Tuesday, February 16

A Letter from Williamsburg


From: Doctr. Lester Meade
Nassau Street
Williamsburg

To : Ship’s Surgeon,
HMS Acasta,
Halifax 

Dear Colleague,

  It may seem rather unorthodox to receive a letter from a complete stranger, but I flatter myself that in the future we may count one another among friends- and I write to ask a favor of the utmost scientific urgency. By way of introduction I am Lester Meade, doctor of physic and natural philosophy.  We have a mutual acquaintance. Mr. Jean Baptste Girard, who I understand is currently serving as your mate, has twice served me as an assistant in collecting specimens, the first instance in Louisiana where I first made his acquaintance, the second in Virginia. I would advise you that he could serve you well in this capacity also. His aboriginal upbringing in the Illinois country and interest and fondness for all creatures that creep, crawl and fly make him particularly suited to such endeavors, although he is wont to put the utmost faith in the quaintest of superstitions about such, but I digress.

 Mr. Francois Rochambeau of Louisiana, my friend and former employer of Mr. Girard, has suggested I enlist your aide. It was through Mr. Girard's letter to him that he, and through him myself, learned of your presence and interest in natural philosophy. But to my point- I am sure you have heard of the Cahow, which once inhabited Bermuda, and has been extinct now this last two centuries?  The bird still exists! I know this for a fact, for I have heard it's call with my own ears! I had booked passage to the island specifically for the purpose of collecting sea bird specimens and eggs, zoology being of particular interest to me.  I was returning from collecting on several of the smaller islets off the main island, weary but happy with the fruits of my work, in a small hired boat. Night had already fallen, but the moon had not yet risen, as we passed through Castle harbor. Suddenly, to my wonder, I heard the eerie call so often described by the island's early settlers! The two boatmen assured me that it was indeed a Cahow, that a very tiny number still nested on one of the small islets in the harbor.  I pleaded with them to take me there immediately, but they insisted that the tides were wrong at the time, and that they would bring me there on the morrow should the weather be suitable. 

It seemed that I had no sooner returned to my ship and suitably packaged those eggs I had collected, than the weather turned. For the next three days we were lashed most frightfully but a wind coming straight into the harbor and as soon as it subsided our Captain insisted on setting sail lest we be trapped in the harbor longer. Cruel fate! Vainly I searched the rocky islets we passed by as we left the harbor, but caught not a glimpse of a Cahow.

My intent was to return as soon as my finances and domestic affairs allowed and then Alas! full war was declared between our countries! As a man of science I am sure you will agree that we cannot let the current difficulties between our nations stand in the way of such an opportunity. As a ship of the blockade I am sure you supply in ether Halifax- from which Mr. Girard posted his letter- or Bermuda. It is my hope that at some point you will be sent to Bermuda. I have sent a duplicate copy of this letter there.

Here is what I have learned of the Cahow  from my boatmen. The birds are gone from the harbor from mid June until October. They nest from January to June and they do so in burrows in the earth. When I questioned them of numbers both agreed that "there could not be more than a dozen" and that they nested on only one small islet.

The boatmen I had hired were John Morton and Issac Still. They can guide you to the islet, or if you can not find these two I am sure other local fishermen know the location as well. My hope is that  you might arrive during the nesting period. If you were so fortunate my suggestion is to locate the nest burrows, cover the entrance with a net, and attempt to run a long flexible pole down the burrow to drive the adult into the net. Mr. Girard would certainly be a willing assistant. Take care that he does not club an adult, but rather throttles them, so as to do no damage to the skull. Try and keep the pole to the top of the burrow so as to do no damage to any eggs it may contain. If you are successful in capturing an adult, take a distance to watch and wait for the other of the pair. Once you have collected both adults then dig out the nest to find any eggs or chicks it may contain. I have used this technique with success on other species. I admonish you to leave not a bird behind, for with so few remaining a single storm during the nesting season could destroy them all, and all would be lost.  I would also recommend that you preserve those you collect by several different methods, lest one method becomes corrupt, other specimens would still exist.

Lastly Sir, I regret to say I do not even know your name, for Mr. Girard only said you were the Surgeon of the ship Acasta and a man of science.

I pray that you will look upon me as a friend and colleague, and I anticipate a happy meeting at some future date, 

Doctr. Lester Meade



The Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow) is commonly known in Bermuda as the Cahow, a name derived from its cries. It's eerie calls at night supposedly kept the superstitious Spanish from colonizing the island. It is nocturnal and ground-nesting. Despite being protected by one of the world's earliest conservation decrees, the Governor's proclamation "against the spoyle and havocke of the Cohowes," the birds were believed to be extinct by 1625. The Cahow was rediscovered again, with specimens collected, in the early 20th century and then believed to have once again gone extinct. In 1951, 18 surviving nesting pairs were found on rocky islets in Castle Harbor. Through extensive conservation efforts the birds now number over 250 individuals, but remain critically endangered. The Cahow is now the national bird of Bermuda. 

The ethic of conservation is a relatively new facet to the world of science. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, collection for study and museum specimens, with no thought for the continued survival of the species, was the norm. The last know individuals of several now extinct species were killed in the name of science.

This post written by: Tony Gerard

2 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! What an interesting perspective on the changing nature of science.

    ReplyDelete