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Birds Thou Never Wert
George Plimpton
December 28, 1981
Unsuccessful in their search for an extremely rare woodpecker, three avid bird watchers construct the ultimate birds, one just this side of paradise and the other straight from the junkyard
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December 28, 1981

Birds Thou Never Wert

Unsuccessful in their search for an extremely rare woodpecker, three avid bird watchers construct the ultimate birds, one just this side of paradise and the other straight from the junkyard

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We thought about this for a bit. After a while I said I didn't mean to change the mood once again, but what were we going to do about the cacophonous?

"Oh God!" Victor exclaimed.

Rowlett reasserted that what set the cacophonous apart from other species was its lackey-like adoption of humankind. "Therefore," John said, "he probably mates under a house. What turns him on is the distant glow of a neon light."

"What about the cacophonous' egg?" I asked.

Victor said, "Of course, the bird is parasitic, which means that it sneaks in and lays this enormous egg in other birds' nests. What do you think? Should it be a soft-shelled kind of reptilian egg, gray and shriveled?"

"That might be too obvious," John remarked. "It's what you might expect of the giant cacophonous. Its egg should have a manufactured quality—as far removed from natural forms as possible. What about," John offered, "a Ping-Pong ball?"

"Perfect!" exclaimed Victor.

A few weeks after we came out of the high country—our search for the imperial ivorybill having been in vain—Victor wrote me an effusive letter about the superb song swift. He couldn't get the bird out of his mind. It was typical of him that he didn't mention the giant cacophonous—the idea of a kind of pariah bird hadn't been agreeable to him from the start. But he was thoroughly entranced by the idea of the swift. He pointed out that very few birders pick swifts as their favorite birds (most choose warblers, shorebirds and, as in his case, hawks) because most swifts are small, drab birds distinguished only by their powers of flight, but just the idea of the superb song swift seemed to be steering him away from even his beloved hawks. He wrote: "To think of walking along a cliff in the Andes and all of a sudden hearing the flute-like cascading song of the world's most remarkable bird...louder and within seconds ringing in your ears as hurtling over the cliff at the speed of 300 mph, faster even than the Asian spine-tailed swift (which until the superb song swift was "discovered" was the fastest bird), comes a huge falcon-sized swift with an enormous swallowtail."

As I read Victor's letter I wondered if it might be difficult to see a bird traveling through the air at that clip. It would be like remarking on a mortar shell in mid-flight. But then Victor wrote, as if the thought had occurred to him, too, "In a remarkable change of pace, for swifts are masters of flight, the very essence of bird-ness, almost like air, the superb song swift shifts gears, slows down and glides over the canyon in front of us where we are dazzled by its resplendent iridescence and it seems to shine with a light from within."

Victor went on to describe the coloration of the swift—a black head with an emerald crest, a fiery-red belly, the wings white below, and above both upper wings and back an "iridescent violet (as in the violet sabrewing hummer), with the tail the purest of whites, except for the tips which are green-gold iridescent, so that in certain lights the sun washes out the tail and the gold-green tips seem to float behind the swift, independent, as though suspended in space...."

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