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August 2022

Vol. 50, No. 4

About Books: Small and Focused

Mark Lynch

About Books: Small and FocusedThe Real James Bond: A True Story of Identity Theft, Avian Intrigue, and Ian Fleming.
Jim Wright. 2020. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing LTD.

A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird.
Written and illustrated by Rosemary Mosco. 2021. New York, New York: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

Birders always want more. A longer life list. More time in the field. More identification field marks. More information on where to see birds. And, of course, more birds and books about birds. It is no surprise that many books about birds tend to be large. The recent Birds of Maine by Peter D. Vickery clocks in at 642 large-format pages. Steve Hilty’s Birds of Colombia, ostensibly a field guide, runs a close second at 604 pages. Both of these books are excellent and their size—and weight—testify to the amount of knowledge we now have about bird distribution, bird records, and bird life. Mention must be made of Lynx Edicions’s mind-blowing 16 large-format volumes of Handbook of the Birds of the World, which illustrates every species of bird on this planet, contains thousands of state-of-the-art photographs, and has an encyclopedia’s worth of text. The Handbook of the Birds of the World is the penultimate bird publishing venture. My one caveat about these mammoth tomes is that they are difficult to read, in the way an unabridged dictionary is physically awkward to read.

Below are two very small books about birds that are narrowly focused and fun to read.

The Real James Bond: A True Story of Identity Theft, Avian Intrigue, and Ian Fleming.“This is the story of the most notorious case of identity theft in history” (p.7, The Real James Bond)

The history of birding is filled with odd tales. One of them concerns how popular author Ian Fleming came up with the name for his license-to-kill British spy James Bond. The story is simple enough to tell, but author Jim Wright has expanded the tale into a thin but entertaining monograph, The Real James Bond.

The original James Bond was a field ornithologist and expert on the birds of the Caribbean. Bond was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family on January 4, 1900. Though he had a child’s usual interest in the natural world, reinforced by summers spent on Mount Desert Island, Maine, he seemed doomed for a life spent in banking. But through a series of family tragedies, and being cut out of his father’s will, James Bond found himself accompanying wealthy friend Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee on an expedition to the lower Amazon to collect specimens for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 

The expedition, via a 100-meter long, steam-powered cargo ship, turned out to be perilous. At one point, a legendarily lethal fer-de-lance popped up on the trail just inches away from Bond’s feet, and he had to shoot the 5-foot-long snake before it could strike. Days later, while preparing to bathe in a jungle stream, Bond saw a giant boa constrictor gliding out of the understory. His reaction, as he recounted for the Philadelphia Daily News: “I turned and ran. Later I found out the boa was as scared as I was. It darted off in the opposite direction.”

The two budding explorers managed to return with many valuable specimens including a live, 23-foot long, dark-spotted anaconda and two live hyacinth macaws, but no hoatzin or bush dog. The anaconda turned out to be a new species that would be named in de Schauensee’s honor, Eunectes deschauenseei. Bond and de Schaunensee sold the live specimens to zoos both public and private. (p. 33)

It was during this first trip that Bond became passionate about birds and adventure and began his long career as a field biologist. He was attracted to the bird life of the Caribbean and spent his life visiting the numerous islands, taking bird specimens, and writing papers on the distribution and identification of birds of the Caribbean. Bond’s field work included many highlights. He obtained a specimen of an Eskimo Curlew in the Barbados. The Bahama Nuthatch, now possibly extinct, was first described by Bond in 1931. For a number of decades, he was recognized professionally as the expert on the birds of that area. Ultimately, this included a mind-blowing 24,000 records of birds of the Caribbean. He collected more than 290 of the 300 species of birds known to inhabit the Caribbean during his time (p. 10). He wrote more than 150 scientific papers and many other publications. 

Nate Rice, ornithology collection manager for the Academy of Natural Sciences, concurs: “Anybody who is studying Caribbean birds is going to quote Bond papers. That’s his lasting legacy of scientific importance—how often his papers are cited.” 

Bond’s first paper, “Nesting of the Harpy Eagle,” appeared in The Auk in 1927. His last, “Twenty-Seventh Supplement to the Check-List of birds of the West Indies (1956)” appeared sixty years later in 1987, two years before his death. (p. 109–10)

His publication that most birders are familiar with is The Birds of the West Indies, first printed in 1936.

Bond also developed a zoogeographic theory that the avifauna of the Caribbean was most closely related to the birds of North America, not South America as had been previously thought. A line, later known as “Bond’s line” was drawn between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago to indicate this separation. He proposed another, smaller “Bond’s Line” on the island of Hispaniola that separated the avifauna of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

In recognition of Bond’s achievement, researchers have named a new family of Caribbean plants, several fish, a grasshopper, a stink bug, and a subspecies of Barn Owl and seven other birds in his honor. (p. 11) 

His face has appeared on stamps (of Mali!), and even a mammal—a hutia—was named in his honor.

Despite all his ornithological accomplishments, Bond’s life story would have likely sunk into academic obscurity, a geeky bespectacled ornithologist who tramped around the West Indies, whose once popular field guide is now out of date. His is a name known mostly to other ornithologists or older birders who had purchased his guide to the birds of the region. But then came Ian Fleming. 

Fleming, a former British naval intelligence officer, decided to build a winter retreat on Jamaica.

He named the place Goldeneye, not after the duck of the same name, but after a plan he’d developed for the defense of Gibraltar during the war, and after one of his favorite books, Reflections in a Golden Eye, the 1941 novel by Carson McCullers. (p. 13)

It was here, from mid-January to mid-March for 13 years, that he wrote the 007 novels. Looking for a name for his protagonist with the license to kill, he saw his copy of The Birds of the West Indies and used its author’s name. James Bond, the fictional international suave spy and womanizer, could not be further from the real ornithologist in character or appearance. It bothered the real James Bond no end. I can imagine all the jokes and comments made by his colleagues, and probably strangers hearing his name. “In fact, Bond grew to hate the 007 connection, even as his wife did her best to promote it.” (p. 8)

Once Ian Fleming and the real James Bond did meet. On February 5, 1966, James Bond and his wife dropped by unannounced at Goldeneye and met with Fleming. It was an awkward get together that was documented by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who just happened to be there to interview Fleming. Bond stated rather flatly, “I don’t read your books” and proceeded to identify the Cave Swallows flying around Goldeneye. Fleming for his part was gracious and apologetic for using Bond’s name in his fiction. 

The Real James Bond fleshes out all the events of Bond’s life with details of some of his trips and his academic life. For example, Bond had an interesting trip to Cuba to see all three endemics of the Zapata Swamp. He also had a dangerous climb up the 8,000-foot Massif de la Selle in Haiti to obtain specimens of the endemic La Selle Thrush. Sadly, as revealed in The Real James Bond, Bond could also be a ruthless academic, and he cruelly sabotaged the career of his colleague Meb Carriker at the Academy of Natural Sciences. 

Still, this is a slight story, so Jim Wright fleshes out his book with a number of digressions. There is a chapter on the different printings of the Birds of the West Indies. Another chapter explores the rumors that the real James Bond was an actual spy. “In Bond’s Footsteps” (p. 112), visits the various locations important to Bond’s life that are still extant. I particularly was interested in the section on Bond’s uncle, the artist Carroll Sargent Tyson, Jr. (1878–1950). A cousin of the painter John Singer Sargent, Tyson was also a painter who was fascinated by ornithology. He produced The Birds of Mt. Desert Island, Acadia National Park, which consisted of 20 chromolithographs of his 108 sketches and finished paintings. These were based on specimens that James Bond shot. There was a limited edition of this collection of prints of only 250 copies. After their printing, the plates were destroyed, so complete sets are a real rarity. Only his Snowy Owl is reproduced in The Real James Bond, but it reveals that Tyson could have been one of the great bird artists of his time. I would love to see the full set. 

Also reproduced in The Real James Bond is “Goldfincher” by Avian Flemish.

That same month, at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, organizers distributed a parody of the group’s newsletter, The Auk. The publication was the Auklet, billed as an “Irregular Journal of Irreverence,” featured “On Her Majesty’s Ornithological Service”, by Avian Flemish. The parody, set in the West Indies, pits British ornithological agent James Blond against avian archvillain Goldfincher, who has a dastardly plot to collect as many endemic birds as he can, then drive up their value by blanketing the region with radioactive birdseed. (p. 73)

Fleming’s novels led to many parodies and copycat books, television shows, and movies. Examples include television’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Get Smart.” So, it should not be too surprising that the AOU would be tempted to satirize both the Bond novels as well as the real James Bond. I am certainly glad I got the opportunity to read “Goldfincher,” but as you can imagine, nerdy ornithological spy parodies do not age well. 

The Real James Bond is a fun book and worth a read. It is a perfect beach book. The Real James Bond is well illustrated, often with color photographs. Even without his 007 connection, and despite James Bond’s darker aspects, his energetic life of obsessive ornithological field work and many discoveries deserves to be revealed again for modern audiences. As to Ian Fleming…well, my favorite cinematic Bond was Daniel Craig.


A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird.Maybe you hate them. Tons of people do. Perhaps you loathe their dusty-looking feathers, or the way they swarm the sidewalks, or the fact that they’re allowed to poop anywhere they want, but you always have to find a bathroom. (p.1, Pigeon Watching)

Many authors can write about science, but few can successfully communicate those ideas to a lay audience in a text. In addition, very, very few books about birds are genuinely funny. Rosemary Mosco is a science communicator, acclaimed cartoonist, and best-selling author. A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching highlights her considerable talents as a science communicator and is also the funniest book I have read about birds in some time. It is illustrated with Mosco’s comic artwork that many of us have already enjoyed in her web comic “Bird and Moon.” The combination of all these elements makes A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching one of the most enjoyable natural history books of 2021.

Mosco is serious about her fascination with these birds that many people have dismissed as “flying rats.” Rock Pigeons have an interesting history, exhibit complex behavior, and their long connections with human societies is always surprising. Right off the bat, Mosco lists 10 reasons why watching pigeons is a good idea. #1 on the list is that “It’s free” (p. 6). This may seem like an offhand comment, but it is really about accessibility. Not everyone can afford to take trips to exotic bird-filled locations. Many people do not even have the time or means for traveling to birdy locations in their state. But anyone can become a pigeon observer. You can even watch pigeons from an apartment window. Pigeon watching is a democratic avocation. Her #10 reason is, “It’s a hard world. Sometimes you just need to look at a soft bird” (p. 6). After all that has been going on these last few years, I could not agree more. I need a low key, calm alternative to racing around ticking the next rarity. Besides, in Mosco’s eyes, pigeons are beautiful. Don’t you dare disagree with her on this point. 

A pigeon is pretty (seriously, fight me), and its prettiest part is probably the iridescent purple and green neck. This iridescence plays an important role in a pigeon’s courtship display and seems to reflect the health of a bird to its potential mates. (p. 67)

The amount of hard information contained in this small book is amazing. There are sections and chapters on the evolution of pigeons, the taxonomy of doves, and a complete and illustrated anatomy of pigeons. There are several sections on pigeons and people in which we learn about pigeons as food, the creation of dovecotes, and the many uses of pigeon excreta. Mosco, of course, thoroughly explains how pigeons poop and what makes up pigeon droppings. There are mini-biographies of famous pigeons, some decorated war heroes. There is an introduction into a few of the common breeds of domesticated pigeons. With breed names like Scandaroon, English Pouter, and American Giant Runt—each illustrated by Mosco—many of these breeds seem like they came from the lab of Dr. Moreau. 

No matter how much you think you know about pigeons, Mosco manages to come up with something you likely never knew. Like the fact that pigeons have been trained to distinguish Impressionist paintings from Cubist paintings. Did someone get a grant to do that? Did you know that some pigeons have learned to ride the subway? To learn about the many patterns and colors of wild Rock Pigeons, Mosco begins with a thorough discussion of genetics and how it applies to a pigeon’s appearance. Pigeons come in several colors and combinations of patterns. Wing patterns in particular are important in identifying individuals. Even their pigeon feet can be unique. Who knew about the variety of colors of a pigeon’s toenails?

Pigeon breeding and nesting behavior involves many kinds of visual displays you could observe in a local park. Some behaviors are even auditory, like wing clapping and cooing. When it comes to mating, pigeons have no penises, but mate via their cloaca. This sounds difficult. 

If you flip over a pigeon and look for its genitalia…well, first off, why are you doing this? Second, you won’t find anything but a hole. A pigeon’s eggs, sperm, and poop all come out through an opening in a special chamber called the cloaca. To reproduce, a pigeon lines up its hole with its lover’s hole (probably the worst phrase ever included in a field guide) and they rub them together until the male ejaculates sperm into the female. It’s called the “cloacal kiss.” You’re welcome. (p. 71)

Pigeon nests are basic, a simple collection of twigs and leaves. After the altricial young are born, they are fed with a thick cheesy “crop milk” that both males and females produce. Young pigeons peck at their parents’ bills to signal them to regurgitate this food. Mosco has a bit of a dark fascination with crop milk.

Scientists have figured out which genes are responsible for making crop milk, which means that they could theoretically produce it on a large scale someday. When civilization collapses, maybe the last survivors will subsist on glasses of chunky pigeon milk. (p. 180) 

Pigeon Watching ends with a thoughtful essay on whether you should feed pigeons in the park. 

A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching is a perfect book for teachers who are looking for a text to teach their classes about how to watch and enjoy wildlife. This is a sturdy book that would hold up to being taken into the field, and it actually does fit in your pocket. Mosco has crammed a lot of hard science into this small book. But she has couched all those technical details in humorous and conversational writing combined with her hard-edged cartoon artwork. She has added many interesting digressions to hold your attention. I found myself wishing this was the first volume of a long series. I expect to hear a lot more from Rosemary Mosco in future years. I will never dismiss a pigeon as unworthy of my attention again. 

“Pigeons were the original internet. They could update you on political news or give you the latest sports scores.” (p. 45)

Citations

  • del Hoyo, J. A., Elliot, J. S., and D. A Christie (editors). 1992-2013. Handbook of the Birds of the World. 16 Volumes. Barcelona, Spain. Lynx Edicions. 
  • Hilty, S. L. 2021. Birds of Columbia. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions.
  • Mosco, R. Bird and Moon. https://www.birdandmoon.com/
  • Tyson, C. and J. Bond. 1941. Birds of Mt. Desert Island, Acadia National Park, Maine. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
  • Vickery, P. D. 2020. Birds of Maine. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

Mark Lynch has interviewed both authors on his show Inquiry on WICN (90.5 FM): Here are the links to the podcast versions of those shows:

Jim Wright: https://www.wicn.org/podcast/jim-wright/ 

Rosemary Mosco: https://www.wicn.org/podcast/rosemary-mosco/ NB: Mark Lynch did a second interview with Mosco about her art and comic work: https://www.wicn.org/podcast/rosemary-mosco-2/ 


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