Archive for February 15th, 2010

The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction by Glen Chilton. HarperCollins, 2009.

Dr. Glen Chilton first became seriously entangled with the Labrador Duck when he agreed to write the account on the species for the Birds of North America series. He had already completed a long account on the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). In his introduction, Chilton explains that he anticipated that an account on an extinct species about which little is known shouldn’t take too much time or effort to write. However, owing to his self-admitted obsessive character, Chilton’s writing assignment led to a quest, a quest to track down and examine every known specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck still in existence. Additionally, Chilton secured genetic matter from purported Labrador Duck eggs for DNA analysis, and visited locations associated with sightings of the duck. In fulfilling his quest, Chilton traveled some 72,018 miles on airplanes, 5,461 miles on trains, 1,545 miles in private cars…. Well, you get the idea. Obsessive.

Chilton begins his quest with a visit to the one-time breeding range of the Labrador Duck, or at least the area so described by John James Audubon when he travelled to Labrador in 1833. After attending the American Ornithologists’ Union’s 2000 meeting in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Chilton carried on to the little hillside coastal community of Blanc Sablon in Labrador, where he talked with the locals, reevaluated Audubon’s account of his 1833 visit, and scouted the terrain. Based on his findings, Chilton was forced to conclude that it is unlikely that Audubon actually found breeding evidence of the ducks in 1833.

Much of Chilton’s quest leads him on a far-flung tour to many of the world’s most prestigious museums, with a few stops at little-known institutions for good measure. His very first Labrador Duck specimen was a Canadian resident, now living a quiet life at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. For this and each of the subsequent 54 ducks that Chilton examined, he provides a description of the condition of the duck and outlines what is known about the history of the specimen. Other Labrador ducks to be found in Canada reside at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and the Redpath Museum in Montreal. From here, it’s off to Great Britain for ducks 4 to 9, to Paris for duck 10, and so on through Germany, Holland, Austria, Russia, the United States and other destinations.

Most Labrador Ducks are not on public display. Given their value as irreplaceable artifacts, most are kept under lock and key. Chilton’s tour thus offers readers a behind-the-scenes look at museums. Most museums have only a small fraction of their collection on display at any given time and the remainder is housed in a curatorial research facility. Chilton also offers a brief overview of the display open to the public at many of the institutions he visits. Additionally, Chilton offers a bit of travelogue and history for many of the towns and cities he visits, although visiting tourist sights is incidental to the purpose of his quest.

Apart from some wearisome whining about a lack of funds as he jets around the world, Chilton is a congenial host. Some of his humour felt a bit forced, particularly in the earlier chapters of the book. However, he soon hits his stride and for the most part, Chilton makes a pleasant guide. His eclectic assortment of information and observations includes some revealing facts. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the Halifax harbour explosion of 1917 was the largest human-created explosion before the nuclear age. In Frankford, while viewing the city from its 650-foot tall Main Tower, he is disquieted to realize that the view he is enjoying is very much like the view of Frankfurt that WWII Allied bomber pilots would have taken in when they came to destroy the city.

Although The Curse of the Labrador Duck is about a quest for an extinct bird, it’s not really a bird book. Chilton doesn’t offer a lot of information about the natural history of the species. Although it is about an extinct bird, he also doesn’t address the broader topic of extinction. Although much of the book revolves around travel, it’s focus is not tourism. Yet, somehow Chilton has been able to offer readers a companionable and memorable read.

P.S. Should you know of someone storing a stuffed Labrador Duck in their attic, you might want to drop Chilton a line and claim his $10000 reward for locating unrecorded specimen.

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