A PARROT WITHOUT A NAME The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth<i> by Don Stap(Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 224 pp.) </i>
“A Parrot Without a Name,” about an expedition into the Amazon basin to study some of the world’s most beautiful and rare birds, would seem to be a natural candidate for gift-giving to bird lovers everywhere.
It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the members of the scientific and support team accompanying world-famous ornithologist John O’Neill as they make their way through the politics and severe working conditions of Peru and then deep into the spectacular rain forests of that country. O’Neill, who teaches at Louisiana State University, rocked the scientific world in 1963 by discovering a new species of bird at a time when it was thought that all the birds in existence had been named and described.
O’Neill had discovered or co-discovered 10 more new species in Peru by the time this expedition, with writer Don Stap aboard, got under way in 1987. And true to expectations, expedition members encounter an incredible number of exotic birds during the trip.
Still, this book will not be loved by all weekend bird watchers. When most ornithologists, including O’Neill and company, go off to study birds, they do not merely observe, photograph and write about them. The expedition’s primary aim was to “collect” birds, which means shooting them out of the air or trapping them in nets and then dissecting them.
Stap argues, at length, that the killing of about 1,500 of these spectacularly beautiful birds during the journey was necessary for the advancement of scientific knowledge. A bird can’t be properly categorized and studied, he writes, unless a trained ornithologist can have a thorough look at its insides.
Readers’ feelings about whether or not the gathering of raw data justifies the “collecting” will determine, to a great extent, how much they will enjoy the book.
Regardless, “A Parrot Without a Name” does provide an interesting glimpse into field ornithology and the personalities involved.