For the Birds Radio Program: A Visit to the Field Museum of Natural History
This program originally aired when Laura’s children were young and her family went “birding” to see Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and other extinct species at the Field Museum of Natural History, back in 2000. In 2017, Laura is most distressed that this program displays her utter ignorance about an important issue. In reference to the ceremonial regalia worn by First Nations, she used the word “costumes,” a disrespectful term that trivializes important cultural garb in the same way that it would be disrespectful to refer to a Catholic priest’s vestments or a nurse’s or firefighter’s working clothing as a costume. This trivializes important garb as if the wearer is play acting or pretending to be something else, like a child wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume for Halloween. The overall content of the program has some value, but Laura is mortified that she was so insensitive.
On the Fourth of July, my family went to Chicago. The Chicago park district has some excellent birding spots, and we were at my favorite. First I saw a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in perfect plumage, close enough to see the bills once coveted as ornaments for native American tools and ceremonial costumes. [NOTE: This was an unconscionable word choice in reference to the regalia worn in First Nation ceremonies.] Their crests glowed crimson, and the huge white patches on their folded wings gleamed in the forest gloom.
Nearby, a male Bachman’s Warbler perched, and I didn’t have to go far to see a pair of Passenger Pigeons, and then a flock of about 15 more. There were two Carolina Parakeets, too—shockingly green with brilliant yellow heads and scarlet masks. How such tropical-looking birds survived frigid Midwestern winters I couldn’t fathom. A single Heath Hen and a pair of Labrador Ducks came into view, and then I came upon the most amazing sight of all—a Great Auk!. I wasn’t expecting this magnificent oceanic species in downtown Chicago, especially because it’s been extinct since the 1600s. But I’ve learned to expect the unexpected at the Field Museum of Natural History.
Almost every North American bird is at the Field Museum, and if they’re all dead, looking at the world through plastic eyes, their hearts and souls replaced with sawdust, they’re still somehow real. Museum taxidermists are more talented than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men—these specimens don’t show a single crack. The dried flesh on the California Condors’ bald heads was painted so skillfully that they looked vital and alive. How poignant to see these life-like birds—not mannequins, not carvings, but birds whose feathers grew out of living tissue, whose throats once erupted in songs and calls, perhaps pleading for mercy, perhaps screaming defiance with their final breaths.
A display case filled with hummingbirds fills me with wonderment. How exactly does one kill such tiny birds without damaging their plumage? What odd impulse makes us display these dead bodies like Norman Bates’s crows? And why do I love looking at them? Although most specimens added in the last twenty years died accidentally, mostly under downtown skyscrapers or picture windows, most of the older specimens, including the extinct species, were shot by ornithologists. I wonder what went through their minds as they gazed upon the living birds, shot them, and held their limp, warm bodies in their hands. Were the sightless eyes still open and moist? In the 1700s, Mozart wept when his pet starling died. How is it that scientists who knew the most about birds, and who dedicated their lives to understanding ever more about them, could rob so many birds of their most definitive quality—their vitality? How can biologists, students of life itself, see so far when they stand on the shoulders of death?
I don’t mind living on a planet bereft of dinosaurs. Looking at Sue, the largest, most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, on display outside the bird room, I know I wouldn’t want to run into anything like her on a birding expedition. Dinosaurs and humans never coexisted on this planet, and weren’t meant to live here at the same time. But I feel the pangs of loss gazing at the Passenger Pigeons, who were meant to live side by side with humans—with me. How vivid blue and rosy their lifeless plumage still is!
And those gorgeous Carolina Parakeets! The earth was diminished when life was extinguished from these exquisite shells, and we as a species are diminished for having killed so many. The display case of extinct birds is filled to capacity, and I feel a quiet but palpable fury that people so cavalierly destroyed so many species, one by one, without yet learning a lesson from it.
These pitiful dead bodies renew my resolve to protect the birds we still have, for my children and my children’s children, and for themselves—the living, breathing, vital creatures that bring so much beauty and song to this planet we are meant to share.