How Flamingos and Words FlyBy
On every one of my Birds and Art tours of Provence, I catch my breath at our first sight of the Camargue’s Greater Flamingos. No matter how familiar, no matter how common, it’s a shock every time to be reminded that these improbably colored, impossibly shaped birds are really real.
Frank Chapman, writing more than 100 years ago about the American Flamingo, was equally dazzled:
With legs and neck fully outstretched, and the comparatively small wings set half-way between bill and toes, they look as if they might fly forward or backward with equal ease.
In one of the most notorious cases of, shall we say, textual borrowing in the American birding literature, the early editions of an influential field guide first published in 1934 put it this way:
its extremely long neck is extended droopily in front and its long legs trail similarly behind, giving the impression that the bird might as easily fly backward as forward!
The exclamation point notwithstanding, any undergraduate writing that same sentence could expect a summons to an earnest chat with the dean. Unlike birds, words aren’t really supposed to fly “forward and backward with equal ease.”
Want to see lots of flamingos and debate — over the best food and wine in the world — whether there can be such a thing as plagiarism in a field guide? Join us in April 2014!