Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Conjurer's Bird

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The Conjurer's Bird

by Martin Davies

The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 320 pages

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Where is Ulieta? The island of Ulieta, or Ulietea, is too small to appear in our atlas but if you were to travel roughly North-West of Tahiti you'd likely come across it.  We "Google Earthed" it (16° 49' 60, 151° 25' 0 W) and it looks like a very nice place to spend a few days - green island surrounded by blue seas and a barrier reef (if you haven't yet discovered Google Earth you should give it a go - it's a lot of fun!) 

Captain Cook visited Ulietea on his second voyage to the South Pacific - you can read his observations of the island and its people in chapter 15 of Volume 1 of A Voyage To The South Pole and Around The World, and this engraving will give you an idea of what it looked like in the late 18th century. 

Joseph Banks turns up frequently in historical novels - and for good reason, he was a fascinating person. For a brief biography and portrait try the BBC's website (a surprisingly useful historical information resource).

Could the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta brought back by Captain Cook still exist? It's unlikely because very few examples of taxidermy from the 18th century survive. The oldest known is the Duchess of Richmond's African Grey Parrot from 1702. For reasons unknown it's stored in Westminster Abbey, London. The fact that it has survived this long is put down to the conditions in the Abbey which are unsuited to insects. Few other specimens from before the 1790s exist.

The word 'taxidermy' is derived from the ancient Greek words taxis (movement) and derma (skin). You wouldn't find me chasing after a 200-year-old stuffed bird, in fact quite the opposite - over the years, one of the things that has united my mother-in-law and me is that neither of us were prepared to house her son's collection of flea-bitten stuffed birds that he'd acquired 'for a song' at auction at some point!

This article was originally published in February 2006, and has been updated for the August 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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