A sea-watching friend has had a coup. A crisp pair of photographs of a near-adult Kumlien’s gull, far from its usual cruising grounds in Arctic Canada. To most, the image will invoke nothing more involved than the phoneme “seagull” which, if you were to say it aloud, would drive Eddie to distraction. There is, he’ll grind out through his new teeth, no. such. thing. as. a. “sea”. gull. There are just gulls.
Except the identification of gulls is a subset of ornithology as complex and demanding and occasionally as nitpicking as any in natural science. Hearing two birdwatchers comparing a second-calendar-year (2cy), first-winter Iceland gull, with a near-adult Kumlien’s is like listening to two medieval scholastics – Duns Binos and Duns Teles, if you like – debating some quiddity about whether angels have navels.
I’m no expert on gulls. I had a minor recent coup spotting a leucistic (you might be tempted to say “albino”) herring gull among a flock of his more conventionally attired kind on plough land near the house, and I beat Eddie to the first Iceland of the winter in the loch here, but at that point I step back and leave the field to the guys who really know their stuff. North westerlies bring in occasional rarities to the Atlantic shore. There has been a Bonaparte’s gull, an elegant little thing which wears a slatey black hood in summer (not that we’ll see them then) that makes it look like Kylie Minogue about to rob a bank, and we’ve had a few Sabine’s, which has pulled its stocking mask a down a little further and sports a wickeder looking bill. Apart from that, in my mother’s inimitable phrase, a blind man running for his life, wouldn’t know the difference.
Eddie and his colleagues are, of course, to “difference” what Jacques Derrida was to “difference”.
Me, I’m a bit of a fraud, and a literary fraud among real scientists, and ornithology, along with optical astronomy, is perhaps the last field of science genuinely dominated by amateurs. My interest in birds is first of all aesthetic. I don’t make lists in a consistent way. If I spotted a waxwing and Kumlien’s gull on January 1, I’d probably start a desultory “year list” that would fade out around February 4, around when I started pouring drams again. And I’d have to admit that the waxwing would, alongside the pure pleasure of their parroty gregariousness, be making me think about Vladimir Nabokov and Pale Fire.
I love the Sabine’s because it’s other name is xeme, which is pure Scrabble gold in a tight game and because the Sabines (plural, no apostrophe) in question were Sir Edward and his brother Joseph (Irish like my mother, in case you hadn’t guessed), who captured the little beauty exactly one hundred years ago, though it was a man called William Elford Leach (qv Leach’s petrel) who clinched the identification in 1819.
You’ll see where this is going. A major component of my fascination has to do with the men (usually, almost invariably) who trapped and shot and compared skins – they didn’t have the optical kit gifted to Duns Binos and Duns Teles – and realised that they had come up with something new and as yet unnamed. It’s a sad truth that the advance of natural science almost always involves the death of an animal. I used to wonder why the goldeneye (a duck, rather than a gull) was so named, rather than being called the whitecheek, which is the thing you see when you look through binoculars. Dead, though, the bird looks at you reproachfully from a pure golden orbit, and that’s what stuck. It’s controversial this. The only time, apart from a divorce, that I’ve attracted hate mail was when I interviewed Sir David Attenborough for a Scottish Sunday newspaper and included the detail that as a boy he had shot birds and collected eggs. For that (I quote) “clearly invented and malicious” detail, I received more death threats and racial slurs than a Jewish Labour MP.
The evening with Sir David got more ribald and verbose as the wine flowed, and we ended up, like a pair of grey rappers firing back and forth the names of birds-of-paradise, a shared obsession: “Wilson’s”, I would venture, “Goldie’s”, Sir D would counter, trumping me entirely; “Victoria’s riflebird” . . . “crescent caped lophorina”; “Princess“ Stephanie’s astrapia!” . . . “crinkle-collared manucode!”. We even tried to finesse the difference between a long-tailed and a short-tailed paradigalla, but by then we had moved on to the pudding wine and I couldn’t pronounce “paradigalla” to save my life.
This is obviously redolent of a love of language as much as a love for birds, but there is also a sad, delightful lore in the lives of those who gave us these names. I knew that Bonaparte’s gull was named after a nephew of the emperor, a Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who was only 12 at Waterloo, spent eight years in America, and was a friend in England of Phillip Jakob Cretszchmar (Cretzschmar’s bunting: little beauty). And I can give the lowdown on the Steller of Steller’s eider and Steller’s jay, and on the John Eliot Thayer who gave us the controversial Thayer’s gull (another subspecies of Iceland that might be about to be resplit from the nominate) but I realised last week that I’d only the vaguest notion who Kumlien was, just that Louis Agassiz said he was the most knowledgeable man about bird’s nests he’d ever encountered. Thure Kumlien was a Swedish American who had dabbled unsuccessfully in farming and took to taxidermy to keep the wolf from the door. Reading this as I looked over the still sodden potato patch started to put ideas in my head. Not that there’s much market for stuffed crows (Poe fans, mostly) and I couldn’t bring myself to shoot our local vixen, who is called Samantha, predictably. I’d far rather “shoot” one of Eddie’s photographs . . .