One of the great things about being extinct is that you meet dead people. Some of the finest people in the world are dead. So, when I realized I needed help with this 97th edition of I and the Bird, I turned to a couple of dead dudes.
First I got in touch with Charles Darwin, since his recent bicentennial stirred a great deal of interest in the blogosphere, and he was very generous with his time as always.
“You’re sure your colleagues won’t mind having a blog carnival put together by a 200-year-olds?” he asked.
“Not at all. These guys are very interested in the historical perspective,” I reassured him. “We even got a post looking back to before the blogosphere right here in the submissions.”
But looking over my bulging inbox at the multitude of fine submissions I got for this edition, I realized that this was no two-person task. Who else could I persuade to help us sort through e-mail?
How about someone else who turned 200 this year? Someone else who wrote great works that are still influential today? Someone else who married his first cousin (times were different back then)? Someone else who is inextricably linked to a certain bird, the way Darwin is linked to his finches?
I called Edgar Allan Poe, who agreed so long as I made sure no birds stared in the window at him. Not even ones that are little and shiny and not the least bit Raven-like. I said this would be no problem.
We opened up some beers and set to work.
“What I’m having trouble with,” I told the guys, “is pulling together a coherent theme. A lot of the good themes have been done.”
“Hmmmm…” Chas stroked his beard and scrolled through the submissions. “How about reproduction? It’s a driving force in every bird’s life after all. And you have some great entries on that theme. Like this one about White-breasted Nuthatches building a nest. And these fabulous photos of Painted Storks at their rookery. And this in-depth analysis of a Pileated Woodpecker excavating a nest hole. Two different reports on nesting Red-shouldered Hawks, one from North Carolina and one from Tennessee. Red-tailed Hawks dancing in the sky. And these courting Magnificent Frigatebirds.“
“Bah,” said Edgar. “Too depressing. Courting birds make me think of my poor Virginia.”
“She’ll still be there when you get back,” I reassured him. “But it would be hard to make some of these entries fit the theme. Like this one about Patrick’s experience editing NJ Birds. It’s fascinating, but it doesn’t have a thing to do with birds making more birds.”
“And what about this one?” Edgar said. “This is no tender nestling, this is the Red Death!”
“That’s a little harsh,” I told him. “Just because the photos are a bit sad is no reason to overlook the good advice about preventing epidemics at your feeders.”
“Preventing epidemics? Nay. Death holds illimitable dominion over all. Climate change and drought are looming in Tanzania, a third of the bird species in the U.S. are in a significant decline, and even when things are going well there’s always a Cooper’s Hawk waiting to eat you! Or a Sharp-shinned!”
“And you call me depressing,” Charles muttered.
“Death is part of life, but it doesn’t hold illimitable dominion over the California Condor,” I pointed out. “I mean, it’s not doing great, but it’s still there. And there are things we can do to help, like buying shade-grown coffee, or this organic beer that you’re decimating.”
“I was thirsty,” he said, pushing an empty behind his chair with his foot.
“And as for predation, that’s part of Nature’s great web,” Darwin added. “Sometimes it’s even beautiful in its own way. Take this Great Gray Owl, for example.”
“Beauty! Oh, I have loved beauty.” Eddie popped open another beer with a flourish. “Why don’t we make this thing about beauty, instead of loading it with trite themes and dry science? Look at these ghostly sketches of Great Blue Herons. Here are the colors and sounds of Swift Parrots feeding in the bush. And this elegant prose about a bird that wasn’t even there!”
“Science isn’t dry!” Charles said grumpily. “Take this entry about a banded Bar-headed Goose from Mongolia. It traveled 5000km to be spotted by a sharp-eyed birder, and now we know a little more about migration. Isn’t that beautiful?”
“No, that yellow band is tacky and vulgar. Now this is beautiful. A dove of the ground. A single bird, lonely and gray and subtle. I should write a poem about it.”
“You should,” Charles said. “And this time maybe give it a meter that doesn’t sound like a small boy riding a rocking horse.”
“Says the guy who spent decades writing about barnacles and earthworms!”
“Gentlemen! We have a deadline! Look at the entries.”
“Perhaps,” Charles said a bit later in a conciliatory tone, “we could structure this edition geographically. We have pretty good coverage. Guans on top of volcanoes in Guatemala, Flame Robins and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in Australia, Great Grey Shrikes back at home and magnificent flocks of waterfowl here in North America. Migration in Cyprus and this excellent trip report from Sri Lanka.”
“Now this is what I call a bird!” Eddie broke in. “A Pallid Falcon! Can’t you just see it perched on the proud towers of some ancient city by the sea?”
Charles looked over his shoulder. “Oh, that is fascinating case. Once thought to be a separate species but now it’s just considered a color morph of the Peregrine. Perhaps we could do something on the relationships among birds. We have some good stuff on the Wren superfamily here, and also these green morph Pine Siskins, which again look like a different species of bird from their fellow Pine Siskins, but aren’t.”
“That’s not a bad thought. The whole question of what’s a species and what isn’t is a hot topic right now, especially since a lot of birders are making lists of what they’re going to chase next.”
In the distance, my Lab of Ornithology clock sounded the raucous whistle of a House Finch. Edgar jumped about a foot and kicked over his beer bottle.
“Oh no!” Darwin said. “I promised Emma I’d be back half an hour ago.”
But Darwin was already halfway to the door. “She’ll be so worried…”
I looked around for Poe. He had crawled under the table and dragged the rest of the six-pack with him. “You promised that there would be no birds in here!”
“It was just the clock…” He ignored me and groped for the bottle opener.
So I guess there’s not going to be an I and the Bird after all. Sorry, guys. Blame the dead dudes. Maybe Nick at Biological Ramblings will have better luck with the next edition – submit by 4/14!