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READING A CHECK–LIST

MANY literary men have been given to reading in dictionaries. The articles are brief, but full of substance, and by no means so disconnected as they look. One continually suggests another, and as a man whose business is with words follows the trail of these suggestions, turning the big book over, a half-hour will pass almost before he knows it. And in that time he may have gathered more information worth keeping than twice the same time devoted to the casualties of a newspaper would have been likely to furnish.

So a student of birds may spend many a profitable season, longer or shorter, in rummaging over the A. O. U. Check-List. The initial stands for the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the latest edition of the book was published in 1910. We had waited for it impatiently, so many things had happened during the fifteen years since the second edition was issued, and on having it in hand we hastened to look it through from cover to cover.

Errors and omissions were noted with a measure of innocently malicious satisfaction; for as a matter of course, if we happened to have lived in some out-of-the-way corner, we had collected certain bits of local knowledge which the learned compilers of the work had overlooked, or never possessed — or, conceivably, had considered too unimportant for mention. But our main interest just now was in marking changes and additions. Here a subspecies, too hastily made (naming a new bird is one of the roads to glory, “and many there be that find it”), had been cast out as unworthy, fuller information having shown that it graded too closely into another form. Here a new subspecies had been accepted, or put on probation, as valid, or likely to prove so. And here, there, and everywhere, alas and alas, old familiar scientific names, so called, had given place to new, till we groaned in spirit and were ready to declare that it was only the nicknames, “trivial” names, common names, vulgar names (belittle them how you will), that stood any chance of holding their own, and therefore were worth retaining in the memory.

But all these technical details having been noted, and the volume set in its place on the shelf, it still serves what we may almost call its best use — as a book to read in at odd times.

You have an idle five minutes while waiting (patiently, of course) for breakfast or luncheon.

Take down the Check-List and open it at random. You are pretty sure to strike something worth while, something that will at least administer a fillip to the imagination or the memory. Here, for instance, is Trudeau’s tern. What about it? You have never seen one, for you have no collection, and even if you had, seeing a bird’s skin is hardly to be accepted as seeing the bird. And you read that its home is on the southern coast of South America, that it breeds in Argentina, and that it has twice been found in the United States, once on Long Island and once (where the type specimen was taken — the bird, that is, from which the species was originally described and named) at Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

It is among the possibilities, your pardon being begged, and ours being a sizable country, that you have never so much as heard of Great Egg Harbor; but henceforth, if your memory is anything like Macaulay’s, the name will have a certain interest for you. “Great Egg Harbor?” you will say, if you chance to read of a murder or a robbery committed thereabout (such cheerful events being the staple of telegraphic news), “Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey? Oh yes, that’s where the first Trudeau tern known to science, was captured, in 1838.” And perhaps, though I suppose this is hardly to be expected, (newspaper readers’ time being precious), you will be at the trouble to look up the place on the map — a little south of Atlantic City, a pleasure resort which every one, even a Californian, who has so many excellent resorts of his own, may be presumed to have heard of.

But what a distance for a bird, even for such a swift one, to have strayed from home! From Argentina to New Jersey — and that only to be “collected.” Poor bird! A Captain Cook among terns. But what a crowning bit of luck for Mr. Audubon!

Another day, and the book falls open of its own accord at page 184. You are among the kingfishers. One of them (there are only three in North America, though there are a hundred and fifty in the world), has what you have always thought about the most beautiful of all scientific names, Ceryle alcyon. Who could imagine anything prettier, or better-sounding. Ceryle alcyon! It falls from the tongue like music, and suggests the fairest of weather.

But you are chiefly concerned just now with another one, Ceryle americana septentrionalis. Not so poetical an appellation by a good deal, nor, to your North American ears, so very appropriate, since the bird, so far from being a peculiarly Northern species, finds its northern limit in the southernmost corner of the United States. No matter for that, however. You know the reason of the name, and acknowledge it a sound one. What you are thinking of now is not the name, but the bird itself, and the bright Texas day on which you saw it.

You had sauntered a few miles out of the city of San Antonio, spying to right and left for new birds in that, to you, new part of the world, when suddenly, up a little shaded brook, sitting on a low branch overhanging the water, you beheld this lovely little kingfisher. What a treat it was to your eyes! How glossy were its green feathers! And what a wide-awake, businesslike air it had!

That was many years ago, as years are beginning to be reckoned in your lessening calendar, and you have never seen one since. But reading these few words about it here in the Check-List brings the whole delightful scene before you almost as fresh as new. Memory is among the most precious of an old man’s treasures.

Again you turn the leaves. You are nearer the end of the book this time, among the warblers, and near the top of the right-hand page are the words, like magic in their effect: “Black-throated Green Warbler.” You have not seen the wearer of that name for three years, but if it were ten times as long, you could still see it plainly. Well as you know it, however, you had forgotten what a traveler it has been found to be. A bird of the Eastern States, you would have said; but the Check-List tells you that it breeds as far west as Minnesota, and has been known to wander to “Arizona, Greenland, and Europe”: and you recall (an event too recent for record in the Check-List) that a friend has told you of having taken one within a few months on the Farallon Islands! Think of that for a bird so small, and, as you would have thought, from all you have seen of it, so little enterprising.

The frail thing must have strayed far out of its course while migrating, and then been caught in a gale, you suppose, and swept out on the Pacific. There, hard beset and ready to perish, it descried a rock jutting up out of the wilderness of water, and with a grateful heart dropped down upon it, safe at last — only to have its life blown out by this devotee of science.

The Farallon Islands, Greenland, and Europe! Strange over-sea and cross-country journeyings, surely, for our little four, or five-inch warbler. As you think of it, you can see its black throat and golden cheeks, and hear again that most musically hoarse, drowsy voice repeating, out of the top of a tall Massachusetts pine, “Trees, trees, murmuring trees.”

You can even remember the very clump of evergreens, in what is now part of the Arnold Arboretum, under which you first heard it, not knowing, nor being able to discover, who its author was. A brook trickled along the foot of the hill, and there you stayed evening after evening to listen to the sweet song of the veery. You recall, too, your satisfaction, a few years afterward, in printing in a good place your version of the warbler’s tune, a version which you were young enough, and simple enough, to hope might be kept in remembrance.

Well, that was long ago, and whether any one else remembers it or not, it pleases you now to say it over to yourself, as you seem once more to hear the bird saying it, “Trees, trees, murmuring trees.” Yes, yes, there is much good literature in the Check-List. For the right reader, and at the right time, its briefest prose may turn to poetry.

And now did you ever hear of Piddletown, Dorsetshire, England? Ten to one you never did. Yet here in the Check-List you may learn that, surprising as it sounds, it holds a small but not unimportant place in the annals of American ornithology. Our North American bittern, one of the most original of characters, a pretty strict recluse, but, when in the mood for it, making noise enough for two or three, was named from a specimen taken in that English village (or city, or hamlet, whichever it is) almost a hundred years ago. How it came to be so far from home is a puzzle, — to you, at any rate, — as it is, likewise, how the species had so long eluded scientific description. Of all places in the world, that our queer old stake-driver and pumper, after lifting up its hollow, far-sounding voice in our grassy American meadows from time immemorial, should have been obliged to go to Piddletown, England, for its christening!

A Boston deacon, a devout and, better still, a good man, once remarked to his Sunday-school class (I can hear his voice now, after more than forty years), “There’s a lot of good reading in John,” meaning in the Gospel that, rightly or wrongly, passes under the name of that favorite disciple. And so, I repeat, there’s plenty of good reading in the Check-List.

Once more (for in this alluring and easy kind of study your “finallies” and “lastlies” and “in conclusions” are liable to be as many as tailed out those long-winded, old-fashioned sermons to which you listened, if you did listen, in your childhood, while the enviable man seated at the “head of the pew” was happily lost in a doze) — once more, I say, but the once may run into twice or thrice, here is the yellow-billed magpie. You remember, and think of it often, the long sunny day that you spent in pursuit of the bird down in the beautiful Carmel Valley, near Monterey; but you have never noticed till this minute that the type of the species was taken here at Santa Barbara seventy-five years ago. You wonder how long it is since the last one was seen in this neighborhood. There is nothing of the kind here now, unless it be on the other side of the mountains, a long distance from the city itself; so much you can vouch for. First and last you have seen a good many from car-windows in riding up and down the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, but you have never seen nor heard of one in Santa Barbara. It is a good bird to see anywhere, a bird of a most remarkably restricted range (like the Florida jay — and not like the black-throated green warbler), being found in a certain small section of California and nowhere else in the world. You are pleased to know that Audubon named it (after his friend Nuttall — Pica nuttalli) from an example taken in this most delightful of California places.

Few birds but possess some interesting peculiarity. This magpie is not the only one that had its scientific birth in Santa Barbara. The tricolored blackbird is another. This you have now and then seen here, though it is hardly to be accounted common; one of the most taking members of its genus, with a startling snow-white patch on its glossy jet-black wing. The white-winged blackbird you have always felt like calling it. You will never read its name (the bird’s third color is red) without remembering your first sight and sound of it (the first sound especially) in a dense clump of tall reeds, out of which came a most unearthly chorus of cat-like yawlings. “Something new!” you exclaimed, and after a little patient waiting you saw the blackbird signed with those impressive white wing-marks. Yes, indeed, something new, and something of the best.

Suffer me to say once more, and this time “finally and in conclusion,” for the right man there’s a world of good reading in a Check-List.


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