Friday, February 3, 2017

Some Under-Water Activities of Certain Waterfowl by Edward How Forbush


Some Under-Water Activities of Certain Waterfowl by Edward Howe Forbush. Boston. Wright & Potter Printing Company. 1922. 45pp.

The cover of this odd little monograph displays a couple of Buffleheads.

These birds were hardly ever mentioned in the book. It was however a study of diving waterfowl. He did focus on arguments about under water behavior of grebes, loons and cormorants for most of the discussion. In this monograph he asked for the assistance of many ornithologists (he did not want amateur insights) about the witnessed behaviors of waterfowl as they dive. He found a grand disparity in observations based on locations and conditions.

His correspondents provided him with their observations all over the western world. Some determined that in diving, certain birds never used their wings to propel them into the depths. Others always saw them using their wings. Forbush felt that it was locale and conditions that made these distinct observations. He was probably right since the numbers of sightings that he provided were many. Some noticed no use of wings while other indicated a consistent use of wings and these were of the same species. Most likely the data was not presented by liars but by professionals and so the observations and distinctions were probably pretty accurate.

His point was that an observer cannot rely solely on what they see themselves, to make permanent assumptions. They need to include many data and from different conditions. Some of his correspondents provided data from lab conditions such as pools where their subjects were kept. Others provided insights from the wilds. Forbush suggested that lab settings were not very reliable and suggested that using that information was something less profitable and with false conclusions drawn. “One might as well study the habits of an eagle in a flying cage” for all the merits of specialized pool behavior were concerned.

At the end of the book he wondered if wounded fowl “committed suicide” so they would not be taken for prey. It seemed like an odd suggestion but he quelled concerns of daftness to assert that they did not commit suicide as they were not able to determine that suicide was a better avenue than being taken for prey as one example.

However he did cite many observations of fowl who grabbed seaweed in their beaks and clung tenaciously to that until life expired. Forbush or a colleague held a merganser under water for five minutes until it expired and used that as a baseline for how long birds could survive under water. Things have changed much since 1922 and no agency would accept that such experiments could be conducted today. That was the standard bearer for this monographs assessments.

So, many of Forbush’s correspondents indicated that they pulled dead fowl from watery graves to find their beaks clamped tightly onto seaweed. This suggested that they had a reason for doing such and it was not a resolution to end their life as all was hopeless. The notions provided for this behavior were not convincing but were suggestive. They included efforts on the bird’s part to protect themselves from under water predators. Forbush did not attempt to suggest a singular explanation but did provide much evidence of the seaweed clutching behavior and the ultimate demise of the fowl.

It was a curious and suggestive monograph about under water behavior of diving waterfowl. It also was written nearly a century ago and perhaps some notions that were accepted, others have been gainsaid over that time span. Forbush was a noted ornithologist of his day. He portrayed his data as a scientist would, with suggestions rather than facts.

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