He went on to its
feeding habits. Apparently, the swift feeds only on the huge Morpho
butterflies, diving on them from great heights and sailing around the canyons
with them in its beak like "a blue gem." As for the swifts' courtship
that we had described—tumbling together for a couple of miles from the
heights—Victor wrote that "only three people have ever seen it." The
conclusion, he wrote, was carried on up and down the lengths of a waterfall in
a courtship flight of "more bravery and daring than that of any other
bird," the birds on occasion emerging from the spray with wing tips
touching. On the way, they engage in a courtship song, which is an
"awesomely beautiful flute-like duet."
Only one person
(according to Victor) had ever seen the nest of the superb song swift—a pendant
nest 30 feet long, behind a 500-foot waterfall. Inside this nest "built of
the greenest lichen and moss," the swift lays only one egg—"a
magnificent glossy blue egg like that of a tinamou," which he described at
length in a footnote.
abounded with postscripts and footnotes. When Victor wrote that the swifts
emerged from the waterfall in their courtship flights with wing tips touching,
I thought, "Oh, my goodness. No, too much, much too much," until I read
a marginal note which stated that nonimaginary swifts often, in fact, do this.
As for the "awesomely beautiful" courtship duet on the wing, I was
assured in a postscript that orioles and wrens, among others, engage in such
In the longest of
his postscripts, Victor worried about his original color scheme for the superb
song swift. "Upon reflection I have decided that the bird I describe has
too many colors. A bird with too many colors (like the painted bunting) appears
gaudy. I think a good working model could be created by taking the shape of the
great swallow-tailed swift (Plate 17, A Field Guide to Mexican Birds by Roger
Tory Peterson and Edward L. Chalif) and transposing onto it the plumage of the
white-necked Jacobin hummingbird (Plate 19, ibid). I think the crests we
discussed and the puff-legs would look ridiculous on our bird; swifts' feet
should not be seen."
Victor closed his
postscript by offering some alternative hummingbird plumages to choose
from—among others those of the crimson topaz, the Loddige's raquettail, the
violet sabrewing and the Sappho comet, all of which sounded to me like the
names of fireworks, and specified the book (Austin and Singer's Birds of the
World) and the page numbers so I could gaze upon the possibilities.
We continue to
tinker with our superb song swift, to which the eminent ornithologist John
Bull, whom we consulted, gave the Latin name Melodiapus superbus. Occasionally,
during a phone call, Victor will offer a refinement. "Check with the
Peppershrike," he concludes. "See if he doesn't think that's an
improvement." On the other hand, the common giant cacophonous cowbird (Bull
called it Vulgaris giganteus raucus vaccaves) seems stolidly set: immutably and
steadfastly disagreeable, it goes about laying its Ping-Pong balls in other
birds' nests. The terrifying thought presents itself. Is he far-ranging enough
to reach the Andes' canyons and pierce the curtain of spray and drop the
Ping-Pong ball into the soft lichen and moss of the superb shift's nest? I
haven't dared ask Victor. It might upset him too much.
The last time I
saw John and Victor, I asked if perhaps the two birds should be named after
someone. After all, Kirtland had his warbler; Bullock had his oriole until they
took it away from him and called the species the northern oriole; and Bonaparte
had his gull, as did Franklin, and so forth.
want the superb song swift?" Victor asked. "Emanuel's superb song
swift," he tried.
but what about the other thing?"
John gave it a
try. "Rowlett's common giant cacophonous cowbird. No. Do you want it?"
he asked me.