September 8, 2009
You have never seen a live Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius); the species went extinct in the late 1800s. The rather plain-looking bird isn’t found on display in many museums, and other extinct birds like auks and moas get more attention, all of which might explain why I had never heard of the birds before I read The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction, by ornithologist Glen Chilton. After reading this book, I still can’t say that the duck is all that exciting, but Chilton’s tale of his “obsessive quest” to visit every remaining specimen of the duck is a fun mix of science, travelogue and nuttiness.
As an example, here’s Chilton’s description of John J. Audubon’s Labrador Duck painting:
Audubon’s image of the Labrador Duck, known at that time as the Pied Duck, is not one of his most frequently reproduced images. It shows a hen and a drake on a hillside with an ocean view. The drake is engaged in modern interpretive dance, and is in line for a very bad review in the morning newspapers. The hen stands on a nearby rock laughing.
There are 55 remaining specimens of Labrador Duck scattered throughout North America and Europe, and Chilton traveled 82,257 miles by airplane, train, car, bus and ferry to see them all and measure most. I probably learned more than I wanted to about taxidermy, and the descriptions of the birds get a bit repetitious by number 30 or so. However, Chilton’s reviews of the museums and museum curators were amusing. I was happy to see that the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History gets a thumbs up, even if our four ducks are somewhat worn (and not on display).
The book is about more than just ducks. Chilton describes his travels in detail, and he visits places both large and small, including some like the French village of La Châtre, the birthplace of writer George Sand, that most tourists would be unlikely to find unless lost. His tales include skinny-dipping, nearly getting arrested and plenty of beer.
The search for duck #55 gets almost too fanstastic to believe, taking place over six years and involving, eventually, Sheikh Saud of Qatar. Chilton is now so certain that he has found every Labrador Duck in existence that he is offering $10,000 of his own money to the first person who can direct him to another one. There are clues in the epilogue. Perhaps you know what happened to the duck stolen from the American Museum of Natural History about 30 years ago. Or the one that may have resided in the Brooklyn Museum until 1935. If so, Chilton is waiting to hear from you.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.