Almost all bird
watchers I know have their favorite bird, very likely because they hope to be
reincarnated as that species in another life. I, for example, have always
favored the hadada ibis, a plump curvedbill bird that frequents African water
holes, standing on the broad limb of an acacia tree and peering down at what
goes on below—the emergence, say, of a crocodile onto a mudbank. Certainly more
interesting than becoming a wren and being pretty much limited to what occurs
within the confines of an ordinary lilac bush.
very often become known to others of the fraternity by their "bird"
rather than their own names. Someone will yell across a street, "Hey,
Hadada!" and I will turn and recognize a bird-watching friend. I wave.
"Hooded Warbler! How goes it?"
Peterson, the most famous U.S. bird watcher and author of the best-selling
Peterson bird guides, is known as "King Penguin." Indeed, he has
decorated the walls of his bathroom in Old Lyme, Conn. with a large crowd of
his favorite birds; there they are, poised on ice floes, one of them about to
dive into his bathtub. He told me once that the water seemed to cool more
quickly in that tub than it did in others he had been in.
My two closest
bird-watching friends are Hooded Warbler, the fellow who yelled across the
street, and Peppershrike. Their real names are Victor Emanuel and John Rowlett.
Their "bird" names were bestowed on them by other bird watchers because
they rather look like those two species. Actually, Emanuel identifies with the
Eskimo curlew, an extraordinarily rare shorebird he saw on Galveston Island,
Texas in 1959. As for species, he is very fond of the hawk family. Rowlett has
preferred owls since childhood, when he realized the three letters that spell
the bird were embedded in his own name.
Both have an
enthusiasm for birds that is all-consuming. Both are experts and lead birding
tours professionally. When Emanuel comes to New York City, he wears a pair of
binoculars on the streets just on the off chance, I have always supposed, he
might spot a peregrine falcon drop off the cornice of a building and pounce on
the back of a pigeon far below. Rowlett is no less intense. When he sees a rare
bird, or indeed any bird, his face shines with pleasure and he often cries out,
"Yip! Yip! Yip!" Emanuel's reaction in similar situations is a more
common but hardly less subdued "Wow!" or often, "Oh my
A few years ago,
Emanuel, Rowlett and I (or Hooded Warbler, Peppershrike and Hadada Ibis, if you
prefer) went into the high pine country of the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico
to try to find a bird called the imperial ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird is,
or was, the world's largest woodpecker—almost two feet in length, the size of a
raven. The imperial is probably extinct. It hasn't been seen authoritatively
since 1954 when a dentist named W.L. Rheim spotted a pair 100 kilometers south
of Durango; four years later, returning to the area, the dentist encountered an
Indian on a trail who was carrying a huge dead woodpecker, an imperial, very
likely one of the same pair seen earlier.
There had been a
great many "Yip! Yip! Yips!" and "Oh my Gods!"—the area has
wonderful indigenous species: the trogons, the thick-billed parrots and the
Coues' flycatchers with their lovely songs—but the huge pine forests stretching
across the mountains to the horizon seemed empty of the great woodpecker, as if
the species had been wiped out by a pestilence. From time to time we could hear
the high, distant whine of saws drifting on the wind from a logging camp, a
sound that almost surely identified the cause of the bird's extinction. One
evening on the trail we met a logger who told us that 14 years earlier he had
shot and eaten an imperial ivory-billed woodpecker. Victor, who had been
translating for us, said, "He tells me that it was un gran pedazo de
carne—a great piece of meat." I could not help staring at the gold tooth
that shone from the Mexican's mouth as he smiled innocently at us.
That evening in
camp, perhaps to get our minds off the melancholy of the search, I suggested
that because our chances of spotting the imperial ivory-bill were almost
nonexistent, we should invent a bird, a bird as magnificent as what we were
looking for, in fact even better—the "perfect" bird.
stirred the coals. "A perfect bird?"
I told them I had
once done something similar with football players. I described a chapter from a
book I had done with Bill Curry, once an All-Pro center and now the football
coach at Georgia Tech. We did a section on a "perfect" football
quarterback—a composite constructed of the best physical attributes from NFL
quarterbacks. I remembered enough to tell my friends that the super-composite
quarterback had Dan Pastorini's strong arm, John Unitas' accuracy, Bart Starr's
play-calling genius and two contributions from Fran Tarkenton—the quickness of
his feet and his peripheral vision, what Alex Hawkins, Curry's teammate on the
Baltimore Colts, often referred to as Tarkenton's "perennial