Working for birds in Africa

Whose Bird? Men and Women Commemorated in the Common Names of Birds

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 13:18 -- abc_admin
Bo Beolens and Mike Watkins, 2003. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 400 pp, 152 black and white illustrations. Softback. ISBN 0-7136-6647-1.
pages 164 - 165

Bo Beolens and Mike Watkins have produced an entertaining book, one to dip into rather than read cover to cover. It is full of fascinating facts and useless information. For example, did you know that of the people who have given their names to birds at least 63 were medical doctors, but only two were professional poets? Anyone who has ever wondered who Vieillot or Verreaux, Heuglin or Hartlaub were can find the answer here - or at least as much of it as could be tracked down.

The publishers claim on the jacket that the book presents 'a potted biography of every individual who has ever given their name to a species of bird...Each biography describes the life and work of the person concerned.' The authors, wisely, avoid such hyperbole. Though they have clearly put considerable efforts into their research, they admit that in some cases only the sketchiest of information could be traced, and in eight cases none at all. But as they reckon there are 2,246 bird species named after a total of 1,124 individuals, eight blanks is not bad.

The opening chapter describes the complex detective work that was necessary, firstly to accumulate the information and then to make some sort of sense of it. This is followed by a tongue-in-cheek chapter on 'How to get a bird named after you' - it helps to have discovered a new species, but it is considered very poor form if you then just name the bird after yourself (a convention which did not deter the Scottish born American, Alexander Wilson, from not only naming Wilson's Warbler after himself but also incorporating his own name in its generic name: Wilsonia pusilla) - so you need to find a tame fellow ornithologist to write the description for you. An easier route to immortality is to be the wife or mistress of an ornithologist, or simply to be rich and sponsor expeditions.

As for the biographies, with 1,124 of them crammed into 360 pages, they are mostly, perforce, very succinct. Some are no more than a single short sentence; a few stretch to just over a page. The authors have, nonetheless, managed to find space for anecdotes and incidental information that bring to life their varied cast of adventurers, eccentrics, earnest scientists, hard-nosed businessmen, rogues and demi-gods. Sometimes this information is contained within the biographies (for example, there are the Verreaux brothers, professional taxidermists who 'gained notoriety for having once attended the funeral of a tribal chief, whose body they then disinterred, took to Cape Town and stuffed!'). Or else it is crammed into a succession of boxes scattered through the text, that summarise such facts as the nationalities and professions of bird collectors, or the unusual ways in which some of them met their deaths (the calling carries a much higher than average risk of being killed by elephants).

Bo Beolens founded and Mike Watkins is a member of the Disabled Birders Association, and the book was conceived as a way of raising money for that organisation. It might have been worth buying for that reason alone, but it needs no such special pleading. It stands on its own merits as a useful work of reference that is also a lively read.

Bill Quantrill

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