I was a nervous and obsessive child. They say that some children suck their thumbs while still in the womb; I spent those nine months chewing my fingernails. Ten minutes after I learned to tell time, I became a habitual clock watcher. I owned the biggest dictionary in the fifth grade. As a nervous and obsessive child, part of my job was to collect things. I collected NHL hockey cards and British postage stamps and Batman comic books and balsa wood gliders and buttons with funny sayings and, well, you get the idea.
At that time, Brooke Bond Foods Limited, makers of Red Rose tea and Blue Ribbon coffee, took to including small trading cards in their packages. The cards were designed for children, and the sales strategy might have been to get us hooked on caffeine early on. Each year's cards had a different theme. The 1969 theme was "The Space Age," and 1971 was "Exploring the Oceans." Neil Armstrong and Jacques Cousteau were very big at the time. Given my family's British heritage, it isn't surprising that we went through a swimming pool of tea each month, and so each year I managed to get most of the cards in each set of forty-eight. Any that were missing at year's end could be purchased for two cents apiece and pasted into a twenty-four-cent collector's album.
The 1970 theme was "North American Wildlife in Danger." This was a pretty heavy topic for young children, particularly when they were already so jittery from all that coffee and tea. The late, great Roger Tory Peterson wrote the text for the cards and album that year, and he didn't ease up on the doom-and-gloom message: "There is a finality to extinction; it is the end of the line for creatures that have taken millions of years to evolve." Give me a break! I'm only ten years old, for crying out loud! Can I get a little more sugar in this tea?
Peterson wrote that "Cards 1 to 4 show birds now extinct; we shall never see them alive again." Cards 2 and 3 were the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon, which most game show contestants could pick as the correct answer to a question about extinction. Card 4 was the Carolina Parakeet. You never hear much about that species, probably because humans feel collectively guilty about exterminating something so darned cute.
Occupying the prestigious position of trading card number 1 that year was the extinct Labrador Duck, with a portrait painted by Charles L. Ripper. The picture shows a handsome black-and-white male duck with brown eyes and a yellow bill, standing on one leg on a rock covered in lichen and bird droppings. His head is mainly white, but for a black stripe down the middle of his crown. Black feathers on his body are interrupted by white patches on his chest and wings. Ripper didn't include a depiction of a female Labrador Duck on the tea card, partly because the hen's mottled gray and brown plumage makes it look like any other female duck, and partly because he had only enough room to feature one bird. Ripper rendered the drake with its head drawn back on its shoulders, completely relaxed, and completely oblivious to the fact that he and all of his friends are about to be smacked in the face by the "finality of extinction."
After seventeen years of issuing cards about trees and flowers and ships and famous people, Brooke Bond Foods finally twigged that adults didn't collect little cardboard rectangles, and that children weren't supposed to drink coffee and tea. They replaced the collectors' cards with miniature porcelain figurines of animals. But that tiny little cardboard rectangle with the picture of the doomed Labrador Duck that went extinct eighty-three years before I was born made a big impression on me.
Just as chicken follows chickadee, and swallow follows sparrow, an adult life committed to the study of birds followed my childish obsessions. At the University of Manitoba I started by studying undergraduate zoology, and finished with a master's degree for my research on the foraging behavior of seabirds. The University of Calgary granted me a Ph.D. for my work on the way female sparrows respond to the songs of males. Mixed in with my studies were thousands of hours in the laboratory and in the lecture hall, teaching keen young minds about anatomy and physiology, botany and histology, ecology and conservation. My passion for biology made me a popular lecturer; a student once described me as having "dangerous levels of enthusiasm." My fastidious attention to detail brought people to my research presentations at ornithological conferences.
And then, one day, I found myself all grown up, with credentials, a proper job, and an impressive title, but not one bit less obsessive than I had been as a child. The only difference is that adults have better outlets for their obsessions. And so, twenty-five years after collecting the tea card with a picture of the extinct Labrador Duck, I began research for a comprehensive account of that species for the Birds of North America series.
But the link between my childhood experiences and my ornithological research decades later was not as direct as all that. Somewhere in my basement I still have the tea cards, and I did write the species account of the Labrador Duck, but the two are unrelated. I can blame Brooke Bond Foods Limited for a forty-year addiction to caffeine, but I had long since forgotten about the card collection by the time I came to write about the Labrador Duck.
The truth is, I wrote the Labrador Duck species account for reasons altogether more practical. As one of the authors on the species account of the White-crowned Sparrow, the editors offered to give me the whole series for free if I wrote a second account. I certainly couldn't afford to buy the whole series, so the word free sounded pretty appealing. Since the White-crowned Sparrow account was just about the longest account in the series, I felt that things would more or less balance out if I chose a species about which virtually nothing was known. What better choice than a bird that went extinct almost before anyone noticed that it was alive? How long could it take to write the shortest account in the series?
When you start off as a nervous and obsessive child, you are likely to grow up to be a nervous and obsessive adult. I might have simply scribbled down all of the obvious facts about the Labrador Duck and dashed them off to the series' editors. Instead I set myself the tasks of ferreting out every detail ever known and accounting for every stuffed specimen, every bone, and every egg of every Labrador Duck in the world. After that, I figured that I would discover a previously unknown color wedged in the spectrum somewhere between yellow and orange, and go on to reunite baseball's American League and National League. Maybe after that I could tackle an international treaty banning cheese in a tube.
As I worked on the account, the stories surrounding Labrador Ducks became more and more bizarre, and I became more and more concerned about getting it all correct. Even after the species account was published in 1995, I continued to go after the incomplete stories. My wife, Lisa, began to describe my behavior as being that of a dog with a bone; it didn't seem like a compliment. I told my friends strange tales of stuffed Labrador Ducks. "You should write a book," they said, perhaps to shut me up. But surely someone as dangerously obsessed as I am can only write a book about an impossible task. And so I embarked on an adventure to examine and measure every stuffed Labrador Duck specimen, no matter where it was, without exception. I was determined to see where the ducks nested (Labrador would be a good start) and where they wintered (the shallow waters around New York City). Not allowing myself to stop for a breath, I would examine every Labrador Duck egg in every museum, and visit every spot on the planet where the ducks were known to have been shot. This book is about Labrador Ducks, but it is also a story of wartime atrocities, smuggling, bastard children, the richest man in the British Empire, and America's richest murderer.
Just because I am nervous and obsessive doesn't mean that I am nuts. When I say that I set out to visit every place on Earth with some tie to Labrador Ducks, I was willing to make a few reasonable exceptions. For instance, in 1986, Redonda released a five-dollar postage stamp with an image of a Labrador Duck on it. I had no intention of going to Redonda, particularly since it is an island in the eastern Caribbean with a total area of just under half a square mile. Redonda is not world-renowned for its five-star hotels and locally brewed beer; it is completely uninhabited.
I was also in no hurry to travel to the community of Brooksville, Florida. I have absolutely no doubt that Mayor David Pugh, Vice-Mayor Frankie Burnett, and the other 7,262 residents of Brooksville are warm and decent human beings. Even so, I did not feel compelled to make the journey there just because a town planner named a street Labrador Duck Road. If you feel the need, take Sunshine Grove Road north, turn left on Hexam Road, and you will find Labrador Duck Road on your right, just after Jenny Wren Road. If you find yourself at Mountain Mockingbird Road, you have gone too far.
Despite my failure to travel to Redonda and Brooksville, my quest required me to travel 72,018 miles on airplanes, 5,461 miles on trains, 1,565 miles in private automobiles and a further 1,843 miles in rental cars, and 158 miles in taxis. Add to that 43 miles on ferries, and 1,169 miles on buses, and it adds up to a whacking great 82,257 miles, or 3.3 times around the planet at the equator. As far as I could tell at the start of my adventure, there were 54 Labrador Ducks for me to see. Presumably they would all fit on a midsize kitchen table. I suppose you could jump to the end of the book to see how close I got to seeing absolutely every one, but please don't. That would ruin the punch line.
Copyright © 2009 by Glen Chilton, Ph.D.