The species of bird known as Hammond's Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) was named for William Alexander Hammond, an amateur ornithologist, a neurologist and former Surgeon General of the United States "who was unjustly dismissed from his office by Secretary of War Stanton." So we are informed by Edward S. Gruson's Words for Birds (Quadrangle, $8.95).
Words for Birds ought not to be consumed at one sitting. It should be turned to like a bowl of peanuts (which ought not to be consumed at one sitting either) or kept on the shelf as a unique reference work. Birds and characters dart in and out of the text. All the gifted and marvelously zany oldtime naturalists are here, ranging from Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew who lived in Philadelphia for a spell (thus Bonaparte's Gull, Larus Philadelphia), to Brother Matthias Newell (Newell's Shearwater, Puffinus newelli), a missionary to Hawaii who wound up dying at the University of Dayton, a school best known to college basketball fans.
If an inordinate number of 19th century ornithologists seem to have been army doctors, it is because Spencer Fullerton Baird (Baird's Sandpiper, Erolia bairdii) planned it that way. A thoroughgoing bird nut himself, Baird was married to the daughter of the Inspector General of the Army, and he saw to it that surgeons sent west to frontier posts or to accompany surveys were all enthusiastic natural historians.
Admittedly this explanation does not account for the achievements of Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring (Copper Pheasant, Syrmaticus soemmerringi), "a noted German anatomist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries." Von Soemmerring wrote a paper "...on the effect of corsets on tissues, and another a polemic against the use of the guillotine as a means of carrying out capital punishment. Not the least interesting of Soemmerring's work are his studies that attempt to show that the brain is not a vital organ." Regrettably, Author Gruson does not explore the possible connection between these last two propositions.
June 24, 1973
Finally, there seems to have been no way to account for Pierre Etienne Theodore Ballieu (Palila Psittirostra bailleui), of whom Gruson says, "we know very little," adding that "He was obscure enough for people not to care that they spelled his name wrong."
All in all, Edward Gruson's Words for Birds can be summed up as an ornithological, etymological, biographical and historical guide to 800 North American species. In other words, it is a work of trivia of the highest sort.
Burton L. Spider's Grouse Feathers and More Grouse Feathers (Crown, $7.50 each) are Yankee classics, similar in spirit, I will say at the risk of exaggeration, to Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches or Sergei Aksakov's Years of Childhood. Now reprinted once again, these are books written with humor and unaffected grace by a man whose lifelong madness has been the ruffed grouse, the wisest and dumbest bird of all. "I am aware that a number of staid and conservative citizens in my community look upon me as a fit candidate for an asylum," Spiller writes toward the end of More Grouse Feathers. "They argue, and perhaps rightly, that any middle-aged man who spends two months of each year in chasing a bird dog around the woods has something far more serious the matter with him than mere eccentricity.
"In times past, before they learned to accept me as incurable, several of them tried to reason with me; and to the last man these self-appointed evangelists based their arguments on the financial loss I sustained by indulging my fancy. Their logic was unassailable...but they all shook their heads sadly and departed when they found that I could not comprehend the fact that a bundle of green-tinted paper constituted wealth."
A book should be judged on its own merits, but it is worth noting that Spiller, who is now 86, is a man of little schooling who learned blacksmithing from his father. For a number of years he worked as a welder and machinist in a New Hampshire mill, and he was into his 40s before he began to write, "trying," a friend notes, "to put on paper the feelings he had about grouse and the men and the dogs who hunted them." He tried and he succeeded.
Very different is Paul S. Bernsen's The North American Waterfowler (Superior Publishing, Seattle, $14.95), one of those non-literary ("several things can put Mr. Honker in the roasting pan"), nuts-and-bolts, how-to books that U.S. outdoorsmen seem currently to lust after. For detailed information on the construction of blinds (piano, natural rock, pillbox, tank, floating) or planting feed or running a duck club, turn to this book. There are charts giving the volume, pitch and recommended quacks per second for calling ducks, and directions for obtaining a long-playing record of Harry Dye's six-hour duck-calling class condensed to a mere 40 minutes. If you happen to need it there is even a section on dynamiting, but be warned that it begins: "Dynamite itself is now hard to come by! With all the militants running around, many states have imposed rather stringent laws pertaining to its use."