How James Bond got his name: Ornithologist to superspy

How James Bond got his name: Ornithologist to superspy

There’s a new James Bond movie on the horizon, and with the 007 baton being passed to the first female lead, it’s likely the name James Bond won’t feature as heavily from now on.

But how was the name James Bond originally chosen? Curator Invertebrates Rodrigo Salvador tells an unlikely story involving the ‘Father of Caribbean Ornithology’.

“This name [James Bond], brief, unromantic, and yet very masculine, was just what I needed.”

– Ian Fleming

From Jamaica with love

Ian Fleming (1908–1964), the British author behind the Bond novels, took most of his inspiration from his time as a naval intelligence officer.

During a brief stay in Jamaica in the midst of World War II, he decided he would live in that country after the conflict.

In 1945, he built his house on Oracabessa Bay, on the northern coast of the country. He called it Goldeneye. There, he wrote all his novels.

GoldeneyeEstate
Goldeneye, Fleming’s abode in Jamaica., 2011. Photo by Banjoman1 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0
Cover of the first edition of Birds of the West Indies (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Waverly Press, USA, 1936), featuring the Jamaican tody

Fleming enjoyed the nature in his new home country and had a collection of books on shells, birds, fish, and plants.

Like any keen birdwatcher in the Caribbean, his go-to book was the amazing Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies (or just Birds of the West Indies for short).

You can probably note something funny going on here. The author of Birds of the West Indies is none other than Bond himself! How can that be?

License to map

James Bond (1900–1984) was an ornithologist and curator of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, in the US. He started his science career with an expedition to the Amazon River in Brazil and published several articles on South American birds.

James_Bond_1974
Ornithologist James Bond, taken at the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia, 1974. Photo by Jerry Freilich via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Later on, however, he changed his focus to the Caribbean birds and made them his life’s work. He published the first edition of Birds of the West Indies in 1936 and over time, more than a hundred scientific papers.

Among scientists, Bond is known as the father of Caribbean ornithology.

From all the islands Bond visited, Jamaica was the one that most fascinated him. It was there he realized that the native avifauna was derived from North America, instead of South America as previously supposed.

This kind of study is part of the discipline known as biogeography and led Bond, in 1971, to establish a biogeographic boundary between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago. This line separates two zones, the West Indies and South America, each with its own type of bird fauna. This boundary later became known as Bond’s Line.

Bond's Line
Map of the Caribbean Islands, showing the West Indies avifaunal region, encompassed by Bond’s Line. Reproduced from Bond, J., 1993, A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston

You only live twice

The original James Bond only discovered the second James Bond in 1960–61. This was several years after the first novel had been published (Cassino Royale, 1953).

James’ wife, Mary, wrote a letter to Fleming saying that he had “brazenly taken the name of a real human being for [his] rascal!

Fleming, who had the second edition of Birds of the West Indies (from 1947) in his library, explained to Mary: “I was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. (…) At this time one of my bibles was, and still is, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, and it struck me that this name, brief, unromantic, and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born.

He also added that in return for using the name he could offer her “James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” This never happened, though.

Fleming also invited the Bonds to visit him in Jamaica, which happened in 1964 during a research trip.

James Bond has the (somewhat dubious) honour of having his name twice immortalized in history, as a brilliant ornithologist and as a superspy/pop culture icon.

A quantum of ornithology

Jamaica has a very diverse bird fauna, with over 300 species. Some of these species have fascinated James Bond, Ian Fleming, and countless birdwatchers.

Luckily, we have some of these tropical jewels in our collection at Te Papa.

Red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus)

Also known as doctor bird, the Jamaican national bird features in Fleming’s short story For Your Eyes Only (1960), on the very first lines: “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.”

Trochilus polytmus
Male red-billed streamertail, 2014. Male Photo by  Charles J Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The ornithologist James Bond seems to agree, at least in part – he wrote that the “adult male is the most spectacular West Indian hummingbird.”

It is exceedingly hard to crown a most beautiful bird, but male streamertails are indeed remarkable. Their pair of tail feathers (the streamers) are longer than their actual body and make a humming sound during flight.

Jamaican tody (Todus todus)

While it might be hard to choose a ‘most beautiful’ bird, it’s clear that the Jamaican tody is a strong contender for the title of ‘most adorable’.

Todus todus
Jamaican tody, 2014. Photo by  Charles J Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Todies are tiny birds and at first were thought to be hummingbirds. We now know, however, that they are in fact coraciiforms, more closely related to kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters.

Todies feed on insects and fruits and nest in excavated burrows. Bond was especially interested in the nesting behaviour of birds, and studied this topic at length. He chose the Jamaican tody as the cover image of Birds of the West Indies.

Jamaica birds merged [low-res]
Some of the amazing Jamaican birds from Te Papa’s collection. From left to right: male and female orangequit (Euneornis campestris), two todies and a streamertail. Te Papa MNZ OR.3355, OR.3352, OR.3340, OR.3341, OR.3344.
Unfortunately, todies seem to have steadily decreased in numbers during the last decade. Birds live only once, and Jamaica has already lost some of its endemic species.

The Jamaican poorwill (Siphonorhis americana), for instance, died another day. It was driven to extinction already in 1859 by introduced rats and mongooses, alongside the usual human-induced habitat destruction. It’s another island, but the same old story.

Watercolour painting of a brown speckled bird in the grass
Jamaican poorwill, 1907, by George Edward Lodge. From Extinct Birds by Walter Rothschild 1907. Published by Hutchinson & Co

Mary Bond also wrote the full story in her book How 007 Got His Name (1966, Collins, London). The book Goldeneye (M. Parker, 2015, Pegasus, Winnipeg) is about Fleming and his Jamaican abode. And if you want to know more about the Jamaican birds themselves… well, now you know a good Field Guide for this task.

 

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Excellent blog, amusing and interesting.

  2. Avatar

    Wow, great story Rodrigo! Thanks

  3. Avatar

    This story is absolutely true except for the fact that West Indian birds are more closely related to Central American birds than to North American. The North American birds are mostly seasonal migrants. For your interest, in the 1960s I was a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, the first ornithologist to study todies in the West Indies. During that time, I discovered a new species, Elfin Woods Warbler (Dendroica angelae). While trying to figure out its identity, I corresponded several times with the real James Bond & asked him about the “movie” James Bond. He told me his story, which you relate here. At that time, James Bond assured me that the bird I was asking about was definately not a new species because he knew them all and no new species had been discovered in the West Indies since the 1880s! Later, the ornithological world recognized that it was most definitely a new species, to my delight.

    Now in my 70s, I consider it a privilege to have corresponded with the real James Bond and have many wonderful memories of my West Indian years. His movie counterpart was of an entirely different genre. By the way, I am a New Zealander.

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