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My birdsleuths

The complimentary painting by F. Cruickshank (not to be mistaken for Isaac, George, and I. Robert Cruikshank) shows John James Audubon in something of a thoughtful pose, looking much like the white-eyed vireo. He is wearing a rich-looking fur cape, however, and it makes me wonder if a more reliable likeness isn't found in the encyclopedia, wher Audubon is shown with a double-barrel fowling piece and his faithful setter Randy reposing at his feet. As a country boy, I have always supposed that Audubon lived his life rather much by the conditions of his own time, and that his devotion to natural history and painting birds permitted him, all the same, to know what quail tasted like. That the Audubon Society is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year made me count on my fingers, and so it is! I was one of the some-300,000 school kids sandbaggged into the junior membership, just as you were, and I sported my first lapel button with a robin on it in 1913. Perhaps I did something not too many of the junior members do -- before long I got curious about Audubon and asked to look at his biography. Well, now . . .

When my own children came along, I retained a good deal of the old bird-watcher's gusto, and I encouraged them to go about our hundred acres and observe the feathered friends. I also had the less kind job of showing them how to locate a Cooper's hawk in the pine trees, so that our pen of broilers wouldn't be expended in chickhood, but I balanced this with precepts about how owls are good to have, and the butcher bird has his better side, too. I went to a bookstore and brought home the big "Birds of America" with its 435 plates of the London edition, and also two little boxes of paste-on stars -- the things schoolteachers stick on kindergarten efforts to indicate achievement. One box was gold; the other silver. I gave John the gold, 'cause he was older, and Kathy took the silver. Now, every time they saw and identified an Audubon bird arund the farm, a star could be stuck on that page, and we would take count now and then to see if gold or silver were in the lead.

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They had some glasses, and they each had a little Audubon Society field guide , and they took to this idea with enthusiasm. I used to look in the book once in a while to see how they were doing, and I was pleased to see all the stars. Blackie the Crow had two, and so did most of the more common birds of the Maine countryside -- swallow, robin, bluebird, oriole, flicker. They had been together when a grouse kited up, so the gruse had two stars. I was pleased they had identified the scarlet tanager, because I had seen a pair of them by the pasture spring.

It was long after this childhood adventure that I was looking through the big book one day, and I came upon Plate 55, a lovely little birdie sitting in some kind of flowering wickie bush, and as I had never seen just that little bird myself I was interested that the page was stuck with two stars. Cuvier's Regulus, the text said. Cuvier's Regulus was brand new to me, and I read on:

"Named in honor of Baron George Cuvier, the eminent French anatomist, 'the published plate may have been based to some extent on memory. No similar bird has ever been seen since.' Audubon's memory has been proven faulty on more than one point . . ."

Which goes to show that the checklist of the American Ornithologists' Union is nothing to go by, either, because here were two bright-eyed Maine youngsters who had found Cuvier's Regulus, and supported identifications, one with the other, by affixing their respective stars. It is something, I say, to have seen a bird that nobody else ever saw except John James Audubon. It is something, too, to realize that 75 fleeting years have passed with all those keen-eyed paid-up Audubon members looking in vain for the Cuvier's Regulus, and there were those two youngsters who never belonged to the Society, and they knew that Audubon had been right all along.

It probably goes to show, but then again, maybe not.


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