Review of The Rarest Bird in the World

In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.

I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.

This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.

Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.

Oilbird, a relative of the Nightjars.
Oilbird. Photo by Doug Greenberg on flickr.

The Wrong Reader

And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.

To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.

Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.

For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.

A Raven @ Tower of London. Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

Do Rare Birds Need Us?

The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.

This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.

For more, listen to this 4 minute NPR program.

Featured Photo of the plains of Nechisar by flickr user Rafael Medina

That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.

I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.

In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.

Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.

Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.

But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.

Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.

But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.

So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.

We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.

Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.

Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings

Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift shows just how wild the world’s smallest birds are.

Like The Hawk’s Way, Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings is a repackaged chapter from Montgomery’s book Birdology. In many respects, it’s also about the same themes — wildness and the utter, unpassable gap between humans and a family (or two) of birds.

This theme is more fully realized in The Hummingbird’s Gift. This is unexpected. Hummingbirds would seem a far more docile, less wild thing than a hawk. Consider size. North America’s most familiar hummingbird, the Ruby-throated, weigh just .4% what a large female of North America’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed, weighs. And while the latter are built to kill, hummingbirds are built to lap up nectar and miniscule insects.

It’s the hummingbird’s diminutive size and their delicacy that makes them far less amenable to the handling of humans than hawks. Montgomery explains to us how much of hummingbirds exist as air. Yet its this delicacy that makes hummingbirds such remarkable creatures. They are the only birds that genuinely hover. Hummingbirds are even capable of feeding while upside down in flight. And though Peregrine Falcons get all the attention for their gravity-enhanced speeds, hummingbirds are arguably faster.

… a male Allen’s humingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second–and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world. Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second–and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per seconds.

Montgomery, The Hummingbird’s Gift, p. 16
SUPERNATURE – WILD FLYERS | Anna’s Hummingbird | PBS

Most of the Montgomery’s essay is a careful description of the work of Brenda Sherburn, one of the few people in the country who have the skills, patience, and commitment to rehabilitate hummingbirds and their nestling. We follow Brenda and Sy as they try to save the lives of two orphaned Allen’s Hummingbirds nestlings.

It’s a gripping story that can, at any moment, end badly. Hunger, mites, and aggressive Anna’s Hummingbirds threaten the nestlings. Montgomery takes us through all of it, offering bits and pieces of natural and cultural history along the way.

I hope the story leaves its readers planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers and keeping their cats inside. And maybe, just maybe, appreciating the tiny, fairy-like hummers that sip sugar water at feeders. After all, they are no less wild than the hawks and owls that carry off other living things at the harsh edges of prairies and forest.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris
Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris

Featured Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

Sy Montgomery’s The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty

Falconers, not hawks, take center stage in Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty.

I feel a two-fold ambivalence about Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty. The ambivalence first comes from the fact that the book is not a book. It is a chapter of Montgomery’s Birdology repackaged with photos to stand alone; the production was clearly rushed and at least two of those photos have incorrect captions. The second ambivalence comes from the purposelessness of the story Montgomery tells. Just when I thought I had found the hawk’s way, Montgomery lost it.

Selling The Hawk’s Way

In tiny type on the front cover, below the title, a reproduction of Audubon’s illustration of a Harris’s Hawk (then the Louisiana Hawk), below even the reminder that Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author is this disclaimer: “Previously published as a chapter in Birdology.”

Birdology was published by Simon & Schuster. The Hawk’s Way (and The Hummingbird’s Gift) were published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The repackaging alone doesn’t bother me. The chapter is now a stand alone essay with a lovely cover and full color photographs. The problem is it seems the production of the book was done quickly or without proper checks on the images photographs that are meant to make the book special. At least two species of raptors are mislabeled in the book–a disappointment that chips away at Montgomery’s credibility in telling her story of the hawk’s way (though I suspect we don’t owe the production to her).

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The third color photograph of a bird shows a Ferruginous Hawk in Colorado. The bird stands on the ground, as Ferruginous Hawks often do in the open, dry grasslands and pastures they hunt in Colorado.

The photograph’s caption tells the reader: “Red-shouldered hawks love tall woods and water. This one, photographed in Colorado, has an unusually light breast.”

So here is a hawk, standing among dry grasses, loving tall woods and water. Here’s a nearly-white breasted raptor, while the Red-shouldered Hawks red shoulders bleed rust through their breast.

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Later in the book, an apparent Peregrine Falcon is labeled as the much smaller and more colorful American Kestrel.

It’s easy to make mistakes in the writing or production of a book. Copyeditors and I have caught mistakes in the spelling of well-known names in books I’ve written. I shudder to think what I didn’t catch.

But the mistakes in The Hawk’s Way are glaring. They are attached to one of the elements of The Hawk’s Way that make it a special book to own and not just a book chapter.

The mistake has the effect of eroding Montgomery’s credibility as a narrator of the hawk’s way of life. The book is short on species accounts to begin with. (In truth, a more accurate title is The Falconer’s Way.) So to not know the main characters well enough to use their proper names is something of a disappointment.

The Wayward Way

My other ambivalence comes from the underlying meaning of the stories Montgomery tells. For much of the chapter, I thought I was with her. This seems a story about the wildness of diurnal raptors and the profound incompatibility between their wildness and our own way of being in the world.

Books on birds often look for ways to diminish the distance between us and them. This brings us closer to birds, giving their lives meanings on our terms and investing us in them and their conservation.

This is particularly true of books on social songbirds, like crows, ravens, and starlings. Corvids, especially, possess remarkable, human-life abilities. They can solve problems. They express emotions. They lie. They play. They use vocalizations in ways that seem to mirror human language.

Not so, hawks. (Or perhaps most hawks, though they’re treated with a broad brush in The Hawk’s Way.)

I appreciate Montgomery’s effort to express the singularity of hawk-ness. But this seemed to fade into the background of the book the more Montgomery involved herself in the world of falconry.

This is particularly so in the book’s conclusion. The closing scene has Montgomery going out in the field with a master falconer to hunt with a young bird. It seemed a mess. Wild hawks lurk at the edges of the scene, and these birds’ wildness seems a problem to be solved. Conflicts between a hunting dog and the falconry birds abound. And all of this seems to result from human mistakes, not precision.

Perhaps this is what falconry is like, given the profound difference between a hawk and a human. But Montgomery doesn’t tell us if this is so. More importantly, she doesn’t help us understand this, so that we can appreciate the mistakes as something other than mistakes.

Instead, the clumsiness of the scene left me feeling for everyone subject to the interests and actions of humans — the wild birds seen as threats, the dogs who might the falconry birds might attack, those birds who might get downed by a Goshawk or Red-tailed, and the quails feeding all of the action.

And then I was left wondering the purpose of it all. If it’s to get close to wildness, then why the neglect of the wild birds when they enter the scene? (And the neglect of them when photographed and used to illustrate a book.)

If, as the final sentence seems to suggest, it’s to appreciate the meaning of animal lives and deaths, why not live, for a moment, with the quail’s way?

The Wrong Duck: Folk Names in Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

A character in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Passengers calls the Common Eider by the folkname Bridal Duck. But who is the real Bridal Duck?

Speaking of ducks, Geoff Stacks — friend, fellow birder, and fellow faculty at the University of Denver — sent me a puzzling passage from The Passenger, one of Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels. In the passage, one of the novel’s characters refers to the Common Eider correctly by its scientific name (Somateria mollissima) and incorrectly by a long-forgotten common name: the Bridal Duck.

The passage is puzzling because neither Geoff nor I had heard the name “Bridal Duck.” It’s also puzzling because it does not seem like that common name refers to the Eider. Rather, Geoff and I both found that the “Bridal Duck” was once a name that the Wood Duck was known by.

The scientific name of the Wood Duck — Aix sponsa — bears traces of this meaning. Sponsa apparently refers to a bride or betrothed woman. Other sources claim the name refers to the beauty of the male duck’s breeding plumage, taking “sponsa” to refer to the bridal dress of the bird’s plumage. Both meanings are referenced in Chester A. Reed’s early 20th century reference text, Birds of Eastern North America.

Wood Duck in Charles A. Reed's Field Guide
Reed – Birds of Eastern North America

A Duck By Any Other Name…

We have also known the Wood Duck by other names: Summer Duck, Woody, Squealer, Widgeon, or Acorn Duck.

We know Wood Ducks as Wood Ducks (and apparently “Woody”) because they nest in the cavities of trees. (I hope to not soon forget encountering Wood Duck parents perched in trees near the Mississippi River — or leading groups of downy young through those woods.)

We’ve called Wood Ducks “Squealers” for their dramatic screeches when flushed. Wood Ducks have often struck me as especially nervous around approaching humans, and I wonder if they still carry with them the hard won lessons of survival among humans with guns.

“Acorn Duck” refers to the fact that Wood Ducks consume the fruit of oak and other trees, invasive Russian Olives especially. I have seen Mallards feed beneath trees, too, gobbling down acorns from a landscaping tree at a local park.

Eider, Woody, and Mistaken Identity

All of this begs a question — why did McCarthy’s character get the “Bridal Duck” wrong? Is it McCarthy’s error, or does the error reveal something about the character?

Anyone can look up a folk name for birds. But the truth is that many might differ locally or regionally. And sometimes the same name was applied to multiple birds. This could be because two species were sometimes mistaken for each other. Or because different birds seemed to demand similar names.

So it’s hard to say why McCarthy’s character gets this wrong. But it’s also hard to say if a folk name can actually be used incorrectly. After all, they are folk names exactly because they aren’t systematized or formally accepted by birding organizations. So perhaps a Bridal Duck is whoever anyone calls a Bridal Duck.

Common Eider
Common Eider. Photo by Dave Willhite on Unsplash

Featured Photo by Tyler Jamieson Moulton on Unsplash

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy