi has become synonymous with the people who have colonized its range, bringing with them the mammals that now prey on the birds. The kiwi even features—ironically, given that the birds can’t fly—on the roundel employed by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Beyond its surface eccentricities, the bird is notable for its humungous egg, which, at up to a quarter of the female’s 78


body weight, is believed to be the largest in proportion to body size of any egg-laying animal. To get some sense of scale, imagine a woman, as one writer recently put it, giving birth to a four-year-old child. Historically, the advantage of such a large egg was a precocious chick, capable of fending for itself much earlier than other birds. But precocity isn’t much of a defense these days, and the mortality rate among chicks is astoundingly high. The kiwi’s plight is dire enough that, as Elizabeth Kolbert reports, “if current trends continue . . . within a generation or two the land of Kiwis will be without kiwi.” At which point, the bird’s already confusing symbolism (how are New Zealanders like hairy, nocturnal pears?) would become perverse, as the absent bird would represent an overabundant humanity. Symbolic truths can come to obscure, sometimes deliberately, whatever facts they initially represent. It’s true that New Zealand has always been the only home to the kiwi, but the conflation of the birds with the people who live there conceals the real possibility of a future in which zoos are the only place to see them. Symbols, however, have a power that facts do not. If the case of our beloved bald eagle—once critically endangered by the use of DDT—is any precedent, it may be the kiwi’s status as a symbol that saves it.



Lake Duck Oxyura vittata One might be forgiven for thinking of cloaca as a dirty word. Etymologically, it’s connected to sewer, and biologically the organ—in the animals that possess one—is the site where the body is purged. But in birds, as in many other animals, it also serves a reproductive function: in lieu of genitals, males and females rub their cloacae together, as though sex were little different than—if not predicated upon—elimination. There are, thankfully, exceptions to this model of avian reproduction, including the many ratites and ducks who, perhaps as a compensation for their limited or nonexistent flight, have developed more sophisticated sex lives. Few of these exceptions is as notable as the lake duck of southern South America, the males of which possess a penis that is, on average, half their body length, sometimes longer—a penis as large as an ostrich’s, a bird more than five times its size. Indeed, it is the largest penis in proportion to body size of all vertebrates, which is not to say the largest among vertebrates—that prize goes to the Blue Whale, whose member often stretches to ten feet. Barnacles, on the other hand, are believed to be, among vertebrates and invertebrates, the best endowed relative to body size, with penises stretching many times their body length. The tip of the lake duck’s penis, which is shaped like a corkscrew and lined with bristles, is covered in a kind 80


of brush, probably adapted to wipe the vagina clean of any previous sperm. It’s also equipped at its base with many spines, which likely hold the female in place during copulation. For all of the male’s outward glory, however, the elaborate internal world of the female lake duck ultimately controls reproduction, and as wily as the male’s adaptations may be, the female of the species is even craftier. While the penis spirals in a counterclockwise direction, the vagina spirals clockwise, possibly in response to the frequency of forced intercourse. Likewise, the vagina is lined, as in many waterfowl, with a number of dead-end sacs where an undesired male can be fooled into depositing his sperm. As for what makes one male desirable and another despicable—what moves the female to choose one suitor over another—the answer may not lie in the gutter but, more decorously, in the bright beauty of its striking blue beak.



Lesser Snow Goose Chen caerulescens caerulescens It’s the scene where Macduff, foil to Macbeth’s eponymous villain, has come to convince Malcolm, elder son of the slain Scottish king, to seek revenge. Malcolm hesitates. Who is he to judge, he wonders, when “All the particulars of vice [are] so grafted” in himself—when there’s “no bottom, none,” to his voluptuousness, to the “cistern of [his] lust”—that “black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow,” a veritable “lamb” by comparison. In the West tradition holds that brides wear white to signify a virgin body and a chaste heart, that the bird returning to the ark with an olive branch—eternal symbol of peace and love—was a dove, but as for the “often-overlooked blackbirds, family Icteridae,” writes J. Drew Lanham, they are not just maligned for their blackness, they “are declining across the board.” And then there are crows, he says, “among the smartest things with feathers and wings.” That they, along with other “birds that just happen to be black,” are “largely ignored .  .  . and often persecuted”—well, Lanham writes, “sounds like profiling to me.” To appreciate nature, Lanham reminds us, is to partake in a tradition founded by and for white elites, and while the natural world isn’t white, nature as a concept may be. “My choice of career and my passion for wildness,” Lanham says, “means that I will forever be the odd bird, the raven in a horde 82


of white doves, the blackbird in a flock of snow buntings.” Because for Lanham “the preconceived notions . . . of where I should go, of what I should do, and even who I should do it with” don’t include forests, marshes, or mountains, the disquieting question is where, in “nature,” a black person belongs, and where, conversely, a white one does. But if the case of the lesser snow goose is any indication, we’ve been profiling the wrong birds. It would be one thing if these “innocent-looking” geese, as one researcher describes them—presumably because of their white plumage—were, to borrow Malcolm’s term, merely voluptuous, but they’re more vicious and coercive than that. Although the birds mate for life, what scientists call “forced copulations” are rampant, typically occurring while the male is away from the nest, often pursuing a forced copulation of his own. To his credit, if and when the resident gander sees his mate attacked, he immediately returns, pecking and kicking and beating the intruder so vigorously that, at least in one instance, it resulted in something researchers might have euphemistically termed “forced death.” “Alas, poor country, / Almost afraid to know itself,” intones a third character, Ross, as a segue to telling Macduff that, while he has been biding his time, his family’s been murdered by the bloodthirsty king. Our country, he continues, anticipating our own, “where violent sorrow seems / A modern ecstasy.”



Magnificent Riflebird Ptiloris magnificus The whooping continues until she arrives. Then he crouches down on his vine, waiting for her to come closer. And when she does, he reaches up and out with his whole body, stretching his wings in a wide circle, pumping his legs up and down and moving back and forth on the branch, sweeping his head from side to side so as to dazzle her with the shiny blue plumage of his gorget. Finally he collects himself, holding his body upright, very straight, and moving his upward pointed beak back and forth like a metronome. The flamboyant display appears immersive, heightened by the whooshing of his flapping wings, an experience in which she nonetheless must be scrutinizing his efforts, observing his choreography, his physique, determining how much of the razzle-dazzle is affectation, how much inborn grace. In the comment stream below, one viewer, “Aaron C,” claims to be “helplessly aroused” by the spectacle, but for at least one other viewer, “janet m,” the display is provocative in another way. “How did we Female humans screw up so bad?” she asks. “Why are we the ones preening and doing the dance?” Why, in other words, have we reversed roles, inverting the animal order and casting the females of our species as seductresses, adorning and performing to attract a mate? It could be that human males just aren’t that goodlooking, not in the extravagant, eye-candy manner of the male 84


riflebird. Or it could be that our sophisticated, communal social structure has lowered the costs of motherhood in humans to such a degree that it doesn’t really matter—from an evolutionary perspective, not a personal or social one— whom the female chooses to mate with. On the other hand, it may be that at some early point in our development, men abdicated their role at the same time that they abrogated female sexual agency, creating a form of social control, handed down through the generations, geared toward male power. When it comes to the riflebirds, however, the males are little more than sperm donors, way stations on an evolutionary journey overseen by the females. In this light, perhaps Eve’s curse is not to suffer through menses and childbirth, but to endure the men who insist, pretension of pretensions, that we’re something more dignified than walking bags of fertilizer.



New Zealand Bell Bird Anthornis melanura

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus On June 14, 1846, a small band of settlers stormed the barracks in Sonoma, declared California a republic, and, within a few days, hoisted the Bear Flag on which the present-day one is modeled. A year earlier, on June 1, 1845, John Charles Frémont left St. Louis with the stated goal of discovering the headwaters of the Arkansas River, but this notion was either quickly abandoned or had only been a ruse to begin with. Frémont made a beeline for California, where, along with his deputation, he set up camp near Sutter’s Fort, in what is now midtown Sacramento, and began meeting with the future leaders of the so-called Bear Flag Revolt. While the first two of Frémont’s expeditions to the west with legendary scout Kit Carson had been exploratory, concerned with mapping the largely uncharted lands west of the Rockies, this third one was decidedly imperialist. And much as the battle of Fort Sumter would, fifteen years later, become a flashpoint between northern and southern states, the taking of the Sonoma barracks can be seen as the start of the Mexican-American War. It was Manifest Destiny, 86


proponents argued—the idea that expansion was both virtuous and inevitable—but for Frémont the incentives were also economic: in the years after the war, he became enormously wealthy, first through gold, then real estate. In spite or because of its aims, the expedition required an ornithologist, and a few days after the California Republic was declared, on June 18, 1846, one of the members of Frémont’s party, a Philadelphia artist and cartographer named Edward Kern shot and killed a bird whose name derives from the Latin peregrinus, having to do with foreignness and travel. Often described as the fastest bird in the world, capable of stoop speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, the falcon encountered by Kern became, curiously enough, the type specimen—the objective standard of reference—for the American subspecies. Curiosity may have likewise induced the crew of the HMS Endeavor to cross the nearly 12,000 miles separating Queen Charlotte Sound, on the northern tip of New Zealand’s south island, from Crane Court in London, then home to the Royal Society, but it was empire that enabled them. There, a quarter mile from shore, they recorded hearing “the most melodious wild music . . . almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable.” To the Maori, the birds were Korimako or Makomako, but in the minds of the Europeans who would classify them in the family of socalled honeyeaters, birds that feed largely but not exclusively on nectar, they resonated halfway across the globe, as though the planet was nothing more than a series of navigable straits, to the notes echoing from church towers back home. THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius “Let me look at my demon objectively,” Nabokov writes, before describing, as though it were the treatment he intended, a summer afternoon in 1911 during which his French governess, a woman of some bulk, accidentally crushed a cabinet tray containing a series of the large white (Pieris brassicae) he had left on an armchair. He laments in particular the loss of “a precious gynandromorph, left side male, right side female, whose abdomen could not be traced and whose wings had come off.” Even if he could have reattached the wings, there would have been no way to prove they belonged to the same creature. To look at his demon objectively, free from the “howl of anguish” he uttered upon seeing his mangled specimens, may also have been to treat it grammatically, much as a direct object absorbs action rather than initiates it. The difference between an enthusiast and everyone else, in other words, may be that the objects of a lepidopterist’s attention, like a birder’s, switch cases. They become subjects. As they acquire specificity, they acquire agency as well, or vice versa, as though coming into focus means stepping into the foreground. I’ve never been this sort of observer. Birds are my subject, but mostly they’re not. The lessons I’ve learned from them aren’t exactly ornithological, but my point, or rather my 88


question, is why should they be? We seem to have ceded scientific facts to scientific meanings, as though any species, any specimen, were little more than data. I want to make the case for another kind of work, to suggest, instead, that wingspan, weight, and range—though important—may blind us to what a bird really is. A species is as much a range of characteristics as an evolving set of them, a study in theme and variation. While each individual combines set and range in a novel way, sometimes these novelties become striking for their incongruence, their dysfunction, their aberration. Nabokov’s gynandromorph openly displayed its rarity, which came to constitute, as with many rare things, its value. But what effect, for the enthusiast, does anomaly have? As specificity reaches the end of its established continuum, does subject become object once more? Or did it ever really have agency to begin with? With its chestnut feathers lining one side, yellow feathers lining the other, the gynandromorph only barely holds up as proof—because what it proves, as Nabokov knew, doesn’t comport with common truths. That male and female should find equal expression in the same body may defy conventional wisdom about gender, but then the conventions are false, at least from time to time. I, too, am possible, the gynandromorph says. I’m proof.



Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius In January of 2009, a domestic goat (Capra hircus) in northern Spain gave birth to a Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica), which had been officially extinct since the last member of the species, Celia, was found dead near the French border in early 2000. Fortunately, tissue samples had been extracted from her the year before, which allowed scientists to more properly introduce the animal otherwise known as the bucardo to the twenty-first century. More recently, scientists have pursued the prospect of introducing salvaged DNA from preserved passenger pigeon specimens into that of their nearest living relative, the bandtailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). Resurrecting the bird is part of a larger program of de-extinction that has, in other quarters, turned its attention to the woolly mammoth. The practical problems are legion. Beyond the enormous cost and difficulty of creating such hybrid species, there are trickier questions, like parenting. Any hybrid bird created with passenger pigeon DNA would be, in a sense, an orphan, and having only its distant band-tailed relations to teach it how to live, the bird would be something like a child adopted from a foreign country. Try as you might to instill in them a connection to, say, their Chinese heritage, they will likely identify more with their American peers.



That any number of reasonable objections to the project might be raised does not dissolve its allure, born equally of fantasy and the call of justice. Part Jurassic Park, part March on Washington, bringing back species from the dead derives from nostalgia for a world we’ve never known, a supposedly purer world posited in response to the perceived degradation of the present one. But as there are homes some cannot return to—having been burned down, mortared, or politically coopted—it may be that we have to make do with the houses we live in, that nostalgia and ecology exist in the same uneasy tension as any house and any notion of home. One would be no closer to the restoration of some illusory balance through the reintroduction of a long extinct species than one would be to feeling at home in a house with a few choice tchotchkes. Applications generate their own ends, and one reason to reanimate the passenger pigeon is that, for the first time in our history, we have the technology to do so. It may not be visionary thinking, it may not even be “thinking” in the individual sense at all, but perhaps scientific progress (as a collective endeavor) rarely is. And maybe that’s okay. As the practice of science is a lever for knowledge, maybe knowledge itself is a lever for the ongoing evolution of technology, set in motion with the development of the first primitive tools and concluding, maybe, in the emergence of self-replicating artificial intelligence. Technology does not yet think, however, and unless it’s thinking through us, in the meantime we think for it.



“Is there a limit to scientific inquiry,” Lewis Thomas asks, “not set by what is knowable but by what we ought to be knowing?” Like Thomas, I’m wary of suppressing human curiosity, but because I’m also wary of arguments that absolve people from thinking ethically—from considering how their desires affect others, including other animals—my no to his question isn’t as flat as his own. When it comes to pursuing knowledge, what is acceptable collateral damage, and who decides? For its part, the hybrid bucardo died of lung failure after a mere seven minutes of life, and even if valuable lessons were learned in its fabrication, I can’t help but wonder if we might have spared the creature the trouble.



Purple Martin Progne subis Just west of Columbia, South Carolina, more or less in the center of the state, lies a large man-made reservoir named Lake Murray, after the engineer who, in 1930, saw the project through to completion. The remnants of old towns, forcibly abandoned, are scattered along the bottom, and on the surface what once were hills are now islands. The area is a magnet for vacationers, but for the past twenty-five years one of those erstwhile hills, nicknamed Bomb Island in honor of the World War II pilots who used it for target practice, has also been a favorite haunt of another sort of tourist. In late July and early August, up to a million purple martins roost on Bomb Island ahead of their long journey south. It is a sight more suited to preindustrial America, and yet at Lake Murray the martins gather in such numbers their flocks appear on radar maps. In the early morning, the birds rouse themselves into what might be mistaken, by an unknowing meteorologist, for an exploding cloud. The bird’s peregrinations have inspired, in turn, a different form of travel: the humans who come from all directions to board the boats that will bring them across the lake, either early in the morning as the birds leave their roosts or when they return at gloaming. But the visitors don’t bother the birds. Since the introduction of the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), martins THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


have been outcompeted at their favorite nesting sites, and they are now entirely dependent upon the artificial homes humans build for them. These often take the form of small, aristocratic-looking houses affixed to the tops of poles, but they also take the form of sanctuaries, like Bomb Island. Fauna are fickle, however. The patterns and processes that guide and direct them are large and largely incomprehensible. The backyard feeder that was so successful last spring might easily fail the following one. For whatever reason, the martins might not return to the house you’ve erected, the island you’ve set aside. One recent summer upward of a million purple martins went missing from Lake Murray. And when they were eventually spotted on a weather map, some twenty-five miles north, the best answer the biologists could provide was to say—as though summing up the disparity between the birds’ motives and our own—that roosts move, sometimes for no reason. No reason, anyway, that we know.




When the eminent British botanist William Stearn died in 2001 at the age of 90, his obituaries noted both the volume of his scientific output (more than 400 publications) and the humbleness of his origins. As a young man too poor to attend college, Stearn became an autodidact, and his selfeducation was so effective that by twenty-two he was serving as librarian for the Royal Botanical Society in London. Upon his retirement fifty years later, he had risen to the position of chief scientific officer in the department of botany at the Natural History Museum. One accomplishment the encomiums failed to mention was Stearn’s nearly accidental designation of Linnaeus, in a tongue-in-cheek passage from a 1958 paper, as the human type specimen. “Since for nomenclatorial purposes the specimen most carefully studied and recorded by the author is to be accepted as the type,” Stearn wrote, “clearly Linnaeus himself, who was much addicted to autobiography, must stand as the type.” And so it was that, 200 years after

Linnaeus described our species in his Systema Naturae, he posthumously became the measure by which I can taxonomically reassure myself of my humanity. I may not need to dig up Linnaeus’s bones to prove to myself that I’m human, but given that among birds only magpies (Pica pica) are known to recognize themselves in a mirror, it’s unlikely that, say, a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) has any sense that it is a hawk in the way that I know that I am not one. To what degree, then, is the story of any hawk the story of every hawk? To what degree, in keeping with the rules of taxonomy, is the bird’s type specimen at ANSP interchangeable with any of the members of the species at the time it was first described? More to the point, if I bend those rules, am I as a good a measure as Linnaeus? Are you? What does it mean, from a symbolic if not a practical standpoint, that the default human being, the objective standard of reference, is not only a man but a white one? “The truth,” Stearn writes, “is that for most of his life Linnaeus did not realize that he was trying to make a name do more than a name can possibly do.” That is, to designate and to distinguish, enduringly, one species as characteristically different from another. We lump together or split apart, but when it comes to the name Homo sapiens, the limits of its application are obvious, problems of scale notwithstanding. That Linnaeus is interred in the Uppsala Cathedral in southeastern Sweden means, for one thing, that Stearn’s designation is purely honorific: I cannot physically compare myself to him. And though his remains, or mine, 96


might be usefully distinguished from that of the roadside hawk in Philadelphia, more telling, to my mind, is the abiding similarity of their present condition—the stasis that invalidates a name, and toward which every life tends. Though originally a medieval city, these days Uppsala is a college town with shops and restaurants lining its charming pedestrian district. The Fyris River, looking more like one of Amsterdam’s canals, runs through its compact center, crossed by more than a dozen bridges, and the largest church in Scandinavia—the mammoth cathedral in which Swedish kings were long coronated and where Linnaeus lies buried— dominates the city’s modest skyline. I arrived on a drizzly morning in mid-July. It wasn’t quite seventy degrees, chilly by my standards, but many I passed wore sandals and shorts. The walk to the house where Linnaeus lived with his wife, Sara Lisa, his four daughters and son—two other children died before adulthood—was not without other surprises: a Syrian mother walking down the street with her children, a homeless man poking in the trash, the inevitable McDonalds. Linnaeus’s family occupied the grounds, owned by the university, for some thirty-five years, until his death in 1778. The so-called Flower King of Uppsala lectured in a large room on the second floor, and the sessions were sometimes crowded enough that those listening spilled down the stairs. Students paid to hear him, supplementing the meager salary professors then earned. In the room that served as his library WHAT A NAME CAN DO


stands the bed in which he eventually died. It remains there, a plaque read, according to family tradition. Given that Linnaeus was barely five feet tall, the bed appears somewhat cramped, as does the house itself. Though seemingly large from the outside, inside it’s rather tight. I decided to forego the audio tour in favor of drifting from room to room, looking for evidence of some continuity between Linnaeus and me, his time and ours. Instead, I found myself admiring the rococo furnishings, the lovely tiled stoves in most rooms, the tables and cabinets made of many different types of wood. I lingered over the bed in particular, taking several photos of the three rectangular pieces of canvas, all different sizes, stitched together to hold the now-absent mattress, no longer necessary to support the dead man’s weight. For that, there was the sculpture of him outside, a much younger version holding a flower up to the light. There were, across the street, two neighboring cafés both named after him. There were the gardens he had meticulously designed and maintained, where I imagined a cassowary strutting about, a cockatoo or parrot screeching in a cage, as they had when Linnaeus was alive. In the gift shop, walled entirely in glass, I considered mugs printed with Linnaeus’s favorite flower, Linnaea borealis, first described on a journey to Lapland in 1732. I picked up dish towels, journals, and reusable shopping bags printed with the same drawing, and with other drawings too. It was entirely too much, and at the same time not enough. 98


“For better or for worse,” Stearn declared in a 1969 lecture, “Linnaeus dominated eighteenth century biology,” but this was not due to Linnaeus’s originality or intellect; rather, “it was because he was a tremendously hard worker who devoted his time and his talents to an immense task which met the needs of the age”—a comprehensive catalog of the natural world. Linnaeus was not a brilliant theoretician who reconceptualized underlying structures and systems; he was a methodical organizer and observer, adept at classification, coordination, and concision. His conception of nature was orderly and harmonious, in keeping with what he saw as the character of God’s creation. He recognized that his system was artificial, that, as one historian of science, Paul Lawrence Farber writes, “his method did not reflect any ‘real’ order in nature,” but he believed the day would come when someone, probably himself, would develop methods and categories “that actually conveyed God’s plan.” In truth, Linnaeus’s system looks less like theology than the social systems in which he was steeped. His hallmark binomial nomenclature, for instance, functions a lot like the first and last names of humans, particularly European ones. There’s a subtle anthropomorphizing in the very format of scientific names, which is meant to render the foreign familiar in more ways than one. Rupornis magnirostris is almost as mundane, despite the Latin, as Erik Anderson. Of course you can’t shake a bird’s hand upon meeting it, but the introduction hinges, as with humans, on recognizing its name as a name, and this was Linnaeus’s stroke of pedestrian genius. WHAT A NAME CAN DO


He may have caused some controversy by proposing that plants reproduced sexually, but he conceived this system, too, in a way that conformed with, rather than upended, the common human model of reproduction. “Instead of employing terms like stamen or pistil,” Farber writes, “he chose the Greek for ‘husband’ (andria) and ‘wife’ (gynia).” The ostensible idea was to reflect “the various types of ‘marriages’ in plants,” but the effect was to understand plant behavior through human analogues, however ill-fitting they were. Because if human mating really were analogous to plant reproduction, our marriages would look quite different. Rather than tidy pairs of committed couples, we would be far more dissolute and polyamorous. Linnaeus, to his credit, recognized this, comparing plant reproduction to many men bedding the same bride. There were other lapses, and other limits. Long before any widespread conversation about multiculturalism, long before any broad and sustained critique of colonialism, Linnaeus understood the world through his perspective as a Christian and a European, disregarding the knowledge native peoples had about the nature with which they were most familiar. Much as the missionaries of the time focused on human salvation, the task Linnaeus and his so-called apostles pursued, Farber writes, was “to save the species of the world for,” and through, “a second naming.” Underlying it all was the promise of a profoundly knowable natural world, in which mysteries were evidence of absent industry and attention. “The first step in wisdom,” Linnaeus 100


wrote in the initial edition of his Systema Naturae, which from a dozen or so pages in 1735 would swell to several thousand by his death, “is to know the things themselves.” “This notion,” he continued, “consists in having a true idea of the objects; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names.” From a twenty-first century perspective, it sounds almost quaint. At a time when perception is everything and relativism reigns, to claim possession of the “true idea” of the world smacks more of fundamentalism than of science. Truth, for better and worse, has grown murkier over time, and our comfort with that murkiness has kept pace. What Linnaeus took as a foundation for scientific endeavor, “classification and name-giving,” has not entirely disappeared, but it has been supplanted by more molecular directives, and by deeper questions about function and relation. Our faith in a knowable world has not, arguably, diminished, but our confidence in what we know has. This tendency extends to our most primary of implements, words. We have come to see, scientists included, words as signifiers, as placeholders, as something more arbitrary than the things they refer to: our bodies, our buildings, our respective subjects of study. Linnaeus believed in language, in signification, in a way that’s become unfashionable. “Language adorns a science,” he wrote in 1745, “as clothes adorn the body; the body cannot of itself honor the clothes, but must let them honor it.” Words may not have been an outgrowth of biology, but for Linnaeus they could fit. WHAT A NAME CAN DO


Linnaeus paid deference to God as prime mover, but he also saw his work as divinely ordained. “GOD Himself has led him,” Linnaeus wrote, speaking of himself in the third person, as he often did, “with His own almighty hand.” He believed, probably correctly, that no human before him had done more to advance the study of nature, that there had never “been a greater botanist or zoologist,” nor had anyone “written more books, more correctly, more methodically.” “Adam may have been the first to name God’s creatures,” Farber writes, “but Linnaeus claimed an equally important place.” In Sweden, he is revered as a national figure, something like a Nordic Newton, but he was also profoundly and typically human, an index of the species. He could be selfish and vindictive and even petty, altering his will at one point to divest his wife of her rights over his estate should she take a second husband after his death, which he believed she had every intention of doing. And while there’s no proof that he was ever less loyal to her, in life, than he expected her to be to him, beyond death, in one of the funny twists a life produces, his early reputation as a physician in Stockholm was not built on keen diagnostic insight or therapeutic acumen but on wayward men. His career blossomed when he began to successfully treat gonorrhea. Perhaps the most entertaining of his peccadillos, given his addiction to autobiography, comes in the form of the narrative he submitted to his sponsors upon completing his 1732 expedition to Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. In his official report it appears that, counter to the daily journal he 102


kept, and “in order to magnify the hardships and the extent of his sojourn,” as Linnaeus biographer Wilfred Blunt writes, “he distorts various facts and even wholly invents at least one long expedition which he cannot conceivably have made.” Norah Gourlie, in her own 1953 biography, “considers as ‘all rather humorous and pathetic’ what most people,” that is to say, Blunt, “would call a deliberate and clumsy attempt to deceive for the purpose of gain.” He was, in short, a climber, a gunner, someone determined to succeed at all costs. He bragged that he had “reformed a whole science and inaugurated a new era,” boasted that he had become “famous the whole world over.” He was, indeed, as fine an exemplar as any. In a well-known passage from 1747, on the other hand, he observes “that when animals die they are converted into mold, the mold into plants.” “The plants,” he says, “are eaten by animals, thus forming the animals’ limbs, so that the earth, transmuted into seed, then enters man’s body as seed and is changed there by man’s nature into flesh, bones, nerves, etc.; and when after death the body decomposes, the natural forces decay and man again becomes that earth from which he was taken.” Thus, he argues, “the fairest maid’s cheeks can become the ugliest henbane, and the arm of the most stalwart Hercules the frailest pondweed,” such plants as are eaten by the lowliest bugs, then eaten in turn by birds, becoming birds, which are then eaten by humans, thus becoming, once again, human. WHAT A NAME CAN DO


Or as Hamlet soliloquized: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw! Our own dilemma, two decades into the twenty-first century, is something else. We face not only the individual deaths that await us, that stasis toward which all lives tend, but increasingly we face the death of the natural world, and of our own species within it. It sometimes feels as though, in making ourselves special, we are constructing a bed just large enough to die in. The writer Heidi Julavits, in a recent essay about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, doesn’t despair about vanishing species and disappearing ice caps, much less the cycle of life as Shakespeare and Linnaeus conceived it; “the beauty of the planet routed through a human consciousness,” she says, “that’s what I couldn’t comprehend vanishing.” More than her “own particular death,” what troubled her was the notion that in whatever form the planet would continue without us, that Hamlet’s Alexander or Linnaeus’s Hercules might never come full circle, that consciousness would vanish. 104


Julavits takes comfort in the thought, while walking along the jetty, that “Beauty did not need us,” that no wall needs to be patched for the clay to be lovely. And yet the prospect of no people, and thus no names, suffuses her essay with a melancholy different than Hamlet’s. How, Julavits seems to ask, does one make art in landscapes that will end in ruin? How does one attend, given that future, to the only landscape one controls, one’s interior? How does one prove to oneself that one is still human, and that human is still something worth being, still something worth learning to be? From Linnaeus’s gardens, I took the short walk across the Fyris to the cathedral, where I learned that the patron saint of Sweden, a twelfth-century king known popularly as Sankt Erik, although he was never formally canonized, was beheaded on the site on May 18, 1160. The Danes were responsible, or so the story goes. Inside and out, tour groups made up almost entirely of retirees, some of them geriatrics, shuffled about. No one paid the slightest attention to the slab engraved CAROLO V. LINNE, just inside the door, along the left side, at the rear of the cathedral. I was the only one, out of dozens of tourists, to take photo after photo of the slab, from different angles and in different lights, so as to capture—what? The church was old and ornate in the way of European cathedrals, whether in Germany or France or Spain or Sweden. Spaces so capacious they must be impossible to heat or to cool, enormities meant to inspire the feeling WHAT A NAME CAN DO


of God’s largeness, and maybe his largesse. I’m inevitably underwhelmed, though impressed at the lengths humans will go to in order to prove to themselves something they already believe. I was guilty of it too. Guilty of traveling to Sweden to prove something I already knew. Linnaeus hadn’t turned to dust or mold or clay. The world he’d described hadn’t stopped describing itself. At least, not yet.




Pygmy Kingfisher Chloroceryle aenea It would seem that we know what the Greeks did not. That kingfishers, for example, were never a concession to lost love, even if two genera, Halcyon and Ceyx, are named for the lovers who, in one version of the myth, brought the gods’ ire upon themselves by privately calling each other Zeus and Hera. Scientists have shown instead that the line evolved somewhere between Asia and Australia and spread outward, eventually reaching the Americas, where it adopted unique forms, including a species named for a legendary race of dwarfs first mentioned in The Iliad, famous for their ongoing war with migrating cranes. Pygmy derives from the Greek word for the distance between the elbow and knuckles, and although it may be pejorative, at least the kingfisher has company: marmosets, owls, hippopotamuses, shrews, chimpanzees, and opossums

all come in scaled-down sizes. The bird I have in mind here, moreover, native to the Americas, isn’t the only pygmy kingfisher. There’s an African variety too (Ispidina picta), a rather distant cousin (different genus, different family), and neither is even the smallest out there. That distinction falls, at an average length of less than four inches, to the African dwarf kingfisher (Ispidina lecontei), a bird small of stature but possessed of a rather large range. All three varieties are genetically related in their characteristically short tails and long beaks, but that they’re most related in size stems from the ecological niches they inhabit. One has to zoom out from their genes to see this, however, to search in the world for other patterns, other models, and to discover the story that fits the bird. Science may have justifiably displaced myth as our mode of explanation, but it never displaced narrative itself. It simply insisted that we tell empirical tales. Whereas for the biologist any bird may serve as evidence, as data, for the mythologizer it is merely evident, substance that cannot be substantiated. One proves, the other improvises. And yet “the triumph of the scientific worldview has been so complete,” Edward Dolnick writes, “we’ve lost the idea that a view different from ours is even possible.” Facts can be durable, they can be reassuring, but they are not unlike the foundations of old houses, encountered on a hike or uncovered during a dig: the stones can only tell us so much about the people who lived there. No fact is so self108


evident that it shows you what it means. As every era has its gods and guiding myths, on the other hand, will we still be asking questions about nucleotides millennia from now, or will these, too, develop the ring of an old wives’ tale?



Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea

Stephens Island Wren Xenicus lyalli Lying in the middle of the strait that slices New Zealand in half, Stephens Island is nothing more, in the words of David Quammen, than “a dot of land”—a remote lighthouse post that, beginning in 1894, was home to a series of keepers until it was automated in 1989. The story of the lighthouse is also the story of the island’s native wren, “just one more instance among many,” Quammen says, “tiny in its own scope but emblematic.” Small and possibly flightless, the bird probably hunted for bugs on the island’s rocky slopes. There could never have been a lot of them, and like many isolated species, it might have been “too trusting for its own good.” We can’t be sure, however, “because almost no one ever saw it alive.” The apocryphal story is that Tibbles, a cat purportedly owned by the assistant lighthouse keeper, David Lyall, brought home a present one day—a Stephens Island wren—and then the next day, and then the next day, and then the day after that, until the species was extinct. It’s a good story and, like a lot of good stories, partially true. It is at least symbolically true, even if, as some have since shown, Tibbles wasn’t solely 110


responsible—in part because she wasn’t the only cat on the island, in part because other factors, like the clearing of the island’s forest, contributed to the bird’s disappearance. While Lyall’s cat might not have wiped out the bird singlehandedly, while it might not have even been called Tibbles, it was only a few short years after humans arrived that the bird vanished entirely. To be rare, Quammen writes, “is to have a lower threshold of collective catastrophe.” Add to rarity something like a limited or hyper-specialized range, mix in some human beings, and the result is, well, catastrophe. The red-billed quelea, by contrast, with its clownish red beak, may not be the prettiest bird in the world, but there are billions of them—so many that they’re considered pests in their native Africa. Large in its scope but equally emblematic, quelea flocks can number in the tens of millions and can take hours to pass overhead. Farmers kill enormous numbers of them each year and it hardly makes a dent. Common and homely and happy for the humans who grow the food they feed on, they’re more swarm than bird, more condition than species. Not that commonness will save them: passenger pigeons were once so numerous their flocks could blot out the sun. A reminder, perhaps, that the planet is also a dot of land—and rare beyond measure.



Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros When the Chicago World’s Fair officially opened on May 1, 1893, the Illinois State Building (it stood just south of the Museum of Science and Industry) showcased, among much else native to the state, an ornithological display assembled by one Charles Francis Adams. As reported in the October 1893 edition of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Adams had a “frank, genial, and modest disposition [that] won enduring friendships for him wherever he went,” and he certainly traveled far afield, at one point serving for three years as taxidermist for the city museum in Auckland, New Zealand. From there, he went to Borneo, touring the countryside collecting the birds and mammals he would later, back in the United States, prepare for various natural history collections, including those of the Smithsonian and his alma mater, the University of Illinois. In 1891, he spent six months collecting in the Galapagos on an expedition led by the paleontologist Georg Baur and, upon his return, The Auk continues, he dedicated “eighteen months of continuous labor” to the World’s Fair exhibit. In his “List of Birds from Northeastern Borneo, with Field Notes,” published in parts during 1890 and 1891, Adams describes a jet-black figure outlined against the sky, “the horn reminding one of a figurehead.” “[A]s with firmly set wings and outstretched necks they sail high overhead,” he 112


continues, “they recall the appearance of a full-rigged ship with all canvas set.” But even though its bright, conspicuous bill should have made it easy to find, and even though its wing beats are “astonishingly loud,” Adams reports that he was unable to discover any nests. In fact, the hornbill finds holes in the trunks of palm trees and other tropical softwoods where, during the five- to sixweek incubation period, the female molts and is entirely dependent on her mate, who feeds her by regurgitating food through a tiny aperture made of mud and guano. To the loggers now busily deforesting southeast Asia, or to the workers at the many palm oil plantations built on clearcut land, the nests are no more visible than they were to Adams. One ecologist calls the impending disaster “extinction by potato chip, cookie, and cooking oil.” An unusual cause of death, perhaps, at least for a bird, but then death may be the only sure thing that always comes as a surprise. For Adams, as for his Galapagos companion Georg Baur, the etiology was “overwork.” Like Baur, who died in his native Germany in 1898 at the age of thirty-nine, having published 143 papers, Adams did not live to see forty. He didn’t even live to see, on June 1, 1893, the opening of the Fair’s most famous attraction, the first Ferris Wheel, dying on May 20, consumed by his exhibition.



Shoebill Balaeniceps rex A mother shoebill sluggishly wades through swampy wetlands teeming with tall papyrus, delivering water to one but not the other of her chicks, on whom she seems to be giving up. My son cries as we watch. The cruelty is breathtaking. In introducing the shoebill to the Zoological Society of London in 1851, John Gould claimed it was “the most extraordinary bird” he had seen for many years. Gould’s specimen had come by way of one Mansfield Parkyns, the wealthy British traveler who collected it—euphemism of euphemisms—in what was then known as Abyssinia. The bird was, and is, truly outrageous looking. Its bill, as Gould reported, is “enormously robust, equal in breadth and depth . . . pale yellow, becoming horn-color on the culmen and tip, and blotched with dark brown.” The Latin name Gould gave it translates as King Whalehead, either on the basis of some perceived resemblance to a whale or for the sheer size of its beak. The common name, shoebill, derives less from a visual comparison—there’s no way to mistake it for footwear—than a proportional one: the bill is roughly large enough to house an average human foot. In his voiceover narration of the scene, David Attenborough  calls it an insurance policy, but the chick’s imminent death has so little to do with the language of indemnity, much as the patient lunging of the hunting 114


shoebill—Attenborough describes it as an ambush—has little to do with the nature of war. Language strains to limn patterns larger than its limits, and perhaps that’s what Gould ultimately meant by Balaeniceps rex: something beyond these ordinary words.



Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius Somehow, says biologist Andrew Mack, you feel the cassowary more than you hear it, as though your stomach, lungs, and sternum are all vibrating to its call, which is below our aural range. It’s an unsettling sensation, Mack says, but how much of our experience is like this? How much information, sensory and otherwise, is both under one’s nose and mostly inaccessible? How much of it registers in the body in spite of our inability to fully detect it? A veritable walking dinosaur, the cassowary likely evolved sometime in the early Cenozoic (roughly 65 million years ago until the present), possibly even in the Cretaceous (145–65 million years ago), which could explain the large casques on their heads, strikingly similar to those found on hadrosaurids, or duck-billed dinosaurs. In cassowaries, as in their long extinct affiliates, the casques may serve to project, over vast distances, their deep, mostly infrasonic booming through the dense, attenuating forests of their native Papua New Guinea. It may be the primary way these largely solitary creatures achieve any sort of social life, emitting messages only faraway cassowaries can hear. Perhaps it’s the relative ease of identifying what we know we don’t know, as opposed to what we don’t know we don’t know—the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld infamously called them—that will, among other things, 116


propel the first human colonists 140 million miles away to Mars. We may well learn what human life is like there, or at least what it’s like to be alive on an inhospitable planet, but having failed to learn the ways of our unknown known— having failed to make sense of the low, eerie rumble of the cassowary’s call—we may not learn what Mars is like either. In the end, a Mars colony is a quaint idea, like scaling Everest or, equipped with 3-D cameras, exploring the Mariana Trench. Machinery is not necessarily ingenuity, and any future walk along the barren, rocky surface of the red planet may only recreate what preceded it: Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. If only we had the chutzpah to imagine what we can’t see, to expand or reorient our sensory compass, to reach beyond mundane explanations, or beyond our explanations of the mundane, we might get somewhere worth going, rather than merely exporting the places, and ways, we’ve already been.



Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta Spixii The combined worldwide gross of the 2011 animated film Rio and its 2014 sequel may have fallen just short of a billion dollars, but it’s hard to take the director, Carlos Saldanha, strictly at his word when he says he hoped the films would raise awareness to the plight of the bird named for the German biologist who collected its type specimen in Brazil in 1817. Although there are some sinister undertones to the first film—exotic pet traffickers, the looming threat of extinction—it is a bright, joyous romp culminating in the happy union of a mating pair, Blu and Jewel, who can now begin to repopulate the world with their kind. The model for Blu was a real bird named Presley, believed to have been one of the last wild-born Spix’s macaws. Smuggled out of Brazil in the 1970s, Presley lived with private collectors in Europe and the United States, where he was eventually discovered in 2002, two years after the last Spix’s macaw disappeared from the wild. Like Blu in the film, Presley was later repatriated, in the hope that he would produce offspring. Unlike Blu, he never did. Prized for their bright plumage, the wild population was decimated by loggers, invasive bees, and, most significantly, the international pet trade. It was the last of these that absurdly and paradoxically led to the creation of what is by far the largest breeding population in the world—not in the Spix’s 118


native Brazil, but halfway across the world, in Qatar. There, in a private menagerie turned wildlife preserve, funded by the country’s enormous oil wealth, live some two-thirds of the remaining Spix’s macaws. The sheik who founded the preserve, a relative of the Qatari royal family, was a one-time minister of culture who spent billions on the international art market to furnish the country’s museums. He also spent considerable sums on his own collections, importing, among other things, rare animals from black market dealers. Both Presley and the sheik died in 2014, at ages forty and forty-eight respectively, throwing into even greater doubt the survival of the Spix. In Rio 2, released in April of that year, Blu, Jewel, and their brood learn that a flock of wild relatives has been discovered in the Amazon. In the film’s climax, the birds band together against the loggers who threaten their survival and, once they’ve defeated them, throw a big party in the rainforest. To call the plot wishful thinking diminishes its absurdity. Awareness, here, is something more like delusion, a profitable folie à deux. Prompted at the time of the film’s release to respond to the death of his putative inspiration, Saldanha was not available for comment.



Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus With fewer than a hundred breeding pairs left in the wild, having declined by roughly ninety percent in the first decade of the new millennium alone, practically the only thing the spoon-billed sandpiper can mean to me now— unless I am able, half a world away, to wrest from it some hidden abundance—is the near-certainty of its extinction. I’ve seen the bird twice in a museum drawer and once, on the internet, hatching on a ship. I’ve seen, in person, its remarkable spatulate beak now lifeless in a curator’s hand and, again online, foraging in a shallow wetland in eastern Russia, first by picking things off the surface, then by pushing its beak through sediments, feeding by touch as its head moves up and down like a sewing machine. I’ve read of reclamation projects in the Yellow Sea, subsistence hunters in the Bay of Martaban, off the coast of Myanmar, but writing about collateral damage is not the same as experiencing it, identifying causes is not the same as feeling effects. “How can you love something,” Helen Macdonald asks, “if all it means is loss?” Can I, despite my limitations (of time, talent, location), make the sandpiper mean more? Can I make it mean something it hasn’t meant already, which may also be to ask whether I can love something I’ve never seen alive? Because I don’t want this sandpiper, don’t want any bird really, to signify the diminution of the world. I want its 120


curious beak to signify instead life’s sometimes narrow, but always wide, adaptability. I want its decline to express both the costs of our lives and the possibility that growth is mostly incompatible with preservation. I want, finally, not so much to love the bird as to prove that one might expand its range, in every sense, through words.



Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise Seleucidis melanoleucus On February 22, 1882, the male bird-of-paradise purchased by the London Zoological Society for its menagerie the previous year, unaccustomed to the English air, succumbed to lung congestion. The society’s prosector, William Alexander Forbes, lost no time in cutting it open, paying particular attention to the throat, in which he noted a peculiar elasticity correlated, he surmised, with the harshness of the bird’s voice, as reported by Alfred Russel Wallace in his magnum opus, The Malay Archipelago: a “loud shrill cry .  .  . repeated five or six times in a descending scale.” In his description Forbes barely hints at the fact that the bird is almost comically misdrawn. “The eyes are brilliant red,” he writes, whereas the mouth and tongue are “bright emerald-green, a narrow line of this appearing at the angle of the mouth when the jaws are closed,” so that “when the beak is open, the beautiful green of the mouth and tongue is very conspicuous . . . contrasting with the bright red eye and dark velvety plumage of the head.” The bird is better known for the bending quills of the male’s posterior, for which it is named. In its elaborate mating display, these wires serve both a visual and tactile function, dazzling the female’s eyes by drawing her attention to the bright plumes on his rump while also activating her sense of touch as first one then another of the wires make contact with her face, nape, and beak. The male dances up and down the 122


bare branch on which he habitually perches until the female, netted by his charms, adopts her place at the top of the dead tree or else, loosening herself from the spectacle, flies away. The wires appear improbable at first, but over time, watching the scene unfold from the tangled bank of a river or swamp— or the equally knotted internet—their absurdity dwindles. The ornaments are physical manifestations of an intangible process. The bird has evolved a form that expresses not its desire, exactly, but the movement of that desire—as though a man’s body might map out, in extra limbs perhaps, the steps of the tango. Writing near the end of the nineteenth century, Forbes would have known almost nothing about the courtship rituals, which were only described in the scientific literature at the close of the following century. That he measured and diagrammed the bird’s trachea as carefully as he did, however, suggests that he knew, even if intuitively, this was no “typical oscine,” as he dismissively called it. Maybe he sublimated his awe at the bird’s embellishments, redirected it into a mode he understood, that is, he dissected it, and maybe over time he would have come to see it differently. But his position as prosector was short-lived. Like his predecessor and friend, Alfred Henry Garrod, who died prematurely at the age of thirty-three of what was then called phthisis—thus enabling his young protégé to assume his position—Forbes was dead less than a year later, at the age of only twenty-seven, having been taken ill, in an inversion of his dissected bird, on an expedition to West Africa. THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


Tyrannine Woodcreeper Dendrocincla tyrannina Collecting in the lower Amazon in the mid-nineteenth century, the rainforest was so inaccessible that while Wallace occasionally sent specimens home to his agent, one Samuel Stevens, as he moved farther up the river this became increasingly difficult. His collections accumulated, and when it was time, in July of 1852, to return to England, he packed six crates of specimens, a small menagerie of live animals, and four years’ worth of field journals below the Helen’s deck. Wallace was fortunate to escape the August 6 fire that consumed the ship in the middle of the Atlantic, but most of his work in Amazonia did not. It may be tempting to see, in Wallace’s Helen catastrophe, some reflection of the relative neglect he experienced as a scientist, or it may be tempting to read into the episode some version of the catastrophe that is our curiosity. But it’s more germane to Wallace’s life, and to any understanding of the motives that underlie our actions, that less than two years after returning to England, he left for Malaysia, where he would spend the next eight years collecting more than a hundred thousand specimens and developing, independent of his illustrious correspondent at Down House, the theory of evolution. To hold a thing touched by famous hands can feel a bit like history exclaiming itself, but it is a fleeting feeling, 124


as greatness and fame are fleeting. For a moment one’s connection to the past becomes tangible—you’re holding it in your hand, maybe even taking its picture—but then the tyrannine woodcreeper from that doomed expedition is put away, and the name Wallace is just another on a shelf full of names, no more or less important than Dendrocincla tyrannina. As you step back, taking in the scale of the specimens, the names only multiply. Any singularity grows indistinct. And though there is comfort in the vastness, there is also terror. It is a little like a lifeboat, this writing. I drift and blister in the sun.



Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans Remarkably enough, given that they spend 95 percent of their lives soaring over open ocean, making the equivalent of, conservatively, more than 150 trips around the planet in a lifetime, wandering albatrosses not only mate for life, the divorce rate, Noah Strycker reports, is almost zero. And they aren’t a short-lived species either: an albatross can easily persist into its sixties, possibly even to a hundred, which means that many, even most, pairs stay together for fifty years or more. For my part, some sixteen years ago, under a large white tent in my parents’ backyard, I promised to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, little knowing at twenty-three what my vows really meant—what it meant, that is, to keep them. The intervening years, while full of consolations and delights, have sometimes become a trial of endurance: can I, can we, make it through this or that rough patch, in the middle of which it appears to have been one long difficulty, benefits absent, purposes unclear. What makes it work isn’t scientific. Some bonds cannot be explained, or rather one loses touch with what works in explaining them. As for the harmonious relations of albatross couples, their trick may be how little time they actually spend with one another. The birds lead their own lives, and their globetrotting—more than four million miles in a lifetime— 126


is always a solitary endeavor. They see their mates at most every other year, miraculously getting together to nest as though it had been scheduled long in advance. They are faithful partners and dutiful parents, and, spuriously or not, the resilience of their bonds correlates with their elasticity: no planet would be big enough to stretch them to the breaking point. While it matters that the distances collapse at somewhat regular intervals, it would almost seem, in the case of the albatross, the greater the distance the stronger the bond. With wingspans of nearly twelve feet, the birds live up to their name—or their name lives up to them—in other ways as well. Whereas the ostrich is the largest bird in the world by weight, by wingspan it’s the albatross. And much as the hulking African ratite is an agile runner but impossible flier, the giant, white seabird is graceful in the air but clumsy on the ground, stumbling through takeoffs and landings on the barren, mostly frigid islands in the southern oceans where it nests. Perhaps largeness, whatever form it takes, inevitably requires certain compromises. The greater the size of a person’s commitment to another, for instance, the greater the concessions: a marriage demands that spouses surrender some autonomy, that for the good of the enterprise they yield some degree of agency to the other. As an albatross cannot be a great flier and a nimble runner, a married person cannot— at least not without conflict—be a good partner and play the field. THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


But there are limits to the comparisons. An albatross’s years, Strycker says, “are lived slowly, deliberately, at the pace of an imponderable environment.” We live our weighty, terrestrial lives far less carefully by comparison, which may explain why fidelity in mammals is ridiculously rare, occurring in only 3 percent of species. Whereas the textures of our earthbound lives are richly, maybe confusingly varied, “there are few distractions in the life of an albatross,” which means, Strycker says (and here the implications hit home), “the birds concentrate on the things that matter most—such as one another.”



White-fronted Bee-eater Merops bullockoides The social life of this colorful insectivore, native to the southern African savannahs, is among the richest found in birds, and for them happiness may be more like happiness in humans and chimpanzees than one might expect: a happy bee-eater lives in complex society with its fellows. The birds nest in small colonies of extended family members, digging their neighborly burrows in riverbanks or dirt cliffs. They’re rare birds, too, in that they’re altruistic, assisting one another in raising their young. Social life is never easy, however, and there are perils in living closely with one’s peers. Female bee-eaters experience these pressures most acutely, and during their period of sexual receptivity it’s dangerous for them to venture out from the nest unaccompanied, as the males are inveterate rapists. Harassment is commonplace in any given mating season, and it is almost a statistical certainty that a female bee-eater will be raped at least once in her lifetime. The implications, from an evolutionary standpoint, may extend beyond the species. “The thought that rape could be natural—by which I mean an intrinsic, evolved part of a man’s behavior,” writes Olivia Judson, “is distasteful, even offensive.” “But to be blunt,” she continues, “it is possible. Evolution does not obey human notions of morality, nor is human morality a reflection of some natural law.” You can’t call it rape, my wife tells me. She insists that because human sexual behavior is one thing and nonhuman THE HATER’S GUIDE TO BIRDS


sexual behavior is another, that because a man who rapes a woman is malicious in a way that no bird could be, different words are needed to designate otherwise similar actions. The man, she argues, is conscious, and we therefore have to hold him to the higher moral standard implied by the word rape. But this is exactly Judson’s point: in itself, rape has nothing to do with morality. It’s only our social contract that imbues it with directive power. And because evolution is convergent, a reproductive strategy (whether you call it forced copulation or rape) that evolved in one species might just as well evolve in another. This isn’t to condone the persistence of rape in a species that would seem to know better, only to say that sex and aggression, in males of many species, is linked, and to refuse that conjunction on the grounds that humans are better than their nonhuman counterparts may be to misunderstand entirely the instinctive drives the moral directive aims to corral and curtail. Perhaps more startling, in the case of the white-fronted bee-eater, is the conjunction of a well-developed collectivity with what is, in humans, antisocial behavior. What exactly comprises the social contract in the bee-eater may be as up for debate as what it comprises in humans, but without close association there could be no breach. Still, my wife is right, in a way: the birds aren’t exactly conscious, which means they can’t, as we can, be blamed. Which may also mean that, unlike them, and with any luck, we have some say in what we may become.




In early 1941, in the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society, aptly named The Condor, the late Harry Harris published a lengthy digest of European encounters, up until 1900, with the largest vulture in North America—arguably the continent’s ugliest bird, albeit spectacularly so. The record begins in 1602, Harris writes, with the diary of “a barefoot Carmelite friar, Fr. Antonio de la Ascension,” who “from the tossing deck of a tiny Spanish ship” observed “the stranded carcass of a huge whale . . . surrounded by a cloud of ravenous condors.” “Here indeed,” Harris continues, in his rich, evocative prose, “is material with which to stir the most dormant imagination”: . . . civilized man for the first time beholding the greatest volant bird recorded in human history [sic], and not merely an isolated individual or two, but an immense swarm rending at their food, shuffling about in crowds

for a place at the gorge, fighting and slapping with their great wings at their fellows, pushing, tugging at red meat, silently making a great commotion, and in the end stalking drunkenly to a distance with crop too heavy to carry aloft, leaving space for others of the circling throng to descend to the feast! Nearly 400 years after the friar first recorded the bird, and more than thirty after Harris’s death, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was extinct in the wild. By 1987, the only remaining birds lived in zoos. The wild population, which survived exclusively on carrion, had fallen victim to an epidemic of lead poisoning, brought about by the shot hunters then used, only recently outlawed in the state. By 1992, a reintroduction campaign had begun, with the first release of condors reared by puppets, so as to reduce the risk of the birds imprinting on humans. But the condors were too attracted to other human things like power lines, and after a number were lost, the remaining birds were recaptured in 1994 and the plan reassessed. Since then, the rearing of captive-raised condors has improved and the bird’s numbers have increased, but mortality, still largely due to lead, remains high. The writer Philip Gourevitch poses the problem in the form of a parable. A monkey spots a fish in a river and thinks that it’s drowning. When he grabs the fish to save it, lifting it out of the water, the fish predictably resists. The monkey thinks the fish is happy, but of course it’s actually dying. Is 132


there a way to tell the story, Gourevitch wonders, in which the monkey looks good? Only if the river is a cesspool, it turns out, beyond redemption, in which case the monkey isn’t a fool—he’s merciful. But I wonder if there’s a way to tell the story so that the monkey, whose agency outstrips his reason, also dies. Maybe the monkey doesn’t know how to swim, maybe the fish is too large to save. I write this in the wake of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, a birding mecca home to more than 300 migratory species. The wouldbe sovereign citizens responsible paradoxically rejected the authority of the federal government and believed that the lands amassed by that government (some three-quarters of the total area of Harney County, where Malheur is located) belong, as citizens, to them. If you cut through their fiery rhetoric about government overreach, you uncover clashing imperatives. The primary purpose of the refuge, as its designation makes clear, is to protect the well-being of the animals who live in and pass through it. But the ranchers’ motivation, however they may rationalize it, is economic. To them, the human need to make a living supersedes all others, and, in this way, they join a long tradition in which nature, whether it’s Oregon or Mozambique, exists to be exploited. There are few statements of the counter-tradition as succinct as the one given by the late Sam Hamilton in THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


his 2009 testimony to the Senate committee vetting his nomination to become the fifteenth director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “As wildlife goes,” Hamilton argued, “so goes the nation.” Eight months later, having been confirmed in his post, Hamilton died at fifty-four, of an apparent heart attack on a Colorado ski trip. It came roughly fifteen years too late for at least one disgruntled Texan who, during heated disputes over critical habitat in and around Austin in the early 1990s, delivered an anonymous death threat to Hamilton, then serving as Fish and Wildlife administrator in the state. At issue, as for the Malheur occupiers, was the individuality of the shadowy mischief-maker, roused to action by the conflation of that which was particular to him (e.g., the attributes that made him an irascible sort) and the land he happened to possess. The legal and ethical quandaries at the heart of private ownership, in other words, are traceable through the etymology of property itself: something that belongs to me and that, to the degree I identify with it, becomes identical to me. Trouble only arises when historical claims conflict with modern ones, the claim, say, the golden-cheeked warbler (Setophaga crytoparia) makes to the woodlands of Travis County, Texas, where it fashions its nests out of the bark of the Ashe juniper. How can the warbler be identical to the land, the owner asks, when I possess the title? If, moreover, the warbler and the title-holder—and many other things beside—are identical to the same patch of land, does that mean, in some 134


deep sense, they are the same as, or equal to, each other? The extremists at the heart of the Malheur fiasco found themselves in a similar position: the land, they felt, was the place proper to them and only them—and to their way of life. Near the end of his 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold puts it this way: “The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” What we think of as private property, Leopold suggests, is in fact shared, part of a living community to which we also belong and in which there are clear delineations between social and antisocial conduct. As one accepts limitations to one’s freedom for the good of the human community—one can’t drive a hundred miles an hour down a residential street, much less threaten a government employee with whom one disagrees—it would seem one should limit one’s actions for the good of life as a whole. The novelist Jonathan Franzen offers an alternative program, decrying action on climate change on the basis that it obscures other pressing issues. Climate change, he claims, is “a ready-made meme” and “usefully imponderable.” “Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats,” he continues, “rather than as an abstract thing that is ‘dying,’ can avert the complete denaturing of the world,” but “as long as mitigating climate change trumps all other environmental concerns, no landscape on earth is safe.” Franzen may be right that the specific should prevail over the abstract, but what he means by safe landscape is something narrower THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


than intact ecosystems, something other than Leopold’s land ethic: “Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy,” Franzen writes, “if it had birds in it.” Never mind for a moment that he equates his happiness with stewardship, or that between “threatened” and “habitats” is an implicit “bird.” Never mind that birds are also a “readymade meme” par excellence. Franzen’s argument falters because, as many have pointed out, no landscape on earth has ever been safe from modern humans. Period. There is no nature to return to or reinstate. There hasn’t been in 12,000 years. More to the point, one landscape isn’t separate from another, and the great lesson of climate change—one we have failed to absorb—is that we can’t divide the world into safe landscapes and degraded ones, much less into its natural and unnatural components. It doesn’t work that way anymore, if it ever did. Industrial modernity has leveled the geographical playing field, and what affects one corner of the planet affects every corner of it. Because, and this is a less obvious point than it would seem, the planet doesn’t have any corners. Everything circulates on our watery spheroid. In protecting the living world, we protect ourselves. Nature is not an accessory, nor is it peripheral to our happiness. It is our happiness—civilization itself—that is an accessory, the four billion year continuum of life on the planet that is primary. But if the best we can do is to care about nature from the position of one equipped to redeem it, I’m not sure it’s worth saving. 136


Some cognitive scientists, like Donald Hoffman, argue that “there are no public physical objects,” that what we have instead are conscious agents whose points of view produce “networks of arbitrary complexity.” A bird, from this perspective, is just a symbol, as an oncoming train or a file icon on my desktop is a symbol. Each hides complex realities I don’t, from an evolutionary standpoint, need to know. The file icon cannot represent what is actually going on inside my computer, much as the oncoming train cannot represent all the processes that make it function. The icon signals the work I am doing, while the train signals that I should get the hell out of the way. If I stood in the tracks, considering all the train’s functions, I’d get flattened. If I obsessed over the programming of the files I’ve saved, I’d never get any work done. One of our key adaptations, Hoffman argues, is ignoring all the stuff that doesn’t matter to our immediate survival, which is most of it. Much science, in this light, runs evolution in reverse, filling gaps in our knowledge and in a sense deadapting us to the physical world. In Hoffman’s view, my experience of a bird is that bird’s ultimate reality, and “[t]he idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results,” well, he says, “it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go.” If this is a twenty-first-century revision of the old arguments between those who believe that the world is a mental construction and those who argue that, no, the physical world is real, measurable, and confirmable, then THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


Hoffman’s view could be seen as idealism dressed up in a particle physicist’s clothing. But it also suggests something more profound. It isn’t that, in considering the phylogenetics, or range, or diet, of any particular species that we are missing the forest for the trees, it’s that there is no forest, much less any trees. What we’ve convinced ourselves is a forest is, say, a parking lot, and the relations between objects within it obey an entirely different set of laws than the one that, in the forest, we’re used to applying. Seen from this perspective, a bird is, to paraphrase Jedediah Purdy, a network of interpermeable systems (genetic, microbial, energetic, etc.), which participates in a larger such network—a network that occurs at the intersection of other networks. There is no bird, there is only the particular form of interconnection that I refer to as a bird, but which is no more a bird than you or I. Because it absolves me of fidelity to certain kinds of facts (wingspan, weight, scientific name, etc.), I am relieved, having never really learned to call species by their names, to think about birds in this way. It’s not about genes, I get to say, it’s about energy. It’s not about observation, it’s about perception. Or, more poignantly, “[i]t’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic,” as Hoffman says, “[i]t’s that there’s no brain.” Of course I think birds are birds and brains are brains, that both are real, but I’m intrigued by Hoffman’s challenge. Even though a bird is a bird, it’s also a mental construct of one—even if that construct is shared. Just because we mostly agree on the shape of the fabrication, and on the processes 138


by which it is produced, doesn’t make it more authentic. The invention of “bird,” like the invention of “ornithology,” may ensure a certain set of harmonious relations, or at very least facilitate their possibility, but that doesn’t mean they exist outside of our need for them. I’m pushing this thought further than I probably need to, but only to suggest, with Donna Haraway, that “[t]here is no boundary between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of science, such that in one universe social relations appear, but in the other the history of ideas proceeds.” The sciences, she says, “are woven of social relations throughout their tissues,” and I might add that our objects (e.g., birds) are a product of those tissues, not independent of them, that our nature fetish is inseparable from the relations, and the privileges, that produce it. A second Franzen essay, published a year after the first, ­begins with a surprising check for $78,000, an inheritance from a favorite uncle. For reasons he is “at a loss to reconstruct,” he books a three-week luxury cruise to Antarctica. From there the essay takes some peculiar turns. At one point Franzen claims that seeing “a king penguin in the wild” was reason enough for being born, let alone for making the journey. Odder yet, he argues that “everybody loves penguins” because they “resemble human children more closely than does any other animal, not excepting the great apes.” Were we to seek a second opinion, an unbiased observer, Franzen claims that an alien visiting from another planet would undoubtedly find the penguin the more beautiful species. THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


He might be forgiven the plea not to procreate with which he concludes the essay, but his conclusion—that seeing penguins in the wild might make life worth living—is the sort of thing only a man with $78,000 to burn might say. That he advocates, again, applying paternalistic care to the natural world does not jell with how little he seems to understand children, or penguins for that matter. I love my son in a way I will never love any bird, but I am also unwilling, and incapable, of arrogating the role of parent for the planet. To do so would assume an agency that none of us, individually or as a species, possess. Not only is there no driver at the wheel, there is no wheel. Loving people is far more complex than a unidirectional transmission, via authority, of care. And in that way, it’s not unlike loving birds. “So what had been the point of coming to Antarctica,” Franzen asks, and was experiencing penguins “enough to justify the money and the carbon it had cost?” “You tell me,” he writes, and the answer is as illuminating as any in the essay. He refuses the moral calculus, not because defining worth and justifying one’s actions are inherently subjective but because he cannot articulate any set of values extending beyond his own predilections and aversions— even as he promotes those values for his readers. It’s as much a moral failure as it is a failure of judgment, an inability to discern right from wrong. He can hardly be blamed for that. Like all of us, he is a product of his times, and a victim. 140


I read through what I’ve written, as though to make out of dead flesh some living material. In fact I have not “written” at all: my machine has only produced for me the illusion of writing. I have little sense of what is actually happening as I type this sentence. The technology “works,” but I have no idea how. And well, Hoffman might ask, so what? Isn’t the purpose of technology to make our lives easier, to provide the means that make our ends less arduous? How easy it is to go over this text to erase and reorder. How clear and even, compared to my handwriting, these letters are. I don’t, ultimately, distrust this technology, even if at times I feel too wedded to it, as though it were an extension of myself or vice versa. As some, including Haraway, have argued, nature may also be a technology, a concept or model we apply to the world like a wheel or knife, which is perhaps why its primary function is to divide human from nonhuman life. In saying nature, I apply difference, and so often in the history of the word, the knowledge we have acquired has bolstered that application. In the human world, too, nature has often been called upon to justify the arguments that men were “naturally” stronger than women and that Europeans were “naturally” smarter than Africans—all grounded in, and defended with, erroneous interpretations of the technology. Because machines, as Haraway argues, “are time slices into the social organisms that made them” (technologies, she writes, “are concretized moments of human possibility”), we can read the various historical applications of nature as THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


reflections of the humans who employed them. Our version may be more enlightened than the one that obtained a century ago, but if our nature boils down to an ornament or fetishized other, an object of concern or care, it may be a technology that has outlived its usefulness, except for those who benefit from it—a group that includes, as these are two sides of the same coin, the nongovernmental organizations dedicated to conservation of the natural world and those individuals and corporations who depend upon its exploitation. For now, we have a civilization because we have nature. No nature, no civilization. As always, the binary is a trap, and the trick is to escape it, to refuse the terms, to say there is no such thing as nature. Very well. But the corollary is much harder. To say that there is no such thing as civilization requires that we demote ourselves from our privileged position, to see ourselves as the prolific and sophomoric apes that we are. If humans make it through the current planetary crisis, who’s to say what our descendants will see, a century hence, when they encounter a forest, a tree, a bird on a branch. My hope is that they see themselves. Not in a projective, anthropomorphic way, but as part and parcel of the living fabric that surrounds and nourishes them. My hope is that they feel a little less human, as we’ve come to understand it, and a lot more alive. Once upon a time there was an old woman, blind and wise, who lived on the outskirts of town, and one day a group of young people came to visit, not to benefit from her clairvoy142


ance but to disprove it. The trick they concocted pivoted on her blindness. I hold in my hand a bird, one of them said. Tell me whether it is living or dead. For a long time, so long that the young people started to laugh, the old woman didn’t answer. She couldn’t see the bird, of course, or her visitors— only their motive. I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, the old woman finally responded, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. Toni Morrison reads the story, over the course of her 1993 Nobel lecture, as an allegory of language. The old woman, she says, seems to mean that whether living or dead, the bird is the young people’s responsibility. If dead, they found it that way or they killed it, but in either case the bird would then represent a dead language, “content to admire its own paralysis.” Such “oppressive language,” she writes, “does more than represent violence; it is violence.” A living language, on the other hand, “is sublime .  .  . because it is generative; it makes meaning.” Death may be the meaning of life, Morrison declares, but language is the measure of our lives. Suppose there was no bird, she then speculates. Suppose the young people only wanted to be taken seriously, to engage with a wise old woman. What to make of her answer then? Would it not be self-congratulatory, Morrison wonders, a “gnomic pronouncement” designed to isolate and inoculate her from criticism? Why should the young be more responsible than the old? Why should either try to blame or escape the other? There is work to be done, catastrophe to be THERE NEVER WAS A BIRD


addressed and hopefully averted, trust to be built, through language, across boundaries of age and experience. I take the young people’s question more literally. Is the bird, and the natural world it represents, living or dying or dead? The old woman’s response might mean that I’m responsible for it either way. If still living, I need to work to keep it “actual, imagined and possible,” and, if dead, I need to own what I’ve found, or done. Then again, maybe the bird was never in my hands to begin with. This might mean, as Donald Hoffman suggests, that there never was a bird, or that it only existed through my conception of it. Or it might mean, as Morrison’s old woman claims at the very end of her lecture, that I “have truly caught it”—the thing one cannot catch but which we make together. “How lovely it is,” the old woman says, meaning the technology one cannot hold, the bird that is the measure of our lives.





t the southern edge of Storm King, the expansive sculpture park north of New York City, a curious wall of stacked stones tracks east from the edge of the property. At first it appears a relic—for keeping sheep in, maybe, or a boundary for the neighbors. But then it descends a hill and, though briefly interrupted by a road, follows its path into a pond, reemerging on the far side, where it no longer acts as a wall should. The submersion transforms its function, and its course up the hillside swerves and loops between trees. The form that comes most immediately to mind is that of a snake, but seen on a map it looks more like a scribble. It isn’t a wall anymore, not in any practical or technical sense. It is an artwork in the form of a wall, adopting the mason’s means but to altogether different ends. It is a built line, a drawn question. In this book, birds appear as stones in my own peculiar wall: they are at once the most basic and integral part of the structure and, on some level, the least important. Masonry is hard, collaborative work, and I received critical support from the Office of College Grants at Franklin & Marshall College, which funded both travel and, during the

summer of 2015, a research assistant, Larissa Kehne. I am also indebted to The American Ornithological Society, which maintains the archives of its long-running journal, The Auk; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which provides free access to its All About Birds website, and whose exhaustive online Birds of North America is available for a small fee; The Audubon Society, which hosts on its website the entirety of Audubon’s landmark guide, complete with original illustrations. My deepest thanks to Nate Rice for helping me get started. Thanks also to Kristof Zyskowski at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, Jean Woods of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and Michael Lear in special collections at the Franklin & Marshall library. I’m grateful to Sudip Bose, Bruce Falconer, and Robert Wilson at The American Scholar for publishing this book’s first chapter. My thanks, too, to Janice Lee at Entropy for publishing additional excerpts. Thank you to Roger Thomas, coiner of Laevitavis mirabilis. To Paul Harnik and his students: thank you for letting a writer into your world. Doing science changed and renewed me. My colleague and comrade Judith Mueller has been a cherished sounding board and wellspring of support, and this book is written, in some ways, in conversation with her. The skepticism and care of my first and best reader, Susan Knoll, continues to be a boon. This book was written in and with the memory of Peter Warshall, proof that you can change another’s life without knowing it, proof that a life’s work, whatever its worldly rewards, may ultimately pay. 146



Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANSP)  4, 10–13, 24, 96 Acadiana  47–9, 61, 63, 65–6 crew  41, 47, 49, 52–4, 59, 62 Adams, Charles Francis  112–13 Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)  17–19 Africa  46, 111, 123, 129 African dwarf kingfisher (Ispidina lecontei)  108 African kingfisher (Ispidina picta)  108 agency  23, 26, 62, 85, 88–9, 127, 133, 140 Alabama  48 alleles, dominant  22; see also genetics Amazon  35–6, 124 Amazonian umbrellabird (Cephalopterus ornatus)  20–1

Andean cock of rock (Rupicola peruvianus)  22–3 Antarctica  18, 117, 139–40 art, bird eggs, nests as  26–7 Ascension, Fr. Antonio de la  131 Attenborough, David  114–15 Audubon, John James  26, 29–30, 39, 72 Auk, The (journal)  112 Australia  39–40, 107 aviaries  6–7 bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  78, 79 band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata)  90 barnacles  42, 80 Bates, Henry Walter  20–1 Naturalist on River Amazons  20 Baur, Georg  112, 113

Bay of Martaban (Myanmar)  120 bayous  41, 52–4 beak  78, 81, 84, 108, 111, 114, 120–2 beauty  29, 31, 60, 81, 104, 139 bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)  24–5 bees and bee-eaters  118, 129–30 bill  1, 58, 72, 110, 113, 114, 120 binomial nomenclature  8, 99 biology  23, 27, 28, 57, 80, 94, 99, 101, 108, 118 bird ‘all heart’ (vs. ‘all brain’)  15 definition/classification 89 mental construct  138–9 bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda)  3 Birds of Australia (Gould)  39–40 Birds of West Indies (Bond)  24–5 black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae)  1–15 blackbird  82, 83 Blue Whale  80 Blunt, Wilfred  103 148


boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major)  26–8 Bomb Island (South Carolina)  93–4 Bond, James (actual vs. fictional)  24–5 booming calls/whoops  20, 75, 76, 84, 87, 116, 122 Borneo  112 Boulder, Colorado  44, 55 bowerbird  27 brain  14, 15, 138 Brazil  35–6, 118 breast see gorget breeding pair  120 breeding population  118–19 breeding program  37–8 brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)  76, 77 Bryson, Bill  29 buoy bird (Laevitavis mirabilis)  63, 65–6 Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (Arkansas)  73 California  86–7 California condor (Gymnogyps californianus)  132 Cape Adare (Antarctica)  18 cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  2

Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)  29–31 Carson, Kit  86 Casino Royale (Fleming)  24 casque  116 cats  74, 110–11 Chandrasekhar, Subrahmanyan  31 Chicago World’s Fair (1893)  112 chicks  27, 71, 74, 79, 114 civilization  climate change, nature  136, 142 gender roles (human, birds)  39 climate change  135–6 cloaca  17, 70–1, 80 Cocodrie (Louisiana)  41 Colorado  44–5 common guillemot (Uria aalge)  32–4 Condor (journal)  131 Cook, Frederick  33 Cook, James  7 Cooper Ornithological Society  131 Cornel, Tabea  28 Cortes, Hernán  7 Cotinga, family  35 courtship rituals  123 cow (Bos taurus)  10, 70

crimson fruitcrow (Haematoderus militaris)  35–6 crow  10–11, 82 Corvus brachyrhynchos  8 Cuba  25, 72 dance  84, 122–3 DDT  37, 79 death  12, 30– 1, 83, 103–6, 113, 114, 143 death assemblage  48, 58 digestion  70–1 dinosaurs  67, 116 Discovery Island (Disney World, Florida)  37–8 display  22, 35–6, 67, 84, 112, 122 dissection  122–3 DNA  71, 90 Dolnick, Edward  60–1, 108 dolphin  46–7, 57 dove  82, 83 duck  80–1 dusky seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens)  37–8 ecology  91, 108, 113 ecosystem  48, 63, 136 eggs  8, 25, 27, 29, 76, 78–9 INDEX


Einstein, Alfred  44 encephalization quotient (EQ)  14 Endler, John  27 environment  43, 56, 128, 135 eukaryote  51 Eversman, Lisa  6 evolution  3, 9, 22–3, 45, 51–2, 70–1, 85, 89, 91, 107, 116, 123–4, 129–30, 137 extinction  30, 37–8, 70, 72–3, 74, 77, 79, 90–1, 110–11, 113, 118, 120, 132 eyes  10–11, 12, 122 fact  66, 79, 89, 103, 108–9, 137, 138 factory farm  10 faithfulness  126–8 Farber, Paul Lawrence  99, 100, 102 Faunia Park, Madrid  18 feathers  7–8, 11, 20, 34–5, 68, 82, 89 feeders  9, 94 Feynman, Richard  60 fidelity  126–8 fish and fishing  13, 42, 46, 49, 52, 59, 132–3, 134 150


Fleming, Ian  24–5 flightlessness  74, 78, 110 Forbes, William Alexander  122–3 forced copulation  83, 129–30 forest management  76–7 Franklin, Ben  78 Franklin & Marshall College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)  4 Franzen, Jonathan  135–6, 139–40 Frémont, John Charles  86–7 Gall, Franz Joseph  28 Garrod, Alfred Henry  123 genetics  18, 22, 40, 57, 108, 138 Georgia  12 Gibson, Langdon “Bird Notes from North Greenland” (1922)  33–4 Ginsberg, Allen  44 goat (Capra hircus)  90 God  60–1, 99, 102, 106 golden-cheeked warbler (Setophaga crytoparia)  134 goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2 gorget  3, 84 Gould, Elizabeth  39–40 Gould, John  39–40, 114–15

Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae)  39–40 Gourevitch, Philip  132–3 Gourlie, Norah  103 Greenland  32–4 gynandromorph  88–9 habitat  135–6 Hamilton, Sam  133–4 happiness human and animal  129, 132 nature  136 Haraway, Donna  139, 141 harem polygyny  26–8 Harnik, Paul  41–4, 46–9, 54, 57–66 Harris, Harry  131–2 hawk, sharp-shinned (Accipiter striatus)  3 heart  14, 15, 18, 61 Helen, catastrophe (1852)  124 Henson, Matthew  33, 34 Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus)  67–9 hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin)  70–1 Hoffman, Donald  137–8, 141, 144 honeyeater, family  87

human explanations  71, 108, 117 human need  133 humans  15, 55–6, 66, 76, 95–6, 99, 102, 105, 126–8, 132, 142 ‘bad at scale, bad at time’  73 ‘biology outpaces judgment’  23 brain  14, 15 children (‘resemblance to penguins’)  139 default category  96 ‘didn’t get nature’  19 division from nonhuman life  129–30, 141 entanglement with birds  9–10 history  39 ignorance  94 losses  68 mating  100 motives  94 rape  129–30 threat to landscape  136 ‘underlying disdain’ for nature  3 Iliad  107 information sources (establishment receptivity)  51 INDEX


instruments  61, 66 international pet trade  30, 118 Inuit  32, 34 Icteridae, family  82 ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)  72–3 Jackson, Jerome  72 Jamaica  24 Judson, Olivia  129–30 Julavits, Heidi  104–5 kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)  74–5 Kalaniʻōpuʻu, King (Hawaii)  7 Kamehameha the Great  7 Kern, Edward  87 Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)  76–7 kiwi (Apteryx australis)  78–9 Kolbert, Elizabeth  79 lake duck (Oxyura vittata)  80–1 landscape  33, 53, 54, 73, 105, 135–6 language  142–4 Lanham, J. Drew  82–3 152


Lapland  98, 102–3 large white, butterfly (Pieris brassicae)  88 lek  22–3 Leopold, Aldo Sand County Almanac  135 lepidopterists  88–9 lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor)  46 lesser snow goose (Chen caerulescens caerulescens)  82–3 Levick, Dr. George Murray  18 life  56–7 Linnaea borealis  98 Linnaean Society of Lancaster County  4–6, 8 Linnaean Society of London  50–1 Linnaeus, Carolus (Carl von Linné)  8, 95–106 Systema Naturae  96, 101 London: Natural History Museum  18, 95 London: Zoological Society  114, 122 Louisiana  41–4, 46–9, 52–4, 57–65, 72 encroachment by sea  53

Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)  41, 52, 55, 59, 65 love  3, 19, 57, 82, 107, 120–1, 126, 139–40 Macbeth  82–3 McCormick Bay  34 Macdonald, Helen  73, 120 machinery  117, 141 Mack, Andrew  116 McKinley, Daniel  30 Madrid: Faunia Park  18 magnificent riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus)  84–5 magpies (Pica pica)  96 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Oregon)  133–5 mammals  1, 40, 47, 78, 112, 128 Manaus (Brazil)  35–6 Maniacal Naturalist Society  45, 63 Maori  74, 87 Margulis, Lynn  45, 64 Microcosmos  51–2, 55–7 mating  23, 100, 118, 122, 126, 12 Michigan  76 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (USA, 1918)  8

migratory species  90, 93, 107, 133 Mikolowski, Ken  44 Mississippi River  43, 53 monkey  132–3 Mooallem, Jon  9 Morrison, Toni  143–4 museums  67–9 Myanmar: Bay of Martaban  120 Nabokov, Vladimir  88–9 Namibia  70 Namibiavis, genus  70 Naropa  44–5, 64 NASA  37–8 Natural History Museum, London  18, 95 natural world  3, 20, 29, 50, 57, 62, 63, 99, 100, 104, 140, 142, 144 naturalists  2, 4, 13, 20, 21 nature  3, 9, 10, 19, 26, 34, 38, 42, 56–7, 60, 82–3, 102, 115, 133, 135, 136, 141–2 nature, fetishizing  6, 14, 139, 142 nesting  26, 74 nesting sites  30, 94, 127, 129 nests  8, 26, 27, 76, 113, 134 New York Times  32–3, 38 INDEX


New Zealand  74–5, 78–9, 110, 112 New Zealand bell bird (Anthornis melanura)  86–7 nomenclature  20–1 North Museum of Nature and Science (Pennsylvania)  1–4, 9, 13 North Pole  32 nuculanids  42–3, 57, 62 numbers, mathematics  60 nutrient loading  42–3 objectivity  87, 88, 96, 137 olive branch  82 orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)  88–9 orthodoxy, of thinking  64 ostrich  80, 127 oviduct  27 Papua New Guinea  4, 116 parasitism  76 passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)  90–2, 111 Peary, Robert E.  32–4 Peary Relief Expedition, Greenland  33 pelican  49 penguin  15, 139–40; see also Adélie penguins 154


penis  80–1 Pennsylvania  1, 48 perception  91, 101, 114, 138 peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)  86–7 phylogenetics  70, 138 plumage  2, 40, 83–4, 118, 122 plumes  2 Pollock, Jackson  27 polychaete worm  54, 59 Portlandia (show)  6 Potter, Beatrix  4 prokaryotes  51 property, private, and nature/ environment  134–5 puerperal fever  39 Purdy, Jedediah  138 purple martin (Progne subis)  93–4 pygmy kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea)  107–9 Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica)  90 Qatar  119 Quammen, David  11 rape  129–30; see also forced copulation; violence  Rathvon, Simon Snyder  4–6, 7, 9 ratite  80, 127

raven  82 red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea)  11 Reddish egret (Egretta rufescens)  29 relativism  101 reproduction  80–1, 100 rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)  11 Rice, Nate  1 Richter, Henry Constantine  40 Rio (film, 2011)  118 Rio 2 (sequel, 2014)  118, 119 roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris)  96 roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)  46, 49, 58, 63, 65 Ross Island: Cape Bird  1 Rumsfeld, Donald  116 Russia  120 Sagan, Carl  51, 61 Sagan, Dorion  51, 56 Saldanha, Carlos  118, 119 scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber)  46 Schwendener, Simon  50 science  61–2, 64–6, 91–2, 101, 108, 137 ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (Haraway)  139

Scott, Captain  18 Shakespeare, William Hamlet  104–5 sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)  3 Shivers, Bryce  6 shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)  114–15 silver-breasted broadbill, Serilophus lunatus  13 skin colour  82–3, 96 skinners  12 Smithson, Robert/Spiral Jetty  104 snow buntings  83 South America  2, 9, 13, 70, 80 southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)  116–17 Spain  90 sparrow (Passer domesticus)  8, 83 species  8, 133 bringing back extinct species  90–1 classifying  11–12, 20–1, 63, 100, 102, 138 (see also taxonomy) definition  89 females and males in  28 human  55–6, 96, 104 vanishing  2–3, 104, 90–1, 110–11 see also individual species INDEX


sperm  40, 81, 85 Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta Spixii)  118–19 spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus)  120–1 starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  93 Stearn, William  95–6, 99 Steinbeck, John  23 Stephens Island wren (Xenicus lyalli)  110–11 Stevens, Samuel  124 stinkbird  70 Strycker, Noah  126, 128 symbiogenesis  45–6 symbiosis  45, 46, 50, 51 symbols  7, 15, 68, 78–9, 82, 96, 110, 137 tail  1, 3, 8, 26, 90, 108 taxidermy  1–8 taxonomy  95–106 technology  91, 141–2, 144 Tennyson, Alfred  50 Tenochtitlan  7 Texas  134 Thomas, Lewis  55–6, 92 throat  3, 20, 122 Titusville (Florida)  37 tourism, dangers  72 truth, limitations  101 Turaco, family  70 156


turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)  78 twelve-wired bird of paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus)  122–3 tyrannine woodcreeper (Dendrocincla tyrannina)  124–5 University of Michigan  44 Uppsala  96–8, 105 US Civil War  72–3 vagina  81 vastness  125 vertebrates  80 violence  Brazil, social problems and  35 creation through  46 language  143 see also rape; forced copulation  vulture  131 Wallace, Alfred Russel  20–1, 124–5 Malay Archipelago  122 wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)  126–8 Warshall, Peter  45–6, 49–52, 64–5

waterfowl  81 whale  14, 80, 114, 131–2 white-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) 129–30 wildfire  76–7 wings  49, 65, 71, 82, 84, 112, 132 wingspan  89, 127, 138 women  27–8, 29, 32, 49–52, 55–7, 67–9, 79, 84–5, 88, 129–30, 141–4

words, limitations of  20, 101, 121 world wars  73 Wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosities)  7–8 Yellow Sea  120 Zoological Society, London  114, 122 zoos  38, 79, 122, 132 zunzuncito  25