Ornitholojests

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 April 2019 (posted 5 April, see footnote 10)


Most of the ornithologists that I know have a great sense of humour. My old friend and mentor, James L. Baillie often took me birding when I was a teenager and his typical response when I could not identify a big, distant bird was “You know the crow?”. At first, he was almost always right but this soon became his response whenever I could not identify a bird, no matter how big or colourful. He also liked to pun on the names of birders and ornithologists, as in calling Dean Amadon, the curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, the ‘Dean of Ornithology’. Once on a long drive from Toronto to the AOU meeting in Duluth, Minnesota, he entertained us with ornithological humour for the entire round trip.

As today is April Fool’s Day, it’s seems appropriate to chronicle some biological humour from the past. On April 1st even Charles Darwin was subjected to a bit of fun by his shipmates as he recorded in his Beagle Diary: April 1st All hands employed in making April fools. — at midnight nearly all the watch below was called up in their shirts; Carpenters for a leak: quarter masters that a mast was sprung. — midshipmen to reef top-sails; All turned in to their hammocks again, some growling some laughing. — The hook was much too easily baited for me not to be caught: Sullivan cried out, “Darwin, did you ever see a Grampus: Bear a hand then”. I accordingly rushed out in a transport of Enthusiasm, & was received by a roar of laughter from the whole watch. [1]

Humour about birds, birding and ornithology has been the subject of several books, at least one scholarly paper, and for many years an irregular publication of the AOU. Birds are also featured in several animated films and newspaper/magazine cartoons, but few of those can truly be called ornithological [2]. The exceptions are the many bird-featured The Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson [3] that were the staple of oral presentations about birds (and just about every other branch of science) in the 1980s and 90s.

Humorous books about birds are mostly about birding [4] but my favourite is The Book of Terns, a collection of groaner puns about terns, in cartoon form. Published first in 1978 it was soon out of print but then was reprinted in 2011 and is readily available (with a new cover) from Amazon and well worth buying if you like puns and charming cartoons. It is now published by Ternaround Press, whatever that is.

The Book of Terns (1978)

The scholarly paper noted above is a three-page article by Richard Lewin briefly describing a dozen humorous biological hoax publications, some amusing titles, several parodies, and a short list of funny scientific names. Several of his examples are from the ornithological literature but he highlights a hoax that I will write more about another time, and a mini-journal called The Auklet: An Occasional Journal for Ornithologists that was made available to the attendees of at least six AOU meetings between 1935 and 1976.

The first issue of The Auklet was distributed at the AOU meeting in Toronto in October (or rather Auktober) 1935. The cover art depicting a laughing Crested Auklet—probably drawn by the great bird artist Terrence M. Shortt [5]—was on the cover of the next 5 issues at least (see below). The cover of that first issue claims that it was ‘Published at a Loss‘ as a ‘Continuation of the Nutty Bulletin’. Articles had titles like ‘A Method for the control of the Profanitory Warbler’, and the Recent literature section accused Percy Taverner of plagiarism when he combined his Birds of Eastern Canada and Birds of Western Canada into a single volume Birds of Canada. By later standards this was rather genteel humour.

First edition of the Auklet (1935)

The second edition (date?) described a new species—the Hudsonian corncrake—noting that it was nocturnal and so secretive that it had not yet been seen. And the fifth edition (1971) described a marsupial pelican. One issue, that I recall, had some clever doggerel about birds, written, I think, by Terry Shortt of cover art fame.

1976 edition

The sixth issue of The Auklet was distributed to attendees at the centennial AOU meeting in August (or rather Aukust) 1976 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. I gave my first scientific paper at that meeting, and wondered at the time if some of the material in The Auklet might offend [6] some of the senior ornithologists (and that may have been intended). Ernst Mayr, for example, was moderator in the session that I spoke in and we got on very well. I thought at the time that the bit on him in The Auklet was a little unfair: Ernst Mayr (to neophyte taxonomist): “Why be difficult—when with just a little more effort you can be impossible.” [7]

That 1976 edition contained several articles spoofing subjects that were topical at the time, and a multiple-choice Rorschach test with ornithological answers. Many prominent ornithologists were subjected to a bit of (good-natured?) ridicule in a review of recent publications by J. Mansfield-Burger, S. Oleson, P. Broadcrap, J. Crowcrap, C. Simply, and A. Seduccia [8]. I knew many of these people and suspect that they were not at all amused. The issue ended with a few pages of corny (dad) jokes which, to me, were the only funny bits in that edition: After completing her treatise on bird development and being told of a Peruvian passerine which is known to have a nestling life of 87 days, Mrs. Nice was heard to exclaim, “That’s the most nidicolous thing I ever heard”. [9]

Whether or not you enjoy the sort of humour in The Auklet, that ‘journal’ is an interesting and useful window on the history of the AOU. If I can get scans of all of the editions, I will post them as PDFs on the AOS history site. I see that the AOS archives at the Smithsonian has at least some copies and I have the 1976 edition, but if any readers have old copies that they could either scan or send me the original or a photocopy, I will make them available here.

SOURCES

  • Delacorte P, Witte MC (1978) The Book of Terns. New York: Penguin Putnam
  • Lewin RA (1983) Humor in the scientific literature. BioScience 33:266–268.

Footnotes

  1. Darwin quote: from his Beagle Diary (transcript here)
  2. animated films: the cartoon characters Donald Duck and his clan, Daffy Duck, RoadRunner, Tweety, Woodstock, and Woody Woodpecker are probably the best known
  3. Gary Larson: has apparently always been interested in animals and his biological insights are remarkably spot on
  4. humorous books about birding: there are so many of these that they probably deserve a post of their own. I show a few covers below.
  5. Terrence M. Shortt: was my friend and mentor during the 1960s. Terry worked as a collector, preparator and diorama producer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for 46 years. He attended that 1935 meeting in Toronto and the drawing looks very much like his style. He may also have drawn the cartoons in that issue but I cannot be so sure.
  6. Auklet might offend: in retrospect, my worry about offence probably just reflected my polite Canadian sensibilities but even today I cringe at ad hominem ‘humour’
  7. quotation about Ernst Mayr: from The Auklet 6: 36. I suspect that many would claim that this is the sort of thing that Mayr might have well have said.
  8. quotation about M.M. Nice: from The Auklet 6: 35
  9. prominent ornithologists subjected to ridicule: respectively (but not respectfully), Joanna Burger, Storrs Olson, Pierce Brodkorb, Joel Cracraft, Charles Sibley and Alan Feduccia
  10. 5 April 2019: I posted this essay from my iPad on April Fool’s Day but the joke was on me. The next day WordPress sent me a message to say that they had suspended access to my account via iOS 12 due to a security breach. They sent me a note about this on 2 April and asked me to re-establish my credentials and re-post but I deleted that email without reading. Then, last night, I wondered why I had not received the usual email from WordPress with this week’s post, and looked through my deleted emails.

5 thoughts on “Ornitholojests

  1. And one of the absolute send-ups is:
    “Eoornis pterovelox gobiensis” by Augustus C. Fotheringham (1928).
    Published in London by the Buighleigh Press.
    Make to look just like a covered bulletin, with wonderful figures and very cleverly written.
    They were obtainable in the late 1950s from a source at SJSU.
    That’s really all I can say.
    I also have a collection of cartoons about birds that was privately published by Peter Stettenheim.
    Too bad there is not an “Auklet” archive somewhere. I know that near the end Ken Parkes had a mighty hand in it.

    Like

  2. About 15 years ago I experienced ornithological humour live. The rangers of New Zealand’s Tiritiri Matangi had spent several weeks assiduously but fruitlessly watching for a Spotless Crake in a certain area of the island. Not long afterwards, on a tour, our guide directed our attention to the Crakeless Spot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoy your posts. As a retired special collections librarian at UCLA Biomedical Library, I thought you might be interested in a collection of photographs held in the collection by Donald Ryder Dickey. We digitized a number of them and they can be viewed at: https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/dickey/

    He also was an early pioneer in photography on the West Coast of the US and used trip-wire photography to capture photographs of wild animals. Kathy Donahue

    On Fri, Apr 5, 2019 at 6:47 AM History of Ornithology wrote:

    > Bob Montgomerie posted: ” BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 > April 2019 (posted 5 April, see footnote 10) Most of the ornithologists > that I know have a great sense of humour. My old friend and mentor, James > L. Baillie often took me birding when I was a teenager and h” >

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s