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Misadventures in a Peruvian Rain Forest

A PARROT WITHOUT A NAME: THE SEARCH FOR THE LAST UNKNOWN BIRDS ON EARTH By Don Stap New York: Alfred A. Knopf 239 pp., $19.95 IN the 19th century, jungles were gaudy, steamy, fetid, and deadly labyrinths of primeval excess. Jungles were to be tamed: conquered by explorers, then bulldozed by civilization.

Now that half the world's 5 billion jungle acres are parking lots, we've had second thoughts. Jungles have become rain forests: delicate ecosystems that make oxygen, nurture plants, and domicile a zillion species of insects and pretty birds. Rain forests are our bulwark against the greenhouse effect, and a greenhouse for the natural sciences.

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Thus, Don Stap's bird search in the rain forests of Peru is a topical tropical tale. The plot promises even more: a scientific safari and an African Queen-style downriver trek to the darkest, remotest, most exotic outback. We are to accompany John O'Neill of Louisiana State University, who has discovered a dozen new bird species in Peru. ``A Parrot Without a Name'' describes his 1987 quest for more birds unknown to science.

Unfortunately, at the outset, a member of the expedition chips a tooth. O'Neill takes her to a dentist in Lima, and disappears for most of the book. Already, one suspects that the book is not high adventure. Stap is left to his own poor observations of the preparations, the trip downriver, and the nightly stopovers.

Stap is a published poet and a grantee of the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet he is weakest when recounting his personal experiences, particularly when he waxes poetic:

``The kiss of skin along their bony spines was as pure as sculpture.''

``In the middle of the table the bug-splotched lantern hisses and casts its decaying yellow light to the edge of the clearing where, against the thick darkness of the jungle it may as well give up.''

Also, the wimp factor is palpable. Without O'Neill, the Americans flounder. Their Peruvian guides horse around with the dugout canoes, losing supplies and drenching the passengers. The Americans whimper. They're wet. They can't find their tents. The bugs are biting. No one speaks up. One guide kills a howler monkey and drags it to camp. A baby monkey clings to the carcass and screams like a child. The Americans move away so they won't hear. When O'Neill does rejoin the expedition, he takes command. Stap gasps relief.

Stap's praise of O'Neill is frequent and cloying. O'Neill is likely a fine researcher. But Stap's treacle does the scientist no service. In so many words, we're told he's a genius, a hero, and an unassuming man of the people. Stap strains so that some sentences ring wrong. ``Divorced since 1978, O'Neill clearly enjoys his big-brother relationship with the graduate students.''

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Not much happens on this trip. To make a book Stap digresses, and thus saves this work. Stap is better when he recounts the experiences of others and best when he paraphrases. He fills the dead spots in his own saga with the more memorable experiences of O'Neill and another birder, Ted Parker. Thus, we glimpse when the jungle was really dangerous and the natives really restless. We get better birding stories too.

Ironically for a poet, Stap excels only in snippets of expository writing. When he briefs us on rain forests and ornithology, he is concise and interesting. We find there are 1,700 bird species in Peru alone.

We learn how bird specimens are gathered with birdshot and mist nets, and how the birds are prepared, with cornmeal to blot the blood and cotton batting protruding from the eyes. We learn how new species are identified using calipers to measure beaks and toes. His excursions into naturalist history are engaging.

This is a book for birders. It's an easy read. Enthusiasts can flip through Stap's adventures to get to the bird stuff. But be warned, the parrot without a name appears late, and then he's a parakeet.

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