The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction by Glen Chilton. First published September 2009.
The Labrador Duck, Camptorhynchus labradorius, was a striking black and white eider-like sea duck that was never known to be common, and is believed to be the first bird to become extinct in North America after 1500. The last Labrador Duck is believed to have been seen at Elmira, New York on December 12, 1878; the last preserved specimen was shot in 1875 on Long Island. It was thought to breed in Labrador, although no nests were ever described, and it wintered from Nova Scotia to as far south as Chesapeake Bay. [Wikipedia]
Little is known about the Labrador Duck, and only fifty-some stuffed examples of the bird remain. The quest to discover, see and study each of the existing Labrador Duck specimens in the world is recounted in Glen Chilton’s amusing The Curse of the Labrador Duck. Chilton was an obsessive child, he says, who grew up to be an obsessive adult. That obsession turned a short article on an extinct duck “that went extinct almost before anyone noticed that it was alive” into a nearly decade long on-and-off adventure to seek out every last remaining specimen of Labrador Duck in the world.
The tale is written by a renowned ornithologist but reads a bit like an adventure novel. I’ve been reading a lot of bird- or birding-related natural history books lately, but travel is my all-time favorite genre (I have even been known to read Rough Guides from cover to cover – whether a trip to the book’s subject locale was on the agenda or not). The story told in Curse is a great mix of ornithological history, museum lore with a big dose of fun-filled globe-trekking adventure. I’ve missed reading travel tales and this book was just what I needed for a fix.
Chilton travels on a budget and some of his money-saving shortcuts lead to interesting predicaments. He also comes off as a bit of a cad, what with skinny dipping and sharing hotel beds with women who are not his wife, not to mention the flirting. The adventurer-ornithologist obviously enjoys the journey of discovery, meeting new people, trying different experiences, and his enthusiasm makes the book a very enjoyable read.
Chilton’s enthusiasm was also evident during the lecture he gave at the Field Museum in Chicago a few weeks ago. I was pleased to meet him briefly when he signed our copy of the book, and chat with him about his time in our old hometown, Leiden.
I give The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction five Goldfinches out of five.