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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.
The letter 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 duets.
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.
"Who wouldn't want the superb song swift?" Victor asked. "Emanuel's superb song swift," he tried.
"Yes, yes, 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.