The Curse of the Labrador Duck

Procrastination, as fun as it is, presents certain risks. For instance, you might be puttering around on the internet, attempting in a desultory way to decide if the 1878 Labrador Duck sighting/shooting/eating in Elmira New York represents the authentic last record of the bird or what, and you might suddenly see a search result you never noticed before – which means it must be new, seeing as how it’s right up on top of the rankings. And that search result might take you to Amazon. Where somebody might have just published a shiny new book about the heretofore-bookless Labrador Duck.

And you might sink to your knees and shake your fists at the sky and scream “Nooooooooooooooooo!” and somehow the lightening flashes and the thunder growls and the rain pours on your upturned, grimacing face, even though you are inside your apartment (you should probably talk to your landlord about that.)

Once you calm down and get a towel, of course, you will be happy to learn that the new book is not chiefly about the Labrador Duck in life. No, The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction is much more singular than that.

It’s about a guy, Glen Chilton, and his noble yet sort of OCD mission to examine every single extant specimen of Labrador Duck. This is not merely necrophiliac twitching. The species’ entire legacy consists of fifty-odd stuffed skins and taxidermy mounts, nine eggs, and two breast-bones. Or does it? The authenticity of some of the specimens is in doubt, and part of Chilton’s task is to sort out the sheep from the goats (or the Labradors from the cunningly painted white farmyard birds, to be more precise.) Moreover, these specimens have a disconcerting habit of being lost in air raids, vanishing behind the Iron Curtain, languishing in underfunded research facilities with leaks, getting swiped when their cases are left unlocked, and falling into the hands of collectors who are, in the polite British phraseology, eccentric.

Chilton is more scientist than writer (and properly so – I wouldn’t let Jonathan Lethem collect DNA samples out of the blow-hole of a hundred-and-fifty year old egg) and his account occasionally suffers from awkward phrasing and peculiar organizational choices – Errol Fuller accompanies Chilton to Germany, for instance, several chapters before he is actually introduced to the reader (although naturally I knew who he was.) Nevertheless, the story comes alive with Chilton’s own good humor and suspense, and if you love travelogues, museums, or both, it is well worth reading. (Also well worth reading if you have an old Labrador Duck of Great-grandpa’s sitting in the family attic – Chilton closes the volume by putting out a bounty on any specimens he has not yet examined.)

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