Essays - Autumn 2016

Put a Bird on It


How did a beguiling South American hummingbird end up in the basement of a Pennsylvania museum?

Erik Anderson

By Erik Anderson

September 6, 2016


The black-tailed trainbearer is a tiny bird, with a body about the size of my thumb, yet its skinny tail is dramatically out of proportion—I’d say five or six times as long, reminiscent of the trailing fabric suggested by its name. Like its green-tailed cousin, this trainbearer, Lesbia victoriae, is a hummingbird with a needlelike bill and a flat crown indiscernible from its crest, and although the front of its body is clearly adaptive—how else to drink the nectar from flowers?—the purpose of its train, which does not fan out like a peacock’s tail, is less immediately apparent.

I first saw it in the basement of our local museum—the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—perched in one of the many glass cases in the public specimen collection, which consists mostly of taxidermied birds. From one perspective, the situation was unreal: the trainbearer’s carcass preserved well beyond the period of time its matter should have cycled though the stomach of some other animal or else been reabsorbed by the earth. I found the idea of a room of such carcasses, and the peculiar impulse that led to gathering them there, baffling: Why attempt to preserve something as fleeting as a bird’s life? Is this curiosity, or are we holding on too tight?

A few days later, I wrote to Jill Showalter, then the museum’s education director, to ask how the bird got there, but after consulting the collections people, she could tell me only that the species is native to South America and that the specimen dates from the early 19th century. The museum has no record of where or when or by whom the bird was collected, or how it came to the museum, which wasn’t even built until 1953. Because the 19th century was the heyday of the amateur naturalist, I have no trouble imagining some local gentleman, a true Victorian enthusiast, marching off through the high meadows, gun slung over his shoulder—but in South America? That’s a little tougher to picture.

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make. I’m not all that interested in birds. It’s not that I don’t like them. I simply lack the kind of enthusiasm others seem to possess. I’ve heard friends declare their love of cardinals or goldfinches, watching these birds alight on the dogwood outside my dining room window, but whatever connection they may feel is largely lost on me. I admire the birds, find them lovely, but am no more attached to a splash of yellow or red plumage than to the summer chorus of crickets and cicadas. If anything, I’m more attached to the noise, given its soothing constancy.

So why all this worry about a tiny bird that’s been dead for more than a century, a member of a species facing no immediate threat of extinction? For one thing, my eye was caught by the brilliant patch of iridescent green extending up its throat from its breast (the gorget, it’s called), shining even from a dark basement corner. It was somehow unlike anything I had ever known, and having seen the bird stationed next to a greater bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda), with its puffy white plumes, I now realize that that scintillating green patch—like the tail, maybe—must surely have evolved to attract a mate.

But I also suspect that our so-called connection to nature means little, and that the species we single out for devotion signal only our longing for that connection—either that or our unspeakable grief, the unspoken admission that we cause more sorrow in the animal world than celebration. Our supposed love of nature so often seems to mask or compensate for an underlying disdain. On the shelf above the trainbearer, for instance, a couple of sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) sat displayed in various stages of taxidermy, a process that, in all of its stretching and pinning, appeared to be alternately a form of torture and a kind of disregard. And though the birds were of course dead by the time they were prepared and stuffed, I still rued, for their sake, the indignity of their demise.

The natural world may be endlessly fascinating, but perhaps never more so, for me, than in its intersections with the human one, which is—in all of its creative and destructive power—an extension of the former. If individual birds interest me, I’m even more beguiled by the figure just out of sight, binoculars in hand. It’s incredible to me—as in, I cannot give it credence—that one would fly to Papua New Guinea just to see birds. I marvel at the dedication, or obsession. And I long to understand it.

The North Museum, just a five-minute walk from my house, is in some sense an incarnation of the now-defunct Linnaean Society of Lancaster County, active from the 1860s to the 1920s. Sometime around the year 1900, the college where I teach, Franklin & Marshall, acquired the society’s collection, and its papers are stored in the library. In late May 2014, I spent an afternoon scouring them for evidence of the trainbearer in reports and lists dating back to the Civil War, many of them written on the backs of receipts and stationery, some bound in twine or purple ribbon.

Much of the society’s work was shouldered by one Simon Snyder Rathvon, an unhappily married and impecunious tailor, also an amateur naturalist. Although he dedicated his days to work as a matter of course, he often studied until two or three in the morning. “Occupation! that is the grand redeeming secret,” Rathvon declares in his essay on the origin, objects, and progress of the Linnaean Society, delivered on its fourth anniversary, February 24, 1866. Envisioning an institution to rival the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, he framed the pursuit of natural history as a refuge from “the fascinating haunts of vice”: “the gaming table,” “the death infecting brothel,” and “the street-corner carnivals.” The “riches enjoyed by the truly scientific mind,” he continues, are “not purchasable with the mere ‘coin and currency’ of a mercenary world.” Science, in his view, is one of “those investments that, although not always manifest in a pecuniary light … may ultimately ‘pay.’ ”

For all of Rathvon’s optimism about its mission, however, the society appears to have been chronically short of funds and other resources, dependent on specimens gathered or donated by its members and friends, and Rathvon’s writing for the group is often saturated with his melancholic suspicion that their work was going nowhere. In a curator’s report from 1869, for example, he doubts that he will ever see a time “when the various natural objects that are being brought together in this society, will be properly classified, labeled and arranged, according to the most approved modern systems.” But if the present members of the Linnaean Society cannot carry out that work, he writes that they may at least construct “a material chaos … out of which something more orderly and symmetrical may be developed by future explorers and collectors.” In the meantime, Rathvon concludes, “it more the less [sic] behooves me to continue on collecting material.”

It was a pleasant afternoon in the reading room, light streaming through the windows, but I found no reference to the black-tailed trainbearer in the society’s records, or any sign that the society had access to, or the means to procure, specimens from beyond its immediate surroundings. Given the attention Rathvon lavished on the local birds that passed through his hands, the trainbearer would likely not have escaped his enthusiasm. I found only one reference in his prose to hummingbirds, an entry from June 1884, in which he notes keeping “a specimen in a small glass case at home, that remains intact, although it was put there more than fifty years ago and without any preserving preparations whatever—being literally an unembalmed mummy.” It’s as fine a metaphor as any for the past, the persistence of which, in the present, is often no less of a marvel or fluke. We gather around it, as though around a stuffed carcass. Is it bizarre, I wonder, or are we?

“Putting a bird on it” may be one of the guiding clichés of hipster culture (wonderfully lampooned on the TV show Portlandia), but it nonetheless belongs to a long tradition of fetishizing birds.

Say the year is 1521, and the emperor’s aviaries, ornate palaces with latticework ceilings, are burning. The birds are screaming in the flames or else fleeing for the hills. It’s psychological warfare on Cortés’s part, intended to distress Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants, who raise the birds for their feathers, incorporating them in headdresses, robes, tapestries, and more. The barbarism is appalling, but then—never mind how well they were treated, how carefully they were plucked—what were the birds doing in the cages to begin with?

Or say instead it is early 1779, some 3,500 miles to the west, in the middle of the Pacific, and the Hawaiian king Kalani‘ōpu‘u presents his returning guest, James Cook, with an elaborate cloak and ceremonial helmet, symbols of power fashioned from the feathers of native birds for the island’s elites. It is a fleeting friendship, and Cook will be murdered on the island within a few short weeks; the king will live for several more years. In the wake of his death in 1782, his son’s brief rule will give way to the rise of his nephew, Kamehameha the Great, famous for uniting the islands and for his splendid yellow cloak, made up of tens of thousands of now-extinct birds.

In the 19th century, throughout Europe and the United States, people of means often built aviaries on their estates, large cages where captured birds, some of them exotic, might fly freely and where, in some cases, their owners might sit and observe them. For those less wealthy, or with other appetites, like Rathvon, it was fashionable to keep a cabinet of mounted birds, a tradition somewhat indebted to the Renaissance Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, early collections of miscellaneous and esoteric objects that can be seen as the forerunners of the modern museum. Whereas the objects the Wunderkammern contained often defied categorization, and indeed were included for precisely that reason, the 19th-century viewer’s sense of wonder at a bird with a tail many times the length of its body was tempered by, among other things, the binomial system devised by Carl von Linné, or Carolus Linnaeus.

Although our rage for order, and for the names that would seem to provide it, has not abated in the two and a half centuries since Linnaeus’s death, our rage for taxidermied animals has, at least in most circles. This change is due in part to regulations such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made illegal without a permit the capture, trade, and even possession of almost all migratory birds. If I were to inherit a mounted specimen of a black-tailed trainbearer today, I would probably have to surrender it to the authorities. (If I were to find and pick up a feather from even the most common bird—say, the American crow—and take it home with me, I’d be breaking the law. Invasive species, like the English sparrow, may be collected freely.) Rather than run afoul of the law, many early-20th-century collectors donated the contents of their cabinets to local natural history museums, among other places.

Prior to examining the society’s archives, I had been operating under the assumption that the trainbearer at the North Museum had been purchased or donated during the early days, within Rathvon’s lifetime. I imagined tracing the provenance of the bird back to a local traveler, or a well-traveled friend of a local, who had killed it somewhere in South America, using shot so small that the specimen’s body remained largely intact. Now I began to consider another reason for the absence of any catalog information: maybe the person who donated the bird didn’t want to be found.

And so, on a balmy June day, I followed the trainbearer’s trail (or at least my version of it) into a small back room at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. There I watched the collection manager, Nate Rice, skin a crow as two assistants assailed their own. Lying on the bloody table was a pair of crow’s eyes, looking disconcertingly like blueberries. A starling in a plastic bag on the table was clearly next. This task would fall, after I’d gone, to the illustration student interning for the summer. Also on the table were scalpels, pens, thermometers, tiny scissors, rulers, viscera, wire cutters (for breaking bones), and a toothbrush (for smoothing feathers).

As there are shoe stores and bookstores and jewelry stores, Rice told me, there were once bird stores. You could pick up a pair of oxfords, go next door for Moby-Dick, then, on a whim, buy your wife a mounted Lesbia victoriae. Rice’s hypothesis was that at some point a well-to-do Lancastrian put together a cabinet or what he called a collage: a group of mounted birds assembled, maybe, on a side table. Eventually the specimen tag was lost or removed, either when the bird was purchased or when the collection it was part of was broken up. There was a year in the 1800s, he said, when more than 100,000 hummingbirds were shipped to England. What he didn’t say—what his good manners may have prevented him from saying—was that, like most searches for a needle in a haystack, the futility of mine is part of its meaning.

Mounted on a branch in the basement of a provincial museum, separated from others of its kind, my trainbearer radiated significance. But when Rice pulled open first one drawer of tagged and stuffed trainbearers, then a second, I could only ask why the academy needed so many. We are documenting variation through time and space, he said. One sample does not a species make, and if you wanted to know what humans were like in the early 21st century, you wouldn’t collect just the two of us standing here. You would need breadth. Depth. Scope.

I snapped a few photos of the specimens all lined up in a row. Here was one tray among dozens in this particular cabinet. Here was one in a long row of such cabinets. There were dozens of rows, each on rollers to maximize space. Such a collection is part archive, part morgue. Death is a precondition of admission and at the same time held in suspension. The birds are not allowed to die, and yet they have to.

The skinners, meanwhile, were industrious. They worked steadily, but even as they sifted through the contents of the birds’ stomachs (smells like pecans, one woman said), they told stories and jokes. Rice, a dynamic man in his early 40s, was the affable head honcho, interrupting his memories of collecting in a marsh full of saltwater crocodiles to point out that females have only one ovary, the left one. It saves precious space in a tiny body. Later, I learned that birds’ eyes have bones in them. Their vision zooms in and out, a function of the muscles attached to something called the sclerotic ring, which is big enough in owls, Rice said with a smile, that you could do shots from it, were you so inclined.

My eyes focused on another sort of shot, the tiny #6 pellets the skinners had removed from the specimens, which lay next to the dislodged eyes and something that, considering they came from a farm in Georgia, could have been soybeans. Rice grew up in Wisconsin, he told me, fishing and hunting. He even wanted to be a professional hunter as a kid, but it was a tough racket to get into. Hunting and curating seemed like opposite tracks to me, but to Rice they were the same. He would be shooting birds either way. And it suddenly became plain to me in this tiny back room, evidence lying openly on the table, that we are descendants of those Victorian naturalists, plain that preservation is inseparable from eradication. If we weren’t eliminating something, why would we have to work to keep it around?

The black-tailed trainbearer is found in a long swath of high-altitude terrain, from Colombia to Peru. It can typically be seen in gardens and scrub. (Flickr/budgora)The black-tailed trainbearer is found in a long swath of high-altitude terrain, from Colombia to Peru. It can typically be seen in gardens and scrub. (Flickr/budgora)

“A good wildlife photograph or film,” writes journalist Jon Mooallem in his book Wild Ones, “or at least a marketable one, does just this: shows us an image of nature that’s already lodged in our heads.” But I might substitute story for image here, since what I’ve imagined in Lesbia victoriae is both the story of an individual collector and that of the scientists and institutions complicit in his activities. “We exert our power,” Mooallem continues, “but are then unsettled by how powerful we are,” and I suppose I’ve turned this whole thing into a parable about that contradiction.

For this reason, and maybe a few others, I want to reverse perspective. What does any of this look like to the bird, or to any bird? Beyond concern for its immediate safety, a living bird must view me with some indifference. Even if it’s eating from my feeder, the bird likely thinks nothing of me, though by feeding it I may become entangled in its ongoing evolution—and it in mine. For as rapacious as humans can be, we are also in thrall to nature. Even a tiny South American hummingbird can exert a tremendous influence. It may appear to revolve around our needs, but ours equally revolve around its.

Consider the factory farm, where conditions have more in common with a concentration camp than with the barnyards of children’s books. To call these animals livestock (a cow is never or rarely Bos taurus) is the beginning of the abstraction that allows us to slaughter them en masse. It may appear that we care nothing about these animals, yet the opposite is also the case: we care so much about them, and about what they offer us, that we construct massive edifices, and indeed whole economies, dedicated to their power. Make no mistake: in a slaughterhouse, an individual cow has no power. Its sacrifice is absolute. But taken as a whole, cattle—and their accompanying euphemism, beef—have tremendous power. We offer our bodies up to them, as at an altar, much as in the ritual of the natural history museum, in the ritual that is “nature,” we turn animals into idols. We prize them for what we need, including their indifference. Because at the same time that we want a world in which we are the undisputed masters, one that glorifies our mercenary egos, we want another world that is autonomous and wild, one that doesn’t care about us and, indeed, confirms our insignificance.

In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for at the Philadelphia academy either. I’d hoped to come across some definitive evidence of how one tiny bird made it from South America to Lancaster. Instead I met a retired cardiologist, a donor to the academy also in the skinning room that day. He had been in the Peace Corps in Malaysia as a young man and discovered a love of birds there by watching a pair of spoonbills. But there were also others: a species that was silver on the bottom and turquoise on top (the silver-breasted broadbill, Serilophus lunatus). When a flock turned midflight, a wave of color passed through the air. He studied Malay each night and soon grew fluent. He started to dream in Malay, to think in Malay, and the world became stranger and more beautiful because of it. And of course, he said, because of the birds.

What he didn’t say, the question of mine he struggled to answer, was why the birds so fascinated him then, why they have continued to in the four decades since. But at some point we got to talking about bird brains, and I started to see the outlines of the answer. We spoke, in particular, about the encephalization quotient (EQ), which measures the ratio between how big an animal’s brain is and how big, based on its body size, scientists would predict it to be. The usual suspects—chimps, dolphins, humans—have a high EQ , which is not the same as a simple brain-to-body ratio, in which ants, rodents, and birds rank far higher than, say, elephants, whose EQ is nonetheless quite high. Though neither ratio correlates exactly with intelligence, whatever that is, the dramatically higher EQ in humans (human brains are not only big, they’re bigger than they should be) seems to confirm what we already know: we spend a lot of time in our heads, including the time we spend thinking about our brains.

We spend comparatively less time thinking about the heart, if my Google search later that afternoon was any indication. It turns out that charts of brain-to-body ratios are easy to come by, but charts of heart-to-body ratios are much harder to find. If you dig a little, you can learn that the blue whale’s heart is as big as a Harley, that dogs have a higher heart-to-body ratio than any other mammal, and that, filed in the category of the truly strange, octopuses have three hearts (a central one and two accessories). With their high metabolic demands, birds have the largest hearts relative to body size, however, and among them the hearts of hummingbirds, which often beat about a thousand times a minute, are particularly large.

I imagine we’ll always fetishize birds. They fly, for one thing, and for us ground-bound mammals, all gangly limbs and big brains, their flight symbolizes something like freedom, or hope. The bird on a wire can depart. Excluding those ungainly emus and ostriches and great auks and penguins, birds combine grace with a delicate strength, and one may even be the product of the other, whereas human life, or so it sometimes feels, is gawky and inelegant by comparison. But I wonder if we, in elevating birds, so to speak, to a privileged position in the animal kingdom—if I, in pursuing the black-tailed trainbearer down one dead end after another—haven’t intuited something that has less to do with the mechanics of flight than with the energy it requires, less to do with the physics at play than with the metaphysics it inspires. Humans may be all brain, but birds are all heart.  l

Erik Anderson is the author, most recently, of Estranger. He is a writer in residence and director of the Emerging Writers Festival at Franklin & Marshall College.

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