Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Dawson’s Avian Kingdom by William Leon Dawson

Dawson’s Avian Kingdom by William Leon Dawson. Berkeley, CA. Heyday Books. 2007. 285pp. ISBN: 978-1-59714-062

This review should begin by indicating that this was a truly delightful book to read and for many reasons. The author who died prematurely in 1928, was training as a Seventh Day Adventist minister prior to averting to ornithology. Photographs available of him on the internet provide an image of a very staid man, one who would appear unlikely to be roaming forests, deserts and wetlands. Alas his writings belie that rather prim stereotype one might conjecture from a brief internet spin about him.

Dawson is not much known for his ornithological work today. He did write several books and had adventures into many habitats in order to report on the behavior of the birds he studied. The book has no images but merely reports on behaviors. I like this much better for behavior of animals’ means more to me than impressions about beauty and locations for humans to invade, in order to find exotica. He also provided insight into some of his own behaviors relative to the science of his day. He saw the need for the practical tools and usages prevalent in his day to change.

He was a reconstructed oologist. He stopped collecting eggs when he realized the issues that this practice had on the ecology of the avian numbers that he wrote so well about. He lamented on the practice of killing specimens saying “Fortunately, the camera is superseding the gun. Pressing the button is not only more humane than shooting; it is more fun”. He was right about that. He was learning to become not only a devoted bird watcher but as an ecologist as well.

The book describes 150 birds categorized into 30 sorts. It is not clear that this book was a specific effort to do that or was a compilation of years of experience though those distinctions are not relevant. The sum total of this work is relevant however and informative of much about the behaviors of those many species. It functions like a field guide…sort of. I will keep my copy of the paperback with my field guides for future reference.

I say “sort of” only to indicate that Dawson offered much of himself to the descriptions. He took a very personalized approach to his subject matter often adding the dreaded anthropomorphism to his literary style. The rub seems to this reader, to be that he used that concept only as a literary style. The book clearly was designed to be whimsical and humorous as well as informative. While reading it there was never a sense (on my part) that he was genuinely attempting to input human motivations onto the birds he described. He was only trying to be cleverly funny. That is how this review will finish. Here are some quotes about a handful of those 150 birds who made it into this book.

- On the California condor: “And who are we to sit in judgement upon a brother who takes his meat a bit rarer than our own? And what if he does not kill his own meat? Do you?”

- On the Killdeer (Oxyechus vociferous vociferous): “Oxyechus vociferous vociferous earsplitterous ananais! The book concede only the first epithets: we added the other upon our own authority.”

- Oystercatcher as a misnomer: “Oysters are not much given to sprinting away”

- Western Mourning Dove: “Oh, there are those who call it doleful, and who profess a dislike for the solemn tenderness of the Mourning dove, but they are such who have never loved, or who, having loved, have seen life’s wine turned into vinegar.”

- Western Belted Kingfisher and their noise scarring away the fish: (and before the advent of jet fighter planes) “This gratuitous and frequently emphatic advice would have been discredited if the example of the Kingfisher had been followed. Either because noise doesn’t matter to fish, or because he is moved by the same generous impulse which prompts the mountain lion to give fair and frightful warning of his presence at the beginning of an intended foray…”

- American Magpie: To say that Magpies are garrulous would be as trite as to say hens cackle…it is the symbol of loquacity.” and “Much of the bird’s conversation is undoubtedly unfit for print, but it has always the merit of vivacity.”

- Cowbird: “She is the unchaste mother of a race gone wrong, an enemy of bird society, a blight upon the flower of progress.” This for dropping her eggs into the nests of other species in order to further her own species heritage at the expense of the real offspring of the provender.

He was also not too fond of the invasive House Sparrow and none of the 150 birds included the European starling. I was sorry to complete this book but know I have other examples of Dawson’s writings on hand for the future.

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