Sunday, May 28, 2006

Maybe the Ancient Greeks didn't know everything

Red-eared Sliders at the northern shore of Turtle Pond
Photo by Bob Levy

Here's a note I received from website correspondent Bob Levy, author of the recently published Club George: the Diary of a Central Park Bird-watcher [St. Martins Press] It's followed by my response and a related birdwatching tip:

Aeschylus and the inherent dangers of hatless bird-watching

I could not resist passing on this historical tidbit that struck me (the intended pun will quickly become apparent) as notable even if its veracity cannot be guaranteed 100%.

In Joe Queenan’s review of "The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read," by Stuart Kelly, the reviewer repeats a cautionary tale from which certain members of the bird-watching community might benefit more than others. Queenan says that “Aeschylus, the father of Western drama, is said to have seen his career come to a premature end when an eagle mistook his inviting bald head for a rock and smashed a turtle against it.” (From the New York Times Book Review, Sunday April, 30, 2006, p. 12).

I certainly do not fault the eagle (species unspecified) for this accident that was an indisputably cruel fate for both playwright and turtle, but are there implications here for bird-watchers? While the odds of history repeating itself in this particular and peculiar way are unarguably slim, the story provides one more reason for many of us to include a hat among our bird-watching accessories. This might be most appropriate for visitors to Central Park’s Turtle Pond but hardhats might be overdoing it, don’t you think?

My response:

I read the review too, but wasn't kindly enough to see it as a cautionary tale for birdwatchers. I merely thought: Hmm, could someone in ancient Greece have mistaken a gull [a family known to drop clams etc. on hard surfaces to open them] for an eagle [a family not known for that kind of behavior]? I remember in my early hawkwatching days often mistaking gulls for hawks.

PS I once saw Peter Mott, former president of the New York City Audubon Society, give a useful lesson to a group of young birdwatchers at Central Park's Dana Center. He held his arms out to his sides, shoulder height, lowered his fingers at the wrists and said: "Gull." He repeated the action, but raised his fingers at the wrists and said: "Hawk."

I've been using this lesson [quietly of course] for years.