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Bird Thou Never Wert
Robert Cantwell
February 13, 1978
So sang the poet, and indeed the horned guan, an exotic denizen of Central American mountains, is so rarely seen as to seem almost fabulous. A saga of a quest for a bird whose mating call is like a "moo"
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February 13, 1978

Bird Thou Never Wert

So sang the poet, and indeed the horned guan, an exotic denizen of Central American mountains, is so rarely seen as to seem almost fabulous. A saga of a quest for a bird whose mating call is like a "moo"

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And what is the horned guan? Back in 1859 The Ibis, the authoritative ornithological journal of the time, said, "This bird, one of the most curious as well as the most interesting in Central America, is extremely rare." The first known specimen was shot by a hunter in Guatemala in 1848 and was given to an English trader, who presented it to the Earl of Derby to add to his collection. This resulted in its being known as the Derbyan Mountain-Pheasant (Oreophasis derbianus). Eleven years later Osbert Salvin, a member of the British Ornithologists' Union, happened to be in Guatemala and hired a professional hunter to shoot additional specimens. The hunter came back with a black, turkey-sized bird, found that it was what Salvin wanted and returned the next day with two more. Salvin asked to be taken to the place where they were shot.

At dawn he set out with the hunter for the 12,000-foot Volc�n de Fuego in the Sierra Madre near the Mexican border. They reached the mountain by nine o'clock and climbed through dense lowland growth to a region of pines and coarse grass and the cloud forest. Then they descended into steep ravines with thick growths of a palm called the hand plant—la mano de mico, the monkey's hand of the natives—where the horned guan reportedly lived, feeding on wild fruit. Four grueling trips failed to produce another specimen, leading to suspicions that the natives were keeping their source of supply to themselves, although Salvin denied this. The natives had no reason to go through an elaborate and difficult deception. He concluded that the horned guan was a rare bird, even on the single mountain where it was known to exist.

Fourteen years later, during another visit to Guatemala, Salvin reported to The Ibis that he had seen the skins of several horned guans but had no accurate information as to where they had come from. And there the matter rested for some 60 years. In 1934 Emmet Blake, who later wrote a field guide to Mexican birds, hunted for the guan on 14,000-foot Tajumulco in Guatemala—"the last stronghold," he said, "of the most magnificent and least-known game bird of the western hemisphere." Blake and a native guide camped at the 10,000-foot level for a week without seeing or hearing a guan. Dropping down to the cloud forest at 6,000 feet, they were at the point of starting back to camp empty-handed when the guide happened to pound on a tree trunk with his machete. There was an instant response from a guan overhead. It was so close that a shot would have blasted it to pieces, so Blake backed away, and the guan disappeared into the trees. Four days later Blake returned to the same spot and heard "a monotonous sound like the distant low mooing of a cow.... It suddenly stopped, and a big male guan strutted out upon a branch in plain sight and within easy range. I fired just as it flushed and could have whooped for joy as it crashed to earth. Immediately two other guans, unseen before, took flight, and a quick snapshot scored another hit. Two Derby's guans in a single day!"

In all, Blake killed 17 horned guans. Large, tame and conspicuous, the guan is one of those trusting birds which, as Salvin wrote, will watch a hunter come close "with a vacant rather than an alarmed expression." The reason for the guan's scarcity was simple. It was good eating. The main reason a few horned guans survived around El Triunfo was that the steep mountain country discouraged anyone from hunting them.

That is, anyone except bird watchers. Miguel Alvarez del Toro, director of the Institute of Natural History and Zoological Park in Tuxtla Guti�rrez, included an account of the horned guan in his catalog of Chiapas wildlife in 1952; he had seen a male horned guan on the top of a small tree in the El Triunfo cloud forest. Robert Andrle, an ornithologist from the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York, made a difficult backpack trip to El Triunfo in 1965. He saw a horned guan there (he also found one in Volc�n Tajumulco in Guatemala) and observed it for half an hour. It hopped from branch to branch, uttering short guttural croaks and clacking its mandibles at the rate of two clacks per second. If you consider that an inadequate reward for such an arduous trip, you do not know bird watchers. "We know so little about the bird," Victor Emanuel said earnestly. "Does it nest on the ground or in the trees? We don't know. Nobody has ever seen it nest. How many eggs? We don't know that either."

Alexander Skutch reported that he came upon a horned guan one clear, frosty February morning on a ridge of the Sierra de Tecp�n, 130 miles southeast of El Triunfo in Guatemala. The bird was a velvety black with bright yellow eyes, its head surmounted by a tall slender spike the color of ripe strawberries. It gave "a loud guttural outcry, almost explosive in its suddenness and power." Skutch described it as an apparition, "its small yellow bill opening and closing with a loud clacking, as though the strange fowl tried to intimidate me by this menace.... I have seen among birds few appearances so bizarre."

If Skutch found it rare, what hope could there be for the rest of us? Skutch began studying Central American birds in 1928, when he was a 24-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate. He bought a small farm in the remote Costa Rican woods, married the daughter of a Costa Rican naturalist and turned out such patiently assembled works as Life Histories of Central American Birds and the monumental Parent Birds and Their Young, the culmination of more than 40 years of observation. The books made him a venerated figure among ornithologists. If he had seen few stranger birds than the horned guan in a lifetime of observation, it could be taken for granted that nobody else had seen more unusual ones. And it was this elusive fowl that Victor expected us to find.

There were frequent stops on the way to the coffee plantation to enable the newcomers to add Mexican birds to their life lists—a black robin, a blue-crowned chlorophonia, a Montezuma oropendola, a melodious blackbird—and there was a long pause before sunset to photograph a swallow-tailed kite, not because it was a rarity, but because it posed invitingly on a dead tree, totally indifferent to the bird watchers creeping toward it. The projected eight-hour drive from Tuxtla Guti�rrez lengthened to 14 hours; the plantation was wrapped in sleep and inhospitable darkness when we arrived. We were quartered in a guesthouse dormitory adjoining a platform where coffee beans were washed. Here we were required to reduce our packs to the bare essentials. Sleeping bags, warm clothing, tents, rain gear and the like went into duffel bags, to be loaded on pack animals in the morning; anything else had to be carried in backpacks. It was a silent, serious operation. Binoculars, cameras, film, socks, notebooks and insect repellent were ranged in piles around each hiker, to be appraised, weighed by hand, examined under the dim light of an unshaded low-wattage electric bulb and then added to the load or left behind.

Plimpton examined his pack with puzzled concentration. He had barely made connections to Tuxtla; he had been on a lecture tour, speaking on successive nights at the University of Massachusetts, Miami University in Ohio and the University of Oklahoma. "My wife packed my pack," he said. "I don't know what's in it."

He drew out objects from its depths: sweaters, thermal underwear, Arctic garb.

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