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New Bird in Birdland

A Parrot Without A Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth

by Don Stap
Knopf, 239 pp., $19.95

The insect people have it best. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of species are discovered and described each year. Some authorities believe that 90 percent of insect species have yet to be identified. One entomologist I talked to, Dr. Terry Erwin at the Smithsonian, whose specialty is a group of ground beetles (genus Agra) that live high in the rainforest canopy of equatorial South America, informed me that over two thousand species of this one highly specialized genus of beetle exist.

Jaguars of the canopy,” he said. “Eat anything. Hard to get at. Got to climb the trees to get the fogging devices up there to knock them out. Out of one tree on our last trip eighteen different species tumbled down, fifteen of them never collected before.”

What was your reaction?” I asked. “Elation or woe?”

Oh, elation!” the he replied. “Cheers. Scientists jumping up and down. Shouts of ‘Oh God!’ Why woe?”

Well, I’d be discouraged to think how many more undiscovered beetles were up there.”

Not at all,” I was assured. “To think that you’re holding a beetle in your hand absolutely new to science,…that’s cause for celebration.”

The amphibian/reptile scientists do reasonably well, too. Their discoveries move along at a comparatively brisk rate, over a hundred a year, most of them in Southeast Asia where scientific efforts have lagged over the years. New species of turtles in particular are turning up, though the most impressive discovery of the last decade in herpetology is surely that of the Angola python (Python anchietae), smaller and differently patterned than its cousin, the African Rock python.

The mammal field with its relatively small number of four-thousand-odd species has more movement than one might expect—particularly among the smaller animals, such as shrews, voles, marsupial mice, and so on. Hundreds of specimens lie in collecting trays awaiting identification. This year two interesting new mammals have turned up—a lemur from Madagascar, and a tamarin, which is a South American marmoset with silky fur and a long tail. The last relatively large mammal identified in the United States was a marsh rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris hefneris.1 Discovered in the Florida Keys and described in 1984, it is known as the Keys Rabbit. At the time, a somewhat controversial auction was held to name the rabbit after the highest bidder—who turned out to be Hugh Hefner, the publisher whose empire’s logo is, of course, a porthole-eyed rabbit with a black bow tie. The publisher paid $42,000 for the privilege to an organization with a highfalutin name, The Center for Action on Endangered Species, which then immediately closed up shop, the organizers absconding with the funds. Lately, the rabbit has been in the news again. Its habitat in the Keys has been threatened by human encroachment, and it (along with the Keys Deer) is now in serious trouble.

Fish. In recent years nothing as astonishing as the living fossils, the coelacanths, pulled out of the sea off Madagascar, has turned up, but new species are being discovered fairly constantly to add to the some twenty-five thousand described so far. The Rift lakes in East Africa contain up to one thousand species of Cichlids—a perchlike fish which to a degree resembles the familiar bluegills of New England ponds—indeed so many that some species may become extinct before they are ever identified.

With birds, as one might expect, new discoveries are comparatively rare. Birds are for the most part highly visible; they move about, some on long migratory flights; their calls are discernible;…it is a wonder, really, that anything new ever turns up. But on occasion there have been astonishing discoveries. One comparable to the fishing up of the coelacanth would be the identification of the Congo peacock—a large bird, the size of a hen pheasant, but not truly described until the 1930s.

The first indication of its presence was a single feather in a native’s hat at Avakubi in the eastern Congo in 1913. It was spotted by James P. Chapin, a nineteen-year-old member of an expedition sent into the Congo by the Museum of Natural History of New York. The feather was a secondary wing quill, rufous with black baring, and appeared to be from the quail family. Though it seemed likely that its former bearer inhabited the region at the time, Chapin could find no evidence that this was so. He took the feather home, where it remained a mystery to him until twenty-one years later in a corridor of the museum in Tervueren, Belgium, when he spotted two large mounted birds, both quite moth-eaten, on the top of a cabinet. He realized he was looking at a match for his feather, further substantiated when the two birds—labeled Pavo christatus—turned out to be from a collection the museum had received from the Congo in 1914.

In 1936 Chapin went back to the Congo to try to find his bird—now identified as Afropavo congensin—in the wild. He closed in on it slowly. On August 12, 1936, he had lunch with a doctor, Mathelin de Papigny, who had eaten the peacock. Finally in 1937 he heard, saw, and collected a number of the birds, one of whose forebears two decades before had surrendered a feather to the forest floor.

The Congo peacock (and this is why the reference to the coelacanth is appropriate) is referred to as a “relict species”—that is to say a species existing in prehistoric eras when Africa and Southeast Asia were joined. The Congo peacock has a scientific connection with Asian avifauna. Two other birds in Africa are equivalently characterized—the Green Broadbill, identical to the broadbills of Eastern Asia, and the Congo Bay Owl, an extremely rare bird of the mountains of eastern Zaire (indeed it has never been seen alive) which has an exact Asian counterpart.

I went looking for the Congo peacock in the upper reaches of the Congo some years ago, venturing into the somber green of the rain forest—the canopy above so high and thick that when the thunderstorms came through they were past and over with, the sun shining, before their raindrops managed to percolate down through the foliage to shower the undergrowth. No luck with the bird. I thought I saw one—a rush of dark wings—but my sister, a few steps behind me, said I was “seeing things.” Rather Ironically, this rare bird has been captured and breeds, as all peafowls do, with little trouble. The Bronx Zoo has one in its own cage. The sheen of its plumage, shades of purple, is apparently improved by the artificial lights. I went up to the Bronx the other day and stared at it.

In the postwar years nothing nearly so spectacular as the Congo peacock has turned up. Even in the ornithological paradise of Peru (where over 1,700 species have been described) the identification of new species came pretty much to a standstill. Between 1945 and 1950 only two new birds were recorded. At this point John O’Neill, a young ornithologist from Louisiana State University, and later Ted Parker, also from LSU, appeared upon the scene. The recounting of their expeditions to Peru, the discovery and description of a remarkable number of new species, is the subject of Don Stap’s wonderfully engaging book A Parrot Without a Name, subtitled The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth.

Stap’s richly detailed account concentrates on two separate visits with the two men in Peru—with Ted Parker at his “house” on the Sucusari river—the take-off point for birding expeditions Parker leads into the surrounding virgin rain forest. As for O’Neill, Stap joined him for an expedition on the river Shesha in the Cordillera Divisor, an isolated cluster of low mountains one hundred miles east of the foothills of the Andes—its rain forest, three times the size of Wyoming, one of the earth’s last unexplored regions. It was on their trip in 1987 that O’Neill discovered the unnamed parrot.

O’Neill made his first visit to Peru in 1961, just after he finished his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. Entranced by its bird life he has been back to Peru twenty-two times since. On his third trip, in 1963, a missionary’s wife gave him some bird skins, one of which O’Neill identified as an entirely new species; the size of a blackbird, it was subsequently named the Orange-throated Tanager. Its discovery was an astonishing accomplishment for someone scarcely twenty-one and not yet out of college. The publication of his paper describing the bird (with the help of an older hand, George Lowery, the head of the Museum of Natural Science at Lousiana State University) established O’Neill as a Wunderkind of bird watching. Since then he has been involved in the descriptions of more new species than any ornithologist alive. The common names of these are splendidly evocative: the Selva Cacique (1965), the Black-faced Cotinga (1966), Elusive Antpitta (1969), Pardusco (1976), Longwhiskered Owlet (1977), Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant (1979), Ochrefronted Antpitta (1983), Inca Wren (1985), Cinnamon Screech-Owl (1986), the Ash-throated Antwren (1986), and most recently the “parrot without a name.” A remarkable list, when we consider that ornithologists have felt that few, if any, birds, the best studied of any class among animals, were left to be discovered, much less new species.2

O’Neill’s associate Ted Parker does not have comparable numbers of discoveries, but he is thought to be the only naturalist alive who has actually discovered a new bird in the wild, rather than after the bird has been collected, studied in a museum laboratory, and described. This was a flycatcher he first heard (“an unusual twittering note in its call”) and taped in a flooded section of rain forest in northern Peru in June 1983. He then got a look at the bird—a small olive-yellow flycatcher with the strange-colored eyes which eventually gave it its common name, the Orange-eyed Flycatcher.

No one who knows Parker would be surprised that his identification of the flycatcher began with his hearing its call. Almost everyone in the higher echelons of birding circles has an anecdote about Parker’s uncanny hearing abilities. Victor Emanuel, a friend and the head of one of the major nature tours in the country, recounts that on a trail in northern Peru Parker suddenly shouted “Stop!”—halting a line of mules and some bickering going on between expedition members—“I hear an incaspiza!” The bird, the Grey-winged Inca-Finch, Emanuel explains, has a “thin, wiry little call that you barely hear in absolute silence. Parker not only heard it above all that ruckus on the trail but recognized it though the finch was three hundred miles from its usual range.”

O’Neill and Parker, as they emerge from Stap’s book, are markedly different: O’Neill is the more traditional scholar of the two, organized, at home in the laboratory, a regular contributor to scientific journals, a Ph.D. O’Neill revels in the routine business of preparing and cataloging specimens. Parker does not. Indeed, he is considered something of a maverick, too busy in the field to earn a Ph.D. (considered a necessity in the ornithology community); though the taxonomy of bird life is an essential element of ornithological study, he has only collected a few specimens since 1983—he explains that it is the behavior of birds in nature that he considers most important. He has made between six and seven thousand recordings of bird calls and songs. His reluctance to shoot or otherwise kill birds in the name of science may be linked to his wife, Carol, and her animalarian instincts: she keeps a multitude of pets, including in the past a goat which perched about their apartment on the top of the furniture. Stap may have made too much of Ted Parker’s nonscientific ways. His colleagues at LSU hasten to point out that Parker has written over fifty treatises for scientific journals as well as a widely used book on the birds of Peru. He is at present working for Conservation International, an organization whose function is to persuade governments to set aside nature preserves.

Still, it is for his talented work in the field that Parker is remembered—especially by highly competitive birders who go to extreme lengths to add new species to their “life lists.” In his senior year Parker left high school to see how many birds he could identify in North America over the course of a year. He saw 626 species of birds out of a possible seven-hundred-odd—a record, and all the more remarkable in that it was achieved without resorting to any other transportation than his car and without using the birders’ “hot-line” information that passes the word along about rare sightings. That record no longer stands but Parker still holds the record for the most birds counted over a twenty-four-hour period—a total of 331 spotted with a fellow ornithologist, Scott Robinson, acting as a corroborator, in Peru’s Manu Park. (Parker’s friends say that his only form of relaxation from such dedicated bird study is to watch LSU basketball games. Even here the level of intensity is extreme: he often videotapes the games and when he gets home he replays and studies the game he has just seen from the stands.)

Both Parker and O’Neill combine disciplined scientific minds with a splendid spirit of adventure. Stap gives a vivid picture of the kind of hardships involved in the scarcely penetrable Peruvian rain forest whose leaves are “large enough to hide an eagle.” It is insect-infested, the home of the Bushmaster, the Fer-de-lance, poisonous frogs, spiders that feed on small birds trapped in their gargantuan webs. Indeed, the pair’s dedication in this hostile environment brings to mind the early African soldier/naturalists: Richard Burton, John Speke, John Kirk, Emin Pasha, especially the last, a German soldier and scholar who was so involved in his scientific studies while commanding the beleaguered equatorial garrison in 1881 that Henry Stanley, sent on a rescue mission, had almost forcibly to carry him back to civilization.

One can imagine being highly intimidated in the presence of such highpowered naturalists. To begin with, the evening discussion about the birds viewed and collected during the day would be incomprehensible to the average bird watcher since naturalists like O’Neill and Parker use the scientific rather than the common names,…tongue twisters such as Tolmomyias flaviventris viridiceps (a flycatcher), Galbula cyanescens (a jacamar), Xiphorhyncus (a genus of wood-creeper). It could have been worse. Thank goodness for Linnaeus, the Swedish doctor who in 1735 began to simplify and work out a binomial system of nomenclature for flora and fauna. As Stap points out (there are many such interesting sidetracks in his book) in pre-Linnaeus times the common Ground Cherry (Physalis angulata) would have been referred to as physalis amno ramosissime ramis angulosis glabris foliis dentoserratis, or a “bladder-fruited annual, many-branched with angled branches and smooth, deeply toothed leaves”!

Stap, who refers to himself as an “occasional bird-watcher” but I suspect is being modest, captures the excitement as well as the vicissitudes of the quest. He eases the reader through the scientific complexities; the author of a book of poetry, he finely describes what he sees: “the Sunbittern,…an odd-looking bird…tiptoeing solitarily along the edge of a shady stream, thrusting its long neck forward, then bringing its body up to meet it.” Or: “A group of saddleback tamarins (marmosets) whipping through the high branches like a volley of coconuts fired from a giant slingshot.”

Stap was asked along on the LSU expedition to Peru despite being a relative outsider. In explanation, O’Neill wrote:

I am very worried that we are near the end of really pioneering basic expeditions to discover what is actually in a wild part of this earth. There are few wild places left and the political situation in the world is such that we may not be able to do this sort of work too much longer. I want to see such work well documented.

Not only was Stap allowed on the expedition but he was lucky enough to be on hand when the unknown parrot was collected—actually a parrotlet or parakeet, small, about the size of a house sparrow, green, with a pale blue forehead. Two members of the expedition, Tony Meyer and Peter Marra, had noticed that a flock of these small parrots came every day to a nearby thick stand of bamboo, sixty feet high, to feed. They shot two specimens, which they brought back to camp in considerable excitement to show O’Neill. Stap writes:

O’Neill has been staring at the birds—looking at one, then the other…. Tony hands him the one he is holding. O’Neill turns it around and inspects it, all the while his eyes growing brighter. “There’s no blue in the wing,…” he says, gently extending the bird’s wing feathers. “And look at this blue on the forehead.”

Stap describes the other members of the expedition sensing that something is up and gathering around O’Neill as he inspects the birds. “What is it?” one of them asks.

Of the forty-nine species of the parrot family known to occur in Peru, twenty-five are of the smaller species—parrotlets. O’Neill runs images of each through his mind, mentioning aloud the possibilities. Then he says—an earth-shaking conclusion by a naturalist—“It’s nothing. It’s something new.”

Euphoria in the camp! Stap cannot believe his luck: “…less than eighteen hours before I must leave camp, O’Neill has a new species in his hand. I could not be more surprised and delighted if a jaguar came out of the forest and sat at my feet.”

Since the publication of Stap’s book, the parrot without a name has now been given one, at least a scientific name. The naturalists describing the parrotlet—O’Neill, Charles Munn, and Irma Franke—plan to name it Nannopsittaca dachilleae, after a colleague in conservation, Barbara D’Achille, who with a companion was pulled off a bus by members of the guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, and shot. Why the guerrillas would have wanted to kill her remains unclear. D’Achille was often at odds with the government in Lima over its conservation policies. She had gained a formidable reputation worldwide as an effective and often-published environmentalist. Appropriately enough, she wrote a number of articles about the rain forest of northern Peru and indeed, after O’Neill’s discovery, she was one of the first to see the parrot that now bears her name.

It seems odd, but the use of her name is the first instance anyone at LSU could remember of a conservationist being honored in this way. As the description of the bird concludes:

We hope that naming this parrotlet after Barbara will not only keep her memory alive, but also inspire young journalists in Latin America and around the world to follow her example and fight for the survival of our planet’s threatened biota.

  1. 1

    Not to be confused with the swamp rabbit (Syvilagus aquaticus), which was most likely the famous “attack rabbit,” spooked out of the bushes by the Secret Service and which swam out toward President Jimmy Carter sitting placidly in his rowboat, fishing. The president was quite alarmed—perhaps thinking the rabbit a kind of furry torpedo—and managed to fend it off with a canoe paddle.

  2. 2

    A widely accepted definition of species (by Joel Carl Welty in The Life of Birds) is “a living population in nature made up of birds (or other organisms) that have about the same structure, size, color, behavior, and habitat, and breed with each other rather than with members of similar groups.” Subspecies, on the other hand, tend to be populations isolated from similar birds, usually by geographical differences of habitat, which would have a potential for interbreeding if there were the opportunity. Hefner’s rabbit—perhaps not surprising considering the genus—is a subspecies. These, of course, are identified far more often than a true species.

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