For the Birds Radio Program: Old Bird Books

Original Air Date: July 3, 1987

Laura visited a used book sale where she found lots of cool books.

Duration: 3′36″


Recording of Rock Doves)

Last week the Duluth Public Library held its annual used book sale. I couldn’t get there until evening the first day, and by then most of the bird books were gone. I had dreams of unearthing T.S. Roberts’ 1932 Birds of Minnesota, but no such luck. I did get one wonderful buy, though–a copy of a 1944 book by Marion Cothren titled Pigeon Heroes, all about the pigeons serving in the Army Signal Corps. The photos in it alone are priceless. There’s one of a German camera bird–a pigeon with an automatic camera cleverly strapped to its abdomen but giving the wings full clearance. As the avian spy flew through the air, it could take snapshots of Allied territory. One photo shows a Japanese war bird perched on a gun. There are pictures of Always Faithful, Cher Ami, and Pigeon No. 1708, who set off on a race in 1932 but managed to get waylaid. It took her eight years to return to her home in the Bronx Zoo. This rich little book cost me all of 35 cents.

Used book sales and garage sales can sometimes yield wonderful buys. Old bird books often get cast aside because people assume the information is out of date. The American Ornithologists’ Union has changed a lot of bird names over the years, but it’s not too hard to figure out which bird is which.

There are some important differences between old bird books and modern ones. The quality of photo reproductions and artwork has improved immeasurably in the past two decades. The style of writing in ornithological works has changed quite a bit, too. As recently as the 1950’s, ornithologists could get away with describing birds as sweet, cunning, prankish, or shameful. But by the ‘70’s, anthropomorphism was out among the scientifically minded. Now every behavior must be measured and described in objective terms, which is fine when you’re counting the number of songs per minute or the number of preening movements made on a particular site during a measured period of time, but doesn’t always work. One baby blue jay I raised in 1978 learned how to ring a bell from a pit game–he had to furiously beat his wings to keep his body from damping the sound as he hit the button. Now that kind of behavior just doesn’t fit in any of the standard categories set by modern ornithologists. But there’s a nice explanation in a good old book from the 1800’s, where Mark Twain’s wrote– “It ain’t no use to tell me a blue-jay hasn’t got a sense of humor, because I know better.”

The finest bird libraries are a mixture of new and old books, but even then the truths of ornithology are elusive. My book about Pigeon Heroes quotes Maeterlinck, the playwright: “Nature creates a bird– somewhat limited–just capable of finding and picking up a few grains of corn, of taking shelter from wind and rain, of existing without progress–and for the benefit of this bird–as though to humiliate us– she puts into operation all sorts of things we think we have invented and all sorts of things we do not understand and things, too, that we shall never invent unless we become gods.”

(Recording of Rock Doves.) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”