Darwin, Mockingbirds and Vonnegut

booksKurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos was written by someone who’s been to the Islands.  How else could he describe the dance of the blue-footed booby, or the habits of a marine iguana?  Sometimes you just have to be there.

Things I did not take
Things I did not take

On the Galapagos Islands, you may take no souvenir, unless you buy it.  That was hard.  I wanted a rock, a shell, a feather, something tangible, and a t-shirt doesn’t count.  But I took nothing. All was left on the beach, because it was decreed, and because I have all the rocks, shells and feathers I need.  Which, as Vonnegut, would say, are exactly none.

When I found  the paperback copy of Galapagos in the ship’s library and started reading it, I wanted to finish it.  But, hard as it was, I took it back and placed it on the appropriate shelf during  my last hour aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.


Weeks later, I finished it on my ipad.  I don’t know whether or not Vonnegut would approve.  Maybe.  Hard to say.  Just now, I was trying to remember what was on the cover of the real book, and I couldn’t.  The trouble with not-real books is you can’t pick them up and handle them. Like so many things in life, first you need to find and then turn on a machine.

There’s a snake on the cover of Galapagos.  Why, I have no idea.  There are not many snakes on the archipelago.  There are not that many species in the Galapagos, but what there are are rare.  Endemic is the word visitors soon learn and repeat, as in– “Is that endemic?”  when referencing, say, the drink of the day.  A Pisco sour is not endemic, you can get one at most any bar.

GFMockingBirdOn the other hand, the Floreana mockingbird is endemic. So endemic, it is no longer even found on the island of Floreana, where it was driven to extinction, probably by rats, cats and other human-introduced predators.  We saw the Mocker on a nearby tiny lava-spewn speck called Champion Islet.  Like all birders, I know rare is good. People like rare. This bird is so endangered, it’s red-listed. Only about 200 exist.

I appreciated that mockingbird because it watched us briefly and then continued its search for food, oblivious to its fate and to ours. Survival takes many forms.  These mockers depend on prickly pear trees for nectar, fruit and nesting, but they also have adapted to eating bugs and even marine iguana eggs. Unbelievably, they might continue as a species partly due to the intervention of man and DNA from Darwin’s 1835 specimen. (Watch a fascinating video from the Natural History Museum in London. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/evolution/mimus-trifasciatus/ )

It was the four distinct kinds of mockingbirds found on different Islands of the Galapagos, not finches, that provided Darwin’s first eureka moment about how species evolve and change.

So it goes.

Endemic prickly pear
Endemic prickly pear

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Retired journalist, writer, editor and teacher. Our lives were lived in the Washington DC area, but I was born in upstate New York. Love nature, birding and reading. Volunteer at Ding Darling NWR . Proud mom of two, married to a wildlife photographer.

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