by Carrie Laben
When they found the Ivory-Bill in the swamps there was rejoicing.
When they found the Eskimo Curlew on a crisp buff plain in Nova Scotia, a rush of birdwatchers set the local economy on fire.
When a hyperkinetic flock of Carolina Parakeets was photographed at a birdfeeder in western Pennsylvania, it was condemned as an oddball hoax. Only DNA testing finally convinced the naysayers. The parrots flew a county over and settled near a proposed golf course, putting the kibosh, as one pleased local farmer phrased it, on the project.
When five hundred Passenger Pigeons landed with a deafening rustle and squawk in the locust trees in Central Park, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History is said to have collapsed and started speaking in tongues, although he maintains that he simply fainted. In any event, his falling body cracked a case containing a number of Mayan artifacts of obscure provenance and he bled severely. He eventually made a full recovery.
When Great Auks broke the surf at St. Kilda and dragged their awkward bodies ashore, when they began scraping nests among the stones and rubbing their bills together ardently, a small neo-pagan cult formed around them within months. The cult is alleged to have killed at least one curiosity-seeker who disturbed an incubating bird, but Scottish authorities dismissed the matter as Calvinist rumor-mongering. And indeed there have been no more incidents, although the colony has become a popular pilgrimage site for infertile couples. The Auk eggs do have an excellent hatch rate, compared to those of closely related seabirds.
The run on Mauritius started gradually, but there was no room at any inn even before the New York Times did a lifestyle piece on the trend. Hundreds of people camped in the forests, to the despair of the additional park rangers who had been hired with the money from UNEP. Most of the visitors did their best to tread lightly – they were not insensible to irony. Still, the sheer quantity was bound to tax the island. Every one of them piously hoped they could leave soon. In the evenings, people sang songs and abraded tambalacoque seeds (which usually will not germinate unless their endcaps are rubbed away by e.g. the digestive system of a turkey-sized bird) by hand.
The emergence of the Réunion Sacred Ibis lured a few people away for a few days, but most of the travelers had never heard of it.
Rumors about the exact date swirled and renewed themselves constantly; no end of missed appointments seemed to slow would-be prophets. They said Christmas Day, they said New Year. They said the next lunar eclipse. They said Easter, Walpurgis Night or May Day (in fact, on Walpurgis Night half the globe away a pair of Labrador Ducks were spotted in a river near Elmira, New York.)
The crisis started with someone roaming the night, unilaterally putting out campfires. Within hours of the unusually chilly dawn, an anonymous handwritten flier was circulated proposing that the visitors draw straws for the right to stay. The next day, a counterproposal went from hand to hand that only the most skilled artists, writers and videographers should be allowed to remain; or, a graffiti chalked on each tent suggested, only families with young children. Then, as spontaneously as they’d come, people began leaving. They formed rows in the airport that somehow managed to seethe with urgency while remaining perfectly straight; once enplaned, many of them drank heavily, but none got disorderly, or even airsick. A handful who were out of money, or who could not endure the trembling lines, bartered for fishing boats and rafts and put out to sea. Some of these craft drifted for nearly a month, but each crossed the ocean to deliver up its cargo on land alive and safe.
The visitors had carried out almost everything they’d carried in, but the forest rangers spent a few weeks clearing up odd debris, raking over charcoal, and planting hand-abraded tambalacoque seeds. Then they, too, went away, no longer needed. Fortunately there were vast numbers of new job openings for forest rangers all around the world.
They missed, or left, a few small items. When the first Dodo stepped out of the brush, it happened that the first thing to catch its eye, the first thing it pecked, was a handmade tiara of pure gold, wrought exactly to fit its head. Of course, it could not put it on.
This story first appeared in the October 2008 edition of Postcards From…