Completed: 6 September 2010
Humour seems to be my late summer reading. I heard about this title while trolling the Leacock medal short list for 2010. I’ve known about the ill fated Labrador Duck since I was a teen. I couldn’t resist a chance to find out more.
Glen Chilton is a recognized ornithologist and behavioural ecologist and, if he wasn’t before he certainly is now, the world’s foremost authority on the Labrador Duck. The Duck in question went extinct in the 1870’s. The last known sighting was in 1878, with the last preserved specimen being from 1875. The reason the duck went extinct is not known. In less than a hundred years from the first reports of its existence the Labrador had disappeared. Reports of the time indicate that it was not a tasty duck. It was also known as the Skunk Duck. Yet it disappeared quite quickly. It has the unfortunate distinction of being the first North American animal to go extinct.
Dr. Chilton set out to see every known specimen of nest, egg, and duck in the world of the Labrador Duck. It turns out that there are no records of where the Labrador duck nested. No less a person James Audubon claims to have seen nesting Labrador Ducks in Labrador (of course). Chilton’s investigation of that claim reveals it to be false. While Audubon did visit Labrador and did shoot Labrador ducks it is highly unlikely that he, or his sons, saw any nesting ducks while at Blanc Sablon.
Dr. Chilton then sets out to visit all of the world museums that house duck specimens and egg specimens. There are 9 eggs and around 54 stuffed ducks. He has all of the eggs subjected to DNA testing to determine if they are, in fact, Labrador duck eggs. Throught the course of the book we visit every single known Labrador duck specimen. It is not a tedious journey. As Chilton describes each duck, it becomes an individual.
The book as a whole is the story of Dr. Chilton’s travels to find the Labrador ducks. He has a light hand and the story makes fun reading. As a reader I got caught up in his quest and found my self looking forward to the revelation of the next duck. The journey takes the reader to 12 different countries. These include the usual suspects of Canada, USA, England and them move onto museums in Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Czech republic, Russia and finally Qatar. It involves a cast of normal and eccentric characters. Reclusive private egg collectors, an assortment of museum curators and a large cast of historical characters. Not much is know about the Labrador duck and after Chilton’s close examination of each specimen and the associated museum records (or lack there of) much remains unknown.
Chilton enjoys the travel and is not unaware of the ridiculous aspect of his quest. He is, afterall, travelling around the world in search of a dead duck. For example, “Even though I was slowly draining our bank account, Lise [his wife] had been very good about waving good-bye when I took off on trips to exotic spots to see duck corpses.”(208) With bon homme, Dr. Chilton brings the reader along on his quest, including him in his sight seeing and pub crawling.
My only real complaints about the book are minor. The most irritating thing about the book is that it does not include a decent colour photo of a Labrador duck. There are a number of black and white photos, printed on the same paper as the text. They don’t give the reader any real sense of the duck’s beauty. The book’s dust jacket does have a colour photo but it is a head shot only of the Redpath Museum’s specimen. This is of an immature male and a specimen that is not in the best of condition, so is not a representative sample. A decent colour frontispiece of a Labrador duck would have been a welcome addition to the book. Fortunately there are plenty of samples available on the web.
He is a handsome looking duck.
I would also have liked to have seen a bibliography or suggestions for further reading. And, after all of the measuring the Dr. Chilton has done, there must be some sort of scientific paper written by him. As it is unlikely that anyone else is going to examine every Labrador duck in the world, I expect that his data will be published somewhere.
For those of us old enough to remember the Hinterland Who’s Who commercials on TV, here’s a Labrador Duck episode produced by the publisher, HarperCollins Canada.
For those who need even more Labrador Duck information, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands has this 3D image of both male and female specimens available.