Avian Black Humour

E. B. White shows us how to summarise for humour in his essay Mr. Forbushe’s Friends.

The Indian Black-naped oriole

I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.

This is E. B. White writing in his essay Mr. Forbush’s FriendsWho and what and, dear me, why elves?

Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.

A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?

But, no!

White is able to give the reader just enough introduction, before the humour begins. Mr Forbush collected reports of peculiar bird behaviour from legions of informants who’d call in or write to him about what they witnessed. Of course, at the beginning of the twentieth century such anecdotes could hardly be verified. White took these reports from Mr Forbush’s book, chose a handful out of about a thousand, and summarised them. I do not have Mr Forbush’s book at hand, but I suspect it is how White summarised them that accounts for the smiles, then the chuckles, then the laugh-out-louds while reading his essay.

White’s handful is close to eighty, so I’ve been forced to chose yet again, my own handful from his handful. Of course, I give his entries verbatim—I would not dare tinker with his formulation.



ring-billed gull

Mr. J. A. Farley. In the Gulf of St. Lawerence saw ring-billed gull scratch its face with its claw as it flew. Insouciance. No date.


Reverend J. H. Linsley. Opened the stomach of a gannet, found bird. Opened stomach of that bird, found another bird. Bird within bird within bird. No date.

red-breasted merganser

Mr. Stanley C. Jewett. Asserts that wounded red-breasted merganser at Netarts Bay, Oregon, dived to submerged root in three feet of water and died while clinging there. Apparent suicide. May 1915.

female eider duck

Mr. George H. Mackay. Presented Mr. Forbush with head of female eider duck that had been found dying on Nantucket with large mussel in mouth. Mussel had closed on bird’s tongue. Bird starved. Mussel remained alive, did not relax grip. January 3, 1923.

ruffed grouse

Mr. Charles Hayward. Examined crop of a ruffed grouse. Found 140 apple buds, 134 pieces of laurel leaves, 28 winter green leaves, 69 birch buds, 205 blueberry buds, 201 cherry buds, and 109 blueberry stems. Splendid appetite. No date.

turkey buzzard

Mr. T. Gilbert Pearson. Lady of his acquaintance, while sitting alone in her room, was startled when beef bone fell out onto hearth. Went outside, discovered turkey buzzard peering down chimney. Carelessness on part of bird. No date.

Photo by: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK

Mr. M. Semper, of Mapes P. O., British Columbia. Was at neighbour’s house sharpening a mower sickle, saw golden eagle seize neighbor’s little girl, Ellen Gibbs, by arm. Mr. Semper kicked eagle with no effect. Girl’s mother appeared, decapitated eagle with good effect. No date.

black-billed cuckoo

Mr. J. L. Davison, of Lockport, New York. Found a black-billed cuckoo and a morning dove sitting together in a robin’s nest. Nest contained two eggs of cuckoo, two of dove, one of robin. Bad management. June 17, 1882.

Carolina wrens

Owner of a barn in Fairhaven (no name given). Had pair of Carolina wrens build nest in basket containing sticks of dynamite. No untoward results. No date.

female tufted titmouse

Mrs. Olive Thorne Miller. Reported case of female tufted titmouse stealing hair from gentleman in Ohio for use in nest building. Bird lit on gentleman’s head, seized a beakful, braced itself, jerked lock out, flew away, came back for more. Gentleman a bird lover, consented to give hair again. No date.

American robin

Reverend William R. Lord. Talked to robin in low, confidential tone. Bird liked this, followed Lord. No date.

Are you still wondering why elves? Because that was a good metaphor.


PS All pictures taken from Wikipedia, please click on each one if you wish to see the source.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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