A book of birds, real and otherwise, hatched from the imagination of the artist Ralph Steadman, is bound to be a feast for the eyes. How wonderful to discover that it is a feast of words, as well.
Not since Adam named the beasts, or at least since John Hollander, who wrote the poem "Adam's Task" about this feat of naming, has anyone so enriched the language of ornithology as Mr. Steadman and his co-author, Ceri Levy, in "Extinct Boids" (being published Oct. 30 by Bloomsbury, but available for ordering), a thrilling book of surprised, silly, sullen, sad, extinct, real and unreal birds.
Mr. Hollander's Adam pronounced each creature's name, thus, in a sense, calling them into being, at least for humans, to whom unnamed creatures may seem not fully real.
Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Mr. Steadman not only stands with the poet in naming prowess, but also indeed calls them into splatted and blotted being -- Lesser-blotted Bitwing, Needless Smut, Spundwick's Fret, Quink. Splindwif, Gasp, Yerk, Thronk and Thrisp.
They come in rich color, some serene and some disturbing, from the antifreeze green of the Splattered Shag's beak to the primitive red and black of the Angered Maggot Sleet. And what is most remarkable about these imaginary creatures is that they live, if not in harmony, then in creative discord with real birds, most extinct, some living: the passenger pigeon, great auk, Mauritius owl, Rodrigues solitaire and Lord Howe gerygone (yes, the solitaire and gerygone were real).
The book grew out of an invitation by Mr. Levy, a filmmaker, to contribute to an exhibition, "Ghosts of Gone Birds," opening in London in November, with paintings by many artists of extinct birds. The exhibit is to benefit Bird Life International, and to motivate conservation of birds that still exist.
Mr. Steadman responded to Mr. Levy's request but apparently could not accommodate himself to the straitjacket of reality. He did create paintings of real birds, which make up quite a bit of the book, but as Mr. Levy recounts in a running commentary, he also kept releasing imaginary birds from his mind.
The resulting book elicits sadness for the birds that have been lost, along with admiration for Mr. Steadman's art, but mostly the kind of delight so peculiar to an appreciation of birds: the thrill of colors and flight that squashes envy and leaves a lover of the natural world in open-mouthed joy.
Mr. Steadman appears to relish the freedom of creation as birds relish flying, and he is no more a respecter of niceties than the birds themselves, who bomb islands, cars, and the occasional upturned face with guano.
The Ex-Stink Boid is here as well as the one human, whose common name is too vulgar to print, but whose Latin name and description give you the idea. Homo sapiens guanophobes. "Every time he looks up he gets one in the eye."
The "boids" of "Extinct Boids" are often ill-behaved and unfriendly. They are no respecters of any persons. And best of all, sometimes you have to check the fine print to tell if they are real or imaginary.
Red-mustached fruit dove? Moor pen? Double-banded argus?
He paints. You decide.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.