Another Other People’s Bird Book


Quick: which edition of the AOU Check-list belongs on every North American birder’s shelf?

Reference works are not all created equal. If you’re going to buy a Britannica, make it the eleventh, please; given a choice of Peterson guides, take the 1947. And if you should be in the market for an AOU Check-list (yes, that’s still how it’s spelled, a century and a quarter after it first appeared), be sure to buy the fifth edition, fifty-five years old this year.

How come? Don’t we want our status and distribution books to be as up to date as possible?

Well, yes. But the fifth — six years older than I am — offers two important somethings that no edition since has seen fit to provide. First, all of the official scientific names (not, however, the synonyms) are outfitted with accent marks, a terrific convenience if you’re trying to figure out whether to say ArchiLOchus (no) or ArchILochus (yes).

And more importantly, this is the last edition of the Check-list to treat all of the subspecies then recognized from North American north of Mexico. What that means, of course, is that this book, no matter how out of date in some particulars, remains the most precise source for information on the status and distribution of the birds it covers.

Nowadays, this and the other six editions of the Check-list are readily available on line, but it wasn’t always so, and I was delighted several years ago to find an honest-to-goodness paper copy, bright and clean, that I could afford. (I rarely pay more than a dollar or two for a book, no matter how much I want it.)

Yes, there are the usual check marks, 524 of them according to the discrete penciled tally that ends at McKay’s Bunting.

McKay’s Bunting?

Obviously, this was the book of a well-traveled birder, a suspicion neatly confirmed by ticks next to, for example, Emperor Goose, Common Teal, Steller’s Eider, Slaty-backed Gull, Red-legged Kittiwake, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, and so on. A few Old World species are scrupulously noted as having been seen in Egypt, making it apparent that the rarities without such annotation must have been seen in North America–in Alaska, obviously.

Happily, there is a stamp on the foredge of the book block:

followed by a neatly inked monogram on the front pastedown:

Henry Carroll Kyllingstad was born on March 19, 1914, in North Dakota and died December 3, 2002, in New London, Minnesota. He went to Alaska as a young schoolteacher: in 1941, he conducted the first Christmas Bird Count in Mountain Village, Alaska (tallying five species); it was about the same time that he started a banding operation there.

By 1946, he was married; his wife, Gertrude Lois, apparently shared his interests, if her observations that year of a playful Northern Shrike are any indication. Within two years, the couple had moved to Fort Yates, North Dakota, where they apparently taught school.

The ornithological high point of Kyllingstad’s Alaska time came in June 1948. Beginning in 1944, Kyllingstad paid repeated visits to the Kusilvak Mountains, in the Yukon Delta, in search of the Bristle-thighed Curlew, a bird that, so said his wife, “had become an obsession.” On the advice of George Sutton, in 1948 Kyllingstad put together an expedition for the Arctic Institute to find the nest of this mysterious sandpiper; he was accompanied by a teaching colleague from Kalskag, Warren M. Petersen, and by none other than Arthur A. Allen, one of the great names in the history of American academic ornithology.

The two men’s accounts of Allen’s involvement in the curlew expedition reveal a certain lack of agreement. Allen, writing in The Auk, says that he had had “the privilege to organize an expedition under the auspices of the National Geographic Society [, which] joining forces with one led by Henry Kyllingstad … penetrated the interior to the east side of the coast range.” Kyllingstad offers a somewhat different version of events:

I was extremely happy … to receive a grant [from the Arctic Institute] … Warren Petersen agreed to come along, and later Dr. Arthur A. Allen of Cornell University asked if he might join our party. He brought assurance of funds from the National Geographic Society which we felt would be desirable if the Mountain Village area should be unproductive….

Two expeditions or one? A merger or a polite intrusion?

In any event, the little party proceeded, taking every opportunity along the way to observe the other nesting birds of the tundra. “Except for the occasional rain,” wrote Kyllingstad, “there was only one thing wrong — there were too many birds to photograph in the short time we planned to stay.”

On June 11, the party decided to split up. Allen and Peterson stayed at Igiak Bay to take more pictures, while Kyllingstad and Allen’s son, David, set up a new camp twenty miles out of Mountain Village.

The next day, Kyllingstad and Allen fils set out in the drizzle. Soon enough they flushed a curlew:

We watched a while, whispered agreement on the likely location of the nest which we thought surely must be there, and then at a signal from David we rushed the spot. David had wisely removed his raincoat and high wading boats, and being considerably more of a runner than I, was soon ahead of me…. he reached the nest a few seconds before me.

(The elder Allen would write: “The nest was discovered by David G. Allen, and Henry Kyllingstad was with him at the time.”)

This was the first Bristle-thighed Curlew nest known to science, and had Kyllingstad thought to shed a layer and run a little faster, the original owner of my Check-list would have been the first white man in history to see one.

Exciting stuff. Knowing all of this, I open the book to page 184, to the entry for Numenius tahitiénsis. And I find — a neat red check mark and the penciled number 160. Modest to the end.


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