The Feather Quest

Book Card  -  Volume 24  -  Book Review Number 1  -  Thu, Apr 30, 1992 9:40 PM

TITLE: The Feather Quest
AUTHOR: Pete Dunne

also reviewed:

TITLE: The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck
AUTHOR: Rory Nugent
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin

By sheer coincidence, I located these two books on the same day at my local library. By their titles, these books have a lot in common. But by their covers - "Feather" is subtitled "A North American Birder's Year", while "Duck" is subtitled "A journey into the Himalayas and down the Brahmaputra" - they are already diverging wildly.

What these authors share is a love of adventure, and a knack for describing the situations they get into.

"Feather Quest" describes the twenty-some-odd birding trips that Dunne, a "professional" birder, and his wife, take one year. The style is primarily anecdotal, and for me it's very effective: a vivid reminder of the marvelous glimpse into the world of birding that Robert gave me last year.

There's also a strong message of conservation woven throughout the book. This excerpt, from a chapter on the California Condor, is representative:

The Condor Recovery Project, though I hope it succeeds and averts one more biological tragedy, is just the latest brand of denial - the Ghost Dance of our time. We, who are the products of this age, are donning a magic shirt called technology, hoping that it will protect the past, while we just forge ahead with the future.

It's a great shirt, this Ghost Dance coverall, tailored to fit an age that worships science. There is just enough fact woven into the fabric to make it defensible. It deflects the guilt that comes of letting a species collapse during our lifetime. And it keeps us from having to come to grips with a cold, hard reality. The same reality that brought down the Passenger Pigeon. The same reality that is killing the planet we live on.

One might argue that both authors use birding as an excuse to travel, to meet new people. Certainly this seems true of Nugent. But judge for yourself. Here's the complete introduction to his book:

The five of us were talking about lost treasures that night, sitting around and trading stories. What's still out there to find?

"India is the place", Jim suggested. "One of us should go after the pink-headed duck. It hasn't been sighted in years. Extremely rare...the most elusive bird in the world."

The next day I went to the library and found several books that mentioned the bird, last seen fifty years ago in India. One book had a picture of the duck, and I stared at it for quite some time, dreaming, imagining myself learning its song. The image stayed in my mind; no matter who I was or what I was doing, the notion of searching for the lost duck was more interesting.

Two months later, my apartment sold and everything else in storage, I took a cab to Kennedy Airport and flew to India. What follows is the story of my search for the pink-headed duck as I recall it. I took notes throughout the journey, but I soon learned that imagination was the key to finding the prize.