It might seem a little odd to travel the world three times in search of a stuffed bird that has been extinct for over 100 years. It might also seem strange to offer $10,000 to whoever finds the next stuffed specimen.
But Canadian ornithologist Dr. Glen Chilton, who attended Sunday’s first-ever viewing of the Royal Ontario Museum’s stuffed Labrador duck, is doing just that. According to Chilton, the black and white Labrador duck – also known as pied duck, skunk duck and sand-shoal duck – became extinct around 1875.
“We didn’t know about this bird, we don’t even know why it was extinct,” Chilton said. “They weren’t paying attention in the 19th century.”
Chilton, however, has been paying attention since a young age.
Growing up in Toronto, Chilton found solace not in the swimming pool with other kids his age, but with a book about birds given to him by his parents; that book would be the foundation of his career.
“They were trying to keep me from getting bored,” he said. “I tried to spell out the names, sound out the names… learn all the birds. At that age – seven years old – I could have told you I wanted to be a bird biologist,” he said.
After writing an account of the white-crowned sparrow and the short, mysterious account of the Labrador duck, Chilton was enthralled by the stories that came with this lost creature.
His journey to track down the 55 known stuffed Labrador ducks had begun. Chilton would travel to Germany, Russia, France and finally to England, where he would see the final specimen.
“There was a duck that had been in the Middle East… I was told ‘If you can get to London at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning, you can see this duck,'” he said.
The duck was owned by a sheik and was sent to England for a one-time viewing.
“When I opened (the box), it was still so beautiful it took my breath away. Each one has taken my breath away. That’s probably my defining moment, when I saw the last ever specimen after taking years to find all of them.”
Chilton has adapted the stories from his travels into a book called The Curse of the Labrador Duck. The book also gives prominence to his offer of a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds another stuffed Labrador duck.
“Maybe this will cause people to go out and check their grandmother’s attic, check smaller museums… because if another specimen is found, it’s invaluable,” he said. “In terms of money it’s valuable, but for the scientific community it would be the 56th.”
Chilton sees both the positives and negatives of finding another specimen.
“If somebody finds another Labrador duck, what will it tell us? Maybe it has information tied around its leg, where it was shot, or what date it was shot. It’s new information and it’s all valuable. It would be worth $10,000 to me.”
“Part of me hopes I can keep my $10,000,” he added.
If one is found, it may solve the mystery of the bird’s extinction. From his research, Chilton believes there may be two reasons why the duck did not survive.
“There is no evidence to believe that hunting pressure drove them to extinction,” he said. “This is one of those extraordinary rare examples of natural extinction. That’s uncommon, but it does happen. I think it is more likely that this bird made the mistake of wintering around New York City at a time when the population of NYC was going up.”
Chilton said that as the population went up, there was a rise in untreated water being flushed into the ocean where the Labrador ducks would feed for mussels in shallow waters.
Although the cause of its extinction remains hidden, Chilton still finds joy when viewing these creatures he has spent so much time researching. The only other duck on display in Canada is at McGill University in Montreal.
And while the journey to see and examine every stuffed Labrador duck has ended for now, Chilton turns back to his younger days to help him pursue new projects.
“It’s like playing every day to study birds,” he said. “You go out into woods to study birds, you go to museums to study birds; it’s like being a child and given new toys every day.”