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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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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.

Bird watchers 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?"

Roger Tory 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 God!"

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.

Peppershrike 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 vision."

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