November 2009

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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San Clemente Island Goat

San Clemente Island Goat

I am not the only Laben undertaking new life stages lately. One of my sisters and her husband, aggrieved with city life, have signed a contract on a New Homestead. Though they must toil in the urban salt mines a bit longer, they’re starting to plan what they will raise on their farm. No monoculturists they! They want a blend of crops and critters adapted to the landscape, able to thrive with a minimum of artificial inputs, and generally healthier than a vast swath of cloned corn or a barn full of turkeys that can’t even reproduce without human input.

I, being incurably inclined to nosiness and procrastination, decided to get in on the act. So I bopped by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site to see what was up. I ended up zeroing in on the Chantecler, a critically endangered type of Canadian chicken specially adapted for wintry climates. But along the way, I stumbled on the San Clemente Island Goat.

Astute birders of the Western U.S. may well have noted the first part of that name and deduced what’s coming next. I flashed back to my weekend reading on avian extinction in the U.S.

San Clemente Island. One of the Channel Islands, the southernmost. There was a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren there, a lively brown bird that thrived in the scrubby, rocky, dry climate of the windswept island. And then there wasn’t.

Because of the goats. (And sheep, and possibly pigs, but the goats are usually cited as the chief villains). Feral animals, they ate the Wren out of house and home; a bird that a 1908 (when the goats had been there only a few decades) article in The Condor described as “very common on all parts of the island” was gone by the 1940s, due primarily to habitat destruction. The habitat had gone into the stomachs of the goats.

In 1934, the Navy acquired the island for a firing range and landing strip. They ignored the goats until 1972, when someone pointed out to them that being the Federal Government and all, they needed to protect the remaining indigenous creatures of the island (which still include a distinct subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and several other genetically unique plants and animals). The Navy acted in classic American fashion – after assessing the situation, they sold the goats they could profitably catch and shot the ones they couldn’t.

This went on for some years, the Navy busily reducing the goat population while the goats reacted by busily increasing the goat population – and by growing warier, thriftier, and harder to catch or shoot. Then, in 1979, the Fund for Animals stepped in, objecting to the killing of the goats.

Now comes the vigorous rolling of birder eyes, right? So-called animal lovers are about to sacrifice precious ecosystems in defense of cute and cuddly domestic destruction machines.

Only that’s not what happened. The courts cut a middle path; they allowed the Fund for Animals to round up and remove unprofitable goats, while recognizing that the Navy ultimately had a right to do what was necessary to protect the island. Suits and injunctions continued to occur throughout the early 80s; ultimately, about 6,000 more goats were removed alive from the island, and the remainder were killed off. In 1991, the island was goat-free.

On the mainland, many of the goats that had been adopted out succumbed to unfamiliar diseases, or were neutered or never bred; at one point the population dropped to 250. There are now roughly 400 San Clemente Island Goats in the world. And they, too, as it turns out, are a genetically distinct population; they can’t be linked to the populations of Spanish goats they were assumed to descend from. Left on San Clemente long enough to experience the genetic drift and selective pressures of island life, they’d become small, thrifty, and weather-hardy. They’d also developed excellent mothering skills and a relatively unaggressive disposition. These are genetic traits that could be useful to goats – and thus goat-herders – in many other situations. Now it’s the goats that need preserving.

So the goats are destruction machines and scrappy underdogs, heroes and villains. Which only shows how foolish it often is to project those categories, as powerful as they are, onto animals in the first place.

As an aside, this account indicates that the goats brought a species of ear mite unknown to science with them when they were removed from the island; no word on whether anyone has troubled to preserve that.

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Photo: / CC BY 2.0

So, as those of you who follow along with my multifarious online facets already know, I’m applying to various programs in an attempt to get my flippers on an M.F.A in Creative Nonfiction with a nature writing concentration. In order to be invited to plunge back into academia, though, I need a portfolio, and it needs to kick ass.

The bulk of my portfolio is composed of the proposed first chapter of the proposed Labrador Duck book. But I also want a few shorter pieces, and for this purposes, I’d like my loyal readers to let me know which they consider the Greatest of the Auk – entries that you think are A.) well-written and B.) would respond well to being expanded into longer essays. Unfortunately, the Inimitable Todd’s photos and my many informative links won’t reproduce well in printed format, so don’t take them into account when nominating.

Thanks in advance for your time and the use of your brain cells!

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

The Dovkie’s head flopped loosely as Paul showed it around the room, asking if anyone knew what it was. I’d already volunteered the “auk” part, and was trying to maintain the discipline of letting someone else have a chance, especially since there were a lot of kids on this tour. They seemed kind of overwhelmed, though. Maybe it was the hog-tied, half-mummified Jabiru on the table, waiting to be sent to the dermestid beetles. Maybe it was the fluorescent light. But I held my peace and gave them their chance.

Oh, who am I kidding. I wasn’t totally sure it wasn’t some obscure Murrelet from the west coast, or for that matter the world’s weirdest example of convergent evolution, an auk-alike that actually lives in the slow-flowing rivers of southern China or something. This was the AMNH. Anything, from anywhere, was possible. I mean, I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as the Cantonese Fresh-water Perching Penguin. But I haven’t memorized all 10,000 avian species. And stranger birds have happened.

I studied the CFPP carefully. Its stubby beak faded into the dark facial feathers, making it look even smaller. The plumage was pristine, and almost cuddly-looking. The eyes were slightly sunken, a little oozy, but that was the only gruesome note.

Paul eventually gave up trying to prompt the word Little out of us, and went on to explain the origin of the specimen. “I got a phone call from a guy in Jersey,” he said, with that casual NYC confidence that we would all understand he was talking about over-the-Hudson, not over-the-Atlantic. “He said he had a penguin running around in his living room. I knew right away what it was.” Not a penguin, freshwater, perching, or otherwise. Like many a pelagic bird before it, the Little Auk had been storm-swept into the unforgiving land, starved until it was too weak to flee human contact, and perished. Now it would be processed into immortality in this windowless basement room.

Like all the skinning-and-stuffing sorts I’ve known, Paul was a keenly enthusiastic man with a sense of humor that occasionally lost people. “They’re alcoholic specimens,” he said, gesturing at a pair of large mason jars. Each jar contained a liquid the color of old, cheap paper and a Tufted Puffin in a contorted head-down pose. “Some people call them spirit specimens, but all the specimens here are spirits.” He paused a beat. The kids looked at him, po-faced. “Because they’re dead.” Another beat. “Ok, moving on.”

I really liked this guy.

But then, I liked everything about this evening, from our cliff-hanger arrival at the museum just in time to catch the last members-only tour after overstaying at happy hour, to the ancient elevators – complete with operators! – that conveyed us first up to the research collections and then down to the subterranean den of preservation, to the smell. Call me ghoulish, but the preservative smell of a venerable museum has always triggered intense feelings in me. It’s too joyful to be properly described as Proustian, because instead of representing something lost forever, this smell stands for something that will continue long after I’m gone. It’s the smell, to me, of knowledge.

I inhaled deeply as we started the tour, and was inclined to linger among the infinite rows of sheet-metal cabinets. (The guide probably thought I was taking it easy on The Inimitable Todd, who was walking with a cane after a marathon-related mishap.) Our first meeting was with Peter, who pulled out drawers of Painted Redstarts and Hawaiian Honeycreepers, not-quite-perfect rows of party colors, black and red, yellow and green, each skin carefully stuffed with cotton and fitted with a tag that, in cramped curlicues of ink, transfigured a dead bird into a valuable cache of data. I wanted desperately to touch, but restrained myself.

He described collecting expeditions classic and contemporary, particularly his own work in the Solomon Islands. Correlated birds (green-and-purple pigeons, small falcons) to maps and field guides, catching each one neatly in a web that, if it was but a pale faded mimeograph of the mesh that holds an ecosystem together, at least offered the consolation of being comprehensible to the human mind.

And then he took questions.

“Do you have an Ivory-billed Woodpecker?” It wasn’t me. And in fact, I was a little irritated, because now I would look silly asking about Great Auks.

“Yes – in fact, you’ll be seeing one later in the tour.” All irritation vanished. And the crowd went wild – in a subdued, respectful way appropriate to dues-paying members of the Museum.

Our next stop was a book-lined office where Tom had set up a projector screen. Tom was the man in charge of the effort to get the ornithology collection electronically databased and online. A Powerpoint was in the offing. My heart quailed. But, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of his material, Tom managed to rally interest with a bit of slightly scandalous history – recounting some of the events surrounding the AMNH’s acquisition of Lord Rothschild’s collection – before launching into a cogent explanation of how his project was making it possible for researchers around the world to use the museum’s resources without ever setting foot in New York. Photos of specimens – only a few, since funding seemed always to be a roadblock – scans of documents, all sorts of things were making their way into the ether by way of this desk.
Like the next slide that appeared on the screen; a black-and-white photo. Two men sitting in a boat against a background of tangled vegetation. One staring somewhere off stage right, holding a gun. And the other, a slender man in a hat and an enormous beard, staring right at the camera as if to say, “Yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?” And well he might, for over his knee he holds a limp Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The man is with the woodpecker was William M. Brewster; the man with the gun was Frank M. Chapman, who had just shot the woodpecker and would shortly bring it back to the museum. To be turned into a cache of data. An uncomfortable chill went through me.

But then, if you’re going to go, ending up a cache of data was at least no worse than being Christmas dinner or a kitten’s dinner, or beaten to death as a a witch…

Oh, who am I kidding? Granted, at the time the Ivory-bill was not yet the ornithological Elvis. Still, it was known to be in decline. And it’s one thing to point out that a healthy population should be able to sustain the loss of a few individuals, another to inflict the loss knowing that the population is not healthy. Even in a place that smells like heaven, there’s always the nagging little worm of contradiction.

But it’s not like that stopped me from leaning over schoolkids and even abandoning The Limping Inimitable Todd to get a front-row view of the Ivory-bill, the selfsame one that appeared in the photo, when we reached the basement. It looked small, its skeleton (including the iconic bill) having been removed and prepared separately. Chapman had read that there was no skeleton preparation of the Ivory-bill, and he’d set out to repair that lack. Now the skeleton was disarticulated and stored in a cardboard box. Its tail had also been removed, and its remaining skin folded rather haphazardly and dried. Not exactly a proud presentation of the Lord God Bird.

But when Paul started talking, the melancholy passed. The sad skin, he explained, had been used to prepare an extended wing specimen to compare with the alleged Ivory-bill photos and tapes trickling out of Arkansas and Florida. It didn’t excuse, but at least it wasn’t wasted. And here were some Sage Grouse study skins, plump with cotton. A Bufflehead pinned out neatly to dry. And here was a black-and-white bird that hadn’t been prepared yet. Did anyone know what it was?

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NB: For anyone who was wondering about the Hempstead Thick-billed Murre, I asked Paul, who confirmed that it had been received and processed.