Day 51: The Bird Controversies

originally published February 20, 2012

Earlier this week, in digging through the muck of the Texas Education system’s commitment to the doctrine of creationism, I generated some controversy – not here, but in between someone’s Mafia Wars request and a ‘Which Salad Dressing Are You?’ quiz on my Facebook page. Today I spit in the face of danger and once again embrace my hunger for controversy.

Ornithological controversy, bitches.

Ms. Wiki, probably hoping I’d uncover this scandal and release it to the world, directed me to the Somali Boubou, pictured above. Sure, it’s a pretty bird, with the cold dead eyes of a murderous Malaconotidae, but what is it, really? In 1988 they discovered a bird like this, and called it a separate species – a Bulo Burti Boubou, which is difficult to say without feeling just a little bit like a putz.

They couldn’t figure it out. It was almost exactly like the Somali Boubou (which is a type of shrike, if that makes anything clearer to anyone), except with totally different colors, a different shape, it smelled more like old tea leaves, sang in a different key, and it breathed fire.

After numerous debates and a riot that left nine ornithologists dead and another twenty-seven with superficial pen-gouges in their flesh, it was decided that the Bulo Burti Boubou was merely an alternate coloration of the Somali Boubou species. Dammit!

Then we have the Ryukyu Kingfisher. They found one of these birds – only one – in 1887 in Japan. No one knows if it was related to the Guam Kingfisher (maybe they were just friends), but they never caught another one. The species is begrudgingly given an entry, though they’re listed as extinct.

The Turquoise-throated Puffleg has only been verified through six specimens, captured in the 19th century. The debate here is whether or not the species was unique, was a hybrid or possibly a sub-species.

You know, this article is starting to piss me off. I thought I’d stumbled upon some ‘Controversial Bird Taxa’, but all I’m getting is a bunch of birds that might just be another bunch of birds, or the result of those birds screwing. I thought this article would propel me into cable-network-punditry status, and instead I’m just reading a bunch of Latin names. I was hoping for some genuine bird-related controversy here.

You know what? I’m just going to make some up.

The Mariana Mallard was an anti-Zionist duck, which was known for its very hard-line stance against the formation of the state of Israel. Now we’re talking. The Mallard, which was native to the Pacific Mariana Islands, migrated eastward to the Middle East in early 1949 to take up residence outside of Jewish homes, where they hoped their quack-heavy protest would encourage the new residents to leave and return to Europe. The Israeli Army, which would have none of this, declared open season on the Mariana Mallard, and now the species is extinct.

The Jamaican Red Macaw may or may not have existed in the late 1700s, when it was rendered in watercolor by George Edwards. The bird was actually alleged to have been a native of Florida, but was known for smuggling some premium Jamaican Red to the noblemen in the area. Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler had once written in his diary of a mysterious macaw: “He’s… he’s really just great. Just great stuff he brings, man, so… wow. He’s just great.”

The Cyprus Dipper is another extinct and questioned bird. Thought to be native to the island of Cyprus, this guy hasn’t been seen since about 1950. Did he exist? There are no photos, no visual evidence at all.

Alright, so maybe he did. Maybe each of these supposed controversial and supposed species did flutter through history’s spotlight, only to go the way of the dodo.

That’s the fallback example of an extinct species, another bird. The dodo was a flightless bird, but it didn’t so much resemble a penguin as it did Gonzo, the Muppet.

This seems to be a coincidence, as Gonzo is notably a Muppet of indeterminate origin, probably thrown together from scraps of other discarded Muppetry.

“We need a new character.”

“Already? Shit. We’ve got some purple fur lying around here. Can we use that?”

“Sure. Give him a nose that looks kind of like a flaccid penis. Also, give him three fingers on each hand, and let’s make him have a weird chicken fetish.”

“Man, what are you on?”

“It’s 1970, brother. I’m on everything!”

Okay, back to the dodo. This famously extinct bird lived on the island of Mauritius just off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Wait… really? Probably the most famous extinct bird this side of the pterodactyl, and it was native to an island I’ve never heard of? Awesome.

Anyway, the dodo was first mentioned by Dutch sailors in 1598, and was evidently wiped out by 1681. They didn’t have to fly because there was an abundance of food on the island. Then the Europeans showed up, found a way to Kentucky-fry the dodo, and that was that.

There were sketches and writings about the dodo, but by the 19th century it was believed they were only a myth. A bit of digging unearthed a fossil though, and the rumors were verified. This was the first animal that taught humans that they have the power to wipe out an entire species. Scary stuff.

Lewis Carroll made the dodo a star in Alice In Wonderland. In the book, the dodo suggests the caucus race, which was a little dig at the insanity of the political system. The freakish little bird was just made for controversy.

We know the dodo best from his symbolic representation of anything that has become extinct or obsolete. Perhaps an unflattering way to be honored by the masses, but at least it’s honored, unlike the gazillions of other species humans have eradicated. I’d worry more about the people of Mauritius, who continue to use the dodo as mascots, product shills, and even as a feature of the island nation’s coat of arms. Maybe they’re telling us that the Mauritians don’t see themselves as long for this world.

Maybe it’s just another bird conspiracy. An ornithological controversy for the modern age. Let the furious comments fly!

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