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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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"We walked around," Victor continued. "I was kind of lost in thought. Anyway, there were very few birds. I said, 'Let's sit down.' I wanted to tape these thoughts. I didn't want to lose them. We were chattering about the preservation problem. I said, 'We're in the forest. Be quiet.' All of a sudden I heard it, except you don't hear it. You feel it. It kind of creeps into your consciousness. I said to Mary Ann, 'There it is.'

"I am bad at sound directions. I have a partial hearing loss in one ear. I asked Allison and Mary Ann and Tom where it was coming from. They said, 'Across the creek.' That meant back down the trail and up a hillside. But after we got up the hillside we couldn't hear it. Through the brush I could see light at the top of the ridge. I said, 'I've never been to the top of this ridge. Let's go there.' We pushed to the top of the ridge. There was a beautiful view, a valley and a wide sloping forest on the other side. There was a path on the top of that ridge. But we couldn't hear the guan any longer."

It was a bitter moment in the life of a great bird watcher. It was as though he were the only person in El Triunfo who had not seen a guan. He looked desolate when he realized his recorded guan call was not going to summon one and that his last chance to see a guan was gone. But he merely said stoically, "Let's follow this path back to camp."

The ridge path was steep and grew steeper. The bird watchers, lagging far behind, out of breath, were widely spaced when Victor put down his parabolic microphone and motioned for silence. He was on a high point of the ridge, in a kind of country favored by quetzals, and he put a quetzal call into the tape recorder, hoping to call in one of them as a parting gift.

The call of the quetzal is a low double note, sounding like wahco, wahco and a whistled whee-ooh. Everybody had long since learned to remain absolutely silent and motionless when Victor worked the parabolic microphone or turned on the tape recorder. Now, simultaneously with the recorded quetzal call, a guan began calling, but Victor, close to the tape recorder, did not hear it. It was a dull grunting sound, so porcine that the first reaction was, what are pigs doing up here? At first there was no bill-clacking or mooing, just a low steady repetition of the snorting grunt that pigs make while feeding.

Victor, preoccupied with the quetzal tape, still had not heard the guan, and an awful fear gripped those who had. They could not call out to him, and they were afraid that if they moved, they might frighten the bird away. But Allison, closest to him, whispered urgently, "There's the guan!"

"I shut off the tape recorder," Victor said later in his report, "in order to hear what she was saying. And then I heard the bill-clacking. I walked along the ridge, and there it was. It was just standing there! Just after spotting it, I had this terrible conflict. I just wanted to soak it up, but at the same time I wanted to make sure everyone saw it, but I didn't want to take my eyes off it. The others came along quickly, and we watched it for 10 minutes. Then it began walking back and forth on the branch, clacking its bill for a minute or two, looking around, getting more agitated. It jumped up to another branch, and when it did it went ohh—waugh!, its most agitated call.

"We were watching it hopping around. Then some tree growths got in the way, and we couldn't see it. I thought we might go down the slope to the base of the tree, where our nearness might disturb it and start the bill-clacking again so we could locate it. But it just vanished. The same thing happened to Alexander Skutch; he described that mysterious disappearance in a German ornithological publication, Grzimeks Tierleben."

Nobody saw the horned guan again. No one got a picture of it. There were new tape recordings now of its wilderness call, but that was all. Back in civilization Plimpton managed to locate Harrison. He was pleased to have his money and belongings returned, and interested to learn where his pack had ended up.

There was no question in Victor Emanuel's mind but that the El Triunfo trip had been a glorious success. We had set out to find the horned guan, and we had found it. For less dedicated searchers the results were not so clear-cut. "We find there what we seek," Skutch wrote in A Last Home of Mystery. "But in spite of beauty, tranquillity and endless variety, the forest at last becomes oppressive.... We lose our proud pose as the lords of creation and come at last to feel what we actually are, small, bewildered creatures wandering timidly amid forces immeasurably more powerful and enduring than ourselves."

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