I’m, in many ways I guess, what people think of when they think of a “scientist”. Socially awkward? Check. More at home with my work than with people? Check. More at home in the field and out with nature than with people? Check. Kind of like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”? Well no, not that bad, but you get the idea. I’ve also never been a “hero worshipper” of any kind. I just don’t care that much about reputation. I don’t care that much about the scientist himself. It is the science I’m interested in. Because of my nature, I was a little surprised at how I reacted to a book I just completed.
The book is “Rare Birds: The extraordinary tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the man who brought it back from extinction”, by Elizabeth Gehrman. A book about a rare bird? I knew I’d love that part of it. As an avid birder, I knew a bit about the Bermuda Petrel, so was looking forward to reading a detailed account of the species. Given my personality, what I didn’t know is how much I would enjoy the story of the man who was instrumental in saving the species.
The Bermuda Petrel (also known as a Cahow) was a bird that likely numbered in the millions when explorers first came across Bermuda in the early 1600s. Due to hunting pressures and introduction of predators on their nesting islands, the species quickly declined, and for a few hundred years (!!!), the species was thought to be extinct. Many scientists even had begun to doubt that the Bermuda Petrel had ever existed, as a unique species. In the early 1900s, there were hints that the species had survived, and by the middle of the century, an incredibly small relict population of breeding birds were found on a few tiny islands of Bermuda. The book is the story of one man, David Wingate, and the plight of the Cahow.
When a twist of fate brought Wingate face-to-face with the first confirmed, live Bermuda Petrel recorded in centuries, he made it his life’s mission to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction. An exhaustive search of the tiny islands around Bermuda led to the discovery of a mere 7 surviving breeding pairs. With very little in financial support, the book details Wingate’s tireless efforts to restore Cahow populations.
As expected, I greatly enjoyed the detailed story of restoration efforts. The book provides a remarkable demonstration of the interconnected nature of ecosystems, and the chain of dependent plant and animal species that contributed to the demise, and to the ultimate restoration, of Cahow populations. Who would have thought that the reintroduction of Yellow-crowned Night-herons would be necessary to control native land crabs, to control crab foraging on native sedges, to restore better ground habitat on “Nonsuch Island”, the focus of much of the restoration efforts? The book is a fascinating look at not only the life history of the Cahow, but of the entire ecosystem on which the Cahow depends.
While my appreciation and enjoyment of the natural story of the Cahow was expected, what I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the personal story of Wingate himself. As I said, I’m not a hero worshipper, I’m into the science more than I am into the scientist. However, I found the presentation of Wingate in the book to be equally as fascinating as the story of the Cahow itself. The book intersperses narrative accounts of Wingate’s history with quotations from Wingate himself, and quoatations from those around him during this lifelong journey to save the Cahow. SPOILER ALERT…don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to save the story for when you read the book…but the point where I knew I was “falling” for not only the Cahow story, but the story of Wingate himself, was when his beloved wife “Anita” was tragically burned in an accident on the island, and died several days later. Wingate was obviously every bit the “quirky” scientist, but the book portrays the wonderful relationship with the love of his life, Anita. As a fellow “quirky scientist” who has always been a bit awkward around people but who (shockingly!!) has my own ‘love-of-my-life’, I more than sympathized with Wingate upon reading the story of Anita’s death. Given the wonderful writing style of the book, I could almost FEEL Wingate’s pain.
In short, if you’re a naturalist, if you’re a lover of wildlife, if you’re a birder, you’ll love the book for the story of the Cahow. Even if you don’t traditionally fit into one of these categories, you’ll love the book for not only the story of the Cahow, but for the story of one man’s perseverance and dedication, in the face of incredible personal, social, and political odds.
This book arrived at my house on a Monday, and less than 24 hours after hitting my doorstep, I had completed it. I strongly recommend picking up a copy. I can almost guarantee that you too will have a hard time putting it down.