A failed poet befriends a bird. Also, notes on the BoomBox of the 18th Century.
Music featured in this episode:
Theme music by Daniel Nass
The ornithology archive at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology is an enormous basement full of climate-controlled specimen closets, holding around 400,000 birds altogether. Jeremiah Trimble, an ornithologist at Harvard, gave me a tour and got out a Carolina Parakeet.
Jeremiah Trimble: It’s about twelve inches long or so. And it has the wings slightly spread open so you can see part of the underwing, which are green and yellow. It’s mounted in a somewhat lifelike position.
Piers Gelly: When you say “somewhat lifelike,” what’s the qualification there?
JT: It has only one glass eye. The other one, which is on the right side of the bird, was lost at some point in the distant past. When you look at the bottom of the feet of the bird, there are a couple wires, metal wires, which are clipped off, and those wires are indicative of how the specimen was prepared. With wires running throughout the body so the wings are able to stay out, the head is kept in a certain posture, and also the feet and legs were positioned on a branch so that it appeared lifelike.
PG: Those feathers are kinda crazy. There’s a lot of blues and, and yellows and almost purples, even in those greens. And when you turn it, it kind of changes color.
JT: Yeah, the more you sort of look at a Carolina Parakeet, the more you realize how complex the colors are. From a distance it may have looked green, mostly, with a yellow head. But certainly in the wings, especially in the primaries, there is a lot of intense blue color, sort of fading into green and yellow, so it’s a very complex pattern. And it does have some iridescent nature to it, which changes depending on how you turn the bird in the light. At one time, you know, probably one of the most brightly colored birds in North America.
The Carolina Parakeet is extinct. We’re coming up on a century since its extinction. There’s a lot we don’t know about this bird. And to understand why, you need to understand the man who captured and prepared the specimen in Jeremiah’s hands. The man was Alexander Wilson, a Scottish scientist who traveled the United States in the 1800s. He studied birds, but in his notes on the Carolina Parakeet, he writes more than a little about cats.
Sarah Carter: He has this whole elaborate theory that apparently some very good woman told him was true, that in fact if you feed the intestines of a Carolina Parakeet to a cat, it will die.
That’s Sarah Carter, Curator and Director of Research at the Chipstone Foundation. Wilson is fascinated by this question of, if a cat eats Carolina Parakeet intestines, will it die?
SC: So he takes these intestines, he wraps them up in a handkerchief, puts them in his pocket, walks around with them, looks for his “patient,” doesn’t find a cat to administer them to, unfortunately.
Or, fortunately for the cat.
Alexander Wilson: “But after close search, mistress puss was not to be found, being engaged, perhaps, on more agreeable business.”
SC: It’s a bizarre moment in that text. Instead of Wilson just saying, “oh, I have a theory,” or, “there is a theory that this might be poisonous to cats,” he wants to figure it out.
But he doesn’t want to figure it out enough to actually make it happen.
SC: He just talks about wanting to figure it out, and then goes through various explanations and reasons why he couldn’t quite figure it out.
AW: “I several times carried a dose of the first description in my pocket, til it because insufferable, without meeting with a suitable patient on whom, like other professional gentlemen, I might conveniently make a fair experiment.”
SC: And there’s something kind of charming and tragic and lovable about that. Obviously not loveable that he’s talking about poisoning a cat, but lovable that he’s in fact saying, “you know, I have this idea, and I want to try it, and I think this might work. But the cat just didn’t come around.”
What’s strange about Alexander Wilson isn’t just that he did these kind of gross things. It’s that he tells us. The reason Wilson wrote this way might lie in his own history. Back in Scotland, Alexander Wilson was a poet. He wrote a poem making fun of a local mill owner and got sent to prison for it. When he got out, he fled to America, a failed poet starting over. He made his way to Philadelphia, where he became a man of science. And he hatched this plan. He’d create a book of birds. He’d document every species in the United States. He’d call it American Ornithology. He threw everything into the project. He traveled the country drawing birds, taking notes, and collecting specimens. But while writing about the Carolina Parakeet, he got stuck on this question of intestines, and… wrote about that, too. It’s strange to think of it as science writing, which, today, I think of as transparent, totally sure of itself. But Wilson comes at the problem like a poet.
SC: And so there’s a bit of that poetical approach to the world in his writing. There is a fair bit of ambiguity in what he’s talking about. And it’s suggestive and suggesting, and sometimes moves toward ideas without actually stating them.
When you read Wilson, Sarah told me—
SC: You feel like you’re wandering with him through these dark, dank, wild paths, looking for birds that you don’t even know exist.
For now, we’re going to wander with him, through this South Carolina swamp where he sees a swarm of Carolina Parakeets.
AW: “They came screaming through the woods in the morning, about an hour after sunrise, to drink the salt water. When they alighted on the ground, it appeared at a distance as if covered with a carpet of the richest orange, green, and yellow.”
Wilson fires at the crowd, hoping for specimens.
AW: “Having shot down a number, some of which were only wounded, the whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood. At each successive discharge, though showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase; for after a few circuits around the place, they again alighted near me, looking down on their slaughtered companions with such manifest symptoms of sympathy and concern, as entirely disarmed me.”
Standing over his victims, Wilson picks up some wounded birds.
SC: One of which becomes his “particular companion,” as he describes it. His faithful companion, which he names Poll, spelled P-O-L-L, like Polly. And this faithful companion travels with him for maybe a thousand miles.
AW: “I wrapped it up closely in a silk handkerchief, tying it tightly around, and carried it in my pocket.”
SC: And Poll is initially really ticked off, and attacks him, bites his fingers. Just does not want to be there with him.
AW: “The parakeet frequently escaped from my pocket, obliging me to dismount and pursue it through the worst of the morass.”
SC: Here’s this naturalist who has been killing and preparing dozens and dozens of specimens, all over the southeast. Yet for some reason he picks this one bird. And he seems to really love this bird. He goes out of his way to care for it. He goes out of his way to make it comfortable.
AW: “When at night I encamped in the woods, I placed it on the baggage beside me, where it usually lay with great composure, dozing and gazing at the fire till morning.”
SC: He procures a friend for Poll.
And when that friend dies, Wilson observes that Poll appeared—
AW: “restless and inconsolable for several days. On reaching New Orleans, I placed a looking-glass beside the place where she usually sat, and the instant she perceived her image, all her former fondness seemed to return, so that she could scarcely absent herself from it a moment. Always when evening drew on, and often during the day, she laid her head close to that of the image in the glass, and began to doze with great composure and satisfaction.”
SC: So Wilson talks about lots of different things he does with parakeets. He shoots at them. He dissects them and tries to feed their intestines and brains to cats. He eats them.
AW: “I confess, I think their flesh very indifferent. I have several times dined on it from a necessity in the woods; but found it merely passable, with all the sauce of a keen appetite to recommend it.”
SC: He also befriends them.
By the end of the entry—
AW: “She had learned to know her name; to answer, and come when called on; to climb upon my clothes, sit on my shoulder and eat from my mouth.”
PG: Why does Wilson treat this bird differently?
SC: I have wondered about it. But as a historian, it’s hard for me to put words in his mouth. But what is clear is that he was having a pretty hard time. He’s on this long, strenuous journey. He’s by himself most of the time. He’s struggling financially. I think there are lots of reasons why we might anthropomorphize animals or give the things around us human qualities.
We have a cultural expression for such a relationship, though Wilson did not. We might call Poll a pet.
Katherine Grier: Pretty clearly it was a pet.
That’s Katherine Grier, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the history of pets.
KG: In the 18th Century, birds were the most popular category of purely pet animal.
Our idea of cats and dogs as beloved family members is fairly modern. These used to be working animals. Cats did rodent control. Dogs were sheep dogs or watchdogs. Though they were animals, we kind of used them like machines. Originally, birds were no different.
KG: The reason birds are so popular is this is a world without recorded music. This is a world where, if you wanted song in your life, you either made it yourself, you hired somebody else to do it for you, or you kept a bird. So you can really think of a birdcage being carried around the house as sort of a BoomBox of the 18th Century. And that really holds true until radio comes along. And when radio is introduced to American households, you see an actual decline in the keeping of songbirds in houses.
PG: So I’m in some abstract way culpable.
Now, as far as we know, the Carolina Parakeet could neither sing nor speak.
SC: It’s supposed to give off, like, a “Eiiii,” that’s how they describe it, like “E-i-i-i-i.” They’re not supposed to be very beautiful-sounding birds.
But people’s interest in birds had begun to go beyond their BoomBox function.
KG: People were really aware of parrots’ intelligence, which they called sagacity.
PG: So he’s sort of primed to understand this bird as the kind of bird that might become your friend?
KG: Yes, absolutely. Because in the 18th-Century context, there are intellectual developments that set up a fundamental tension in science that has to do with dealing with all kinds of sentient beings. Wilson may have been raised to think of these animals as essentially machines, incapable of feeling. But at the same time, the rise of Romanticism and also Enlightenment thought is setting people up to recognize animals as individuals, and as creatures that have a full range of emotions, and lives that in some respects really parallel our own. So he’s already riding on the crest of a set of contradictions right from the beginning. And so, you know, it could be that, you know, the sort of bird-sociality associated with this particular specimen suddenly makes him see it as an individual. At which point it is eligible to become a pet.
So according to Wilson’s evidence, the Carolina Parakeet was smart and friendly. All around a great bird. Wilson delighted in the parakeets’ cleverness, their love of fun. He claims they pulled apples off of trees not because they liked the apples, but because they enjoyed “wanton play and mischief.” “Their flight,” he writes, is—
AW: “most usually circuitous, making a great variety of elegant and easy serpentine meanders, as if for pleasure.”
He takes this capacity for play as a mark of intellect. And he sees in these birds an emotional life.
AW: “They are extremely sociable, and fond of each other, often scratching each other’s heads and necks, and always at night nestling as close as possible to each other.”
These are birds who, against all thought of safety, swarmed their fallen comrades after Wilson shot at them, disarming him.
AW: “After a few circuits around the place, they again alighted near me, looking down on their slaughtered companions with such manifest symptoms of sympathy and concern, as entirely disarmed me.”
SC: And this unusual swarming behavior is something that naturalists today actually think could contribute to why the species became extinct.
Jeremiah Trimble: The last known CP died in a zoo in Cincinnati in 1918.
Here’s Jeremiah again, from the top of the show.
JT: It’s a difficult question to answer, how a bird that common might go extinct.
At one point, Carolina Parakeets ranged from the Great Lakes to Florida and Texas, and as far west as Colorado.
JT: With habitat destruction, the Carolina Parakeet started moving in on agriculture in the southeastern Unites States especially, and were hunted by farmers, for example, who saw these birds raiding their apple crops or corn fields. And humans were trying to fend off these birds from destroying their livelihood.
There’s also the hat factor.
JT: It is a rather brilliantly colored bird. And with trends at the time, fashion trends, they actually became somewhat popular in the millenary trade.
That is, hats. You can find images online of women’s hats that feature the entire bird taxidermied and wired on upside-down with its wings spread. It’s with a heavy heart that we must turn back to Wilson and Poll, for the last few lines of Wilson’s American Ornithology entry on the Carolina Parakeet.
AW: “I took her with me to sea, determined to persevere in her education; but destined to another fate, poor Poll, having one morning, about day break, wrought her way through the cage, while I was asleep, instantly flew overboard, and perished in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Wilson’s entry on the Carolina Parakeet ends abruptly, right there. And with it ends the stability of Wilson’s picture of the species.
PG: How does he know it drowned if he was asleep?
SC: He doesn’t. He doesn’t know. Considering how he felt about this bird, maybe it was hard for him to imagine her having an alternate life without him. And what’s interesting is, because he lets us know he was asleep, he opens up that possibility for us, too.
So Poll has possibly drowned. She has definitely vanished. It gets worse.
SC: Wilson really couldn’t catch a break. The main reason for Wilson’s journey was creating American Ornithology. And so, on the road, he would create packets of drawings. Unfortunately, around the time that he saw the Carolina Parakeet that he created and mailed, never quite made it to Philadelphia. We don’t know what happened to them. And he didn’t know they didn’t make it until he got home.
Sarah figured out this chronology. Wilson draws Poll. Poll disappears. Then Wilson mails the drawing to Philadelphia. Then the drawing goes missing. And finally Wilson returns home to no trace of his friend.
SC: So when he arrives back in Philadelphia, he has to recreate many of these drawings. In addition to sending back drawings, he was also sending back specimens. And so one of the specimens he sent back was a Carolina Parakeet. The specimen is almost identical to the drawing that appears in American Ornithology. Almost identical to Wilson’s drawing of the Carolina Parakeet. So it’s really quite likely that he based that drawing—supposed to be from nature, created on these long, arduous journeys—on a specimen that had been sent back and then stuffed.
That specimen, the one that looks exactly like the drawing? It’s the one Jeremiah showed me up top. All this gets even stranger when you compare Wilson’s account of the bird to the only other scientific text on the species, by the great American ornithologist John James Audubon.
SC: I love putting the images Wilson and Audubon created of the Carolina Parakeet side by side. Because they give you a totally different impression of that bird. For Audubon, you have this sense of the Carolina Parakeet truly swarming over the branches of a cockle-burr bush or tree, and just covering it. You feel like you’re looking at a very violent swarm of insects. Some of them kind of reach at you with their claws.
Audubon’s image matches his verbal description.
John James Audubon: “[The parrot] eats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visiter.”
SC: And then you have Wilson’s parakeet. It just seems very silent and docile.
Sarah pulled up an image of Wilson’s drawing alongside the specimen.
SC: When I look at this, I just immediately go back to how he described the bird. He talks about the bird as being very elegant in the air. And the wings, both in the taxidermied specimen and in Wilson’s drawing, are arched, with a great deal of potential motion. They’re perfectly curved as if they’re about to take off.
Audubon’s wings, on the other hand, are either fanned, making the birds as intimidating as possible, or closed. And take the head, the seat of character. Wilson’s bird is quiet, meeting the viewer’s gaze. It’s the intelligent bird we know from his text.
SC: His mouth is not open, versus Audubon, where the birds are actually screaming.
And then there’s the legs.
SC: If we look at the legs in Wilson’s image and on the actual taxidermied bird itself, the legs are just kinda there.
Not so in Audubon’s drawing.
SC: Its claw’s actually reaching out to grab you. Wilson’s bird’s not gonna grab you. It can’t. It can’t in the taxidermied specimen, and it certainly can’t when it comes to that image. It’s just sort of resting on that branch.
PG: In Wilson’s the legs are actually shorter. Closer together, less articulated, and, and not as long, that’s sort of like an arm-like leg in the Audubon drawing.
SC: Yeah, yeah, it’s really hard—you barely even see legs, in Wilson. You’re absolutely right. It’s sort of hard to see legs even in the taxidermied specimen. I mean, they’re there, but much harder to see. I’m sure someone has actually gone through and actually measured all known the Carolina Parakeet specimen legs and can tell us which is in fact more accurate. But I’m much more interested in why Wilson thought that this was the best way to tell the story of the species.
Indeed, why? We have two distinct sets of measurements, two contradictory facts. The answer may lie in the text. Audubon writes about their mischievousness, as Wilson does, but he does not admire the birds for it.
JA: “They alight on the apple trees of our orchards, or the pear-trees in the gardens, in great numbers. And, as if through mere mischief, pluck off the fruits, open them up to the core, and, disappointed at the sight of the seeds, which are yet soft, and of a milky consistence, drop the apple or pear and pluck another, passing from branch to branch until the trees, which were before so promising, are left completely stripped, like a ship waterlogged and abandoned by its crew, floating on the yet agitated waves after the tempest has ceased.”
Despite some overlap, Wilson and Audubon could be describing different species.
JA: “Nature seems to have implanted in these birds a propensity to destroy, in consequence of which they cut to atoms pieces of wood, books, and, in short, everything that comes in their way.”
AW: “They are extremely sociable and fond of each other”
JA: “It is easily tamed by being frequently immersed in water.”
AW: “It is alike docile and sociable; soon becomes perfectly familiar.”
JA: “They are incapable of articulating words, however much care and attention may be bestowed upon their education; and their screams are so disagreeable as to render them at best very indifferent companions.”
AW: “Until equal pains be taken in its instruction, it is unfair to conclude it incapable of equal improvement in the language of man.”
SC: So right there, we’re seeing all these ways in which this representation is being mediated.
It’s as if, because Audubon’s bird is a pest, it has the screeching mouth and the long, grasping legs of a pest. And because Wilson’s bird is a wonderful, intelligent companion, it has the body of one.
SC: It makes you realize just how carefully constructed these images are, when it comes to relating them to actual material things. To actual objects in nature. And he talks about this image as, you know, a faithful resemblance of Poll. It’s hard to parse. But that’s what he’s telling us. In this case, we’re pretty certain that is not a picture of Poll.
PG: So, in contemporary parlance, Wilson’s claim that this is a faithful representation of Poll is a lie?
Because the Carolina Parakeet is extinct, because there’s no basis on which to say, Audubon’s right, Wilson’s wrong, or vice versa, these accounts render each other useless. We don’t know anything for sure, just what Wilson thought of one bird named Poll. We’re left with that specimen that isn’t Poll, that bird body Jeremiah showed me.
JT: And it does have some iridescent nature to it, which changes depending on how you turn the bird in the light.
What we know might come down to the angle at which we view Wilson himself.
SC: I just don’t want to think of Wilson as lying. Because, I think, maybe for him, this might be the closest thing he has to a representation of that sole companion over those thousand treacherous miles. He can make a parakeet look however he wants it to look. But he is inflecting that drawing with his memories of, descriptions of, fondness for, Poll. It’s a scientific representation, but it’s also something more than that. When you start talking about something as being only a scientific specimen, or you start limiting your way of thinking about a topic like the Carolina Parakeet, to just what can be scientifically “known,” you end up missing the real story sometimes. And the Carolina Parakeet example, for me, just brings up how much we can’t know, but at the same time, how much we can know that is not scientifically documented. Through Wilson’s writing, there’s so much we know about his relationship with this bird. We know something that is very emotional, that’s very intimate, that’s very personal. And to imagine that those constellations of ideas could somehow be linked to a specimen in a natural history museum, to me, is really fascinating. I find it very affecting to think about how we only have traces of the Carolina Parakeet left. No one will ever know what a Carolina Parakeet looked like in flight. Or what they sounded like. Or what they tasted like. Or whether their intestines kill cats. But we do have these descriptions. Wilson is giving us access to this firsthand experience. And that allows us to bring this extinct species to life in ways that you can’t do with just a specimen.
February 29, 2016