Bird Watcher's General Store

The Real James Bond Was A
Famous Ornithologist
11/05/10


Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve recently signed up for a cruise to the Caribbean. One of the items they suggested I take with me is a book called Birds of the West Indies by James Bond. I never knew James Bond wrote bird books. I thought he only wrote spy novels. Do you know about this book? Is it the same James Bond?

– Adam, Westborough, MA

Yes, no, and are you kidding me, Adam?

I don’t mean to take an attitude with you, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is putting me on or if he/she simply hasn’t thought the question through. Yes, I know about the book of which you speak. No, James Bond didn’t write any spy novels. James Bond is a fictional character in a series of spy novels written by Ian Fleming. (Does that name sound familiar?) Don’t feel bad. I know people who buy Dr. Seuss books because they think Seuss was a doctor, when in fact he was nothing more than a compulsive rhymer. (If Seuss were starting out today he’d probably be a rap star with the name of Grandmaster S.) However, there’s a twist to this Bond story. There was an ornithologist named “James Bond” and he really did write Birds of the West Indies. And it is this very same James Bond who lent his name to the fictional British spy. Really. It’s the irony of all ironies that the name of a geeky birder has become synonymous with style, sophistication and the world’s biggest babe magnet. I know what you are thinking: If Ian Fleming wanted to pick a birder who would capture a feeling of elegance and class, why didn’t he pick me? I’ve been asking myself that same question for years.

Ian Fleming was a British journalist, who also did a bit of spying on the side. During World War II, Fleming worked with British naval intelligence in an effort to keep the creepy Nazis from taking Gibraltar. The plan was called “Operation Goldeneye.” Towards the end of the war, Fleming traveled to Jamaica for a naval conference and to check out the local rum. After a few days in Jamaica, Fleming realized that island life was way better than living in gloomy, old England. He eventually bought some land in Jamaica, built a house and called his new residence “Goldeneye.” In 1952, while living at Goldeneye, he started working on his first spy novel, Casino Royale. The trouble was, Fleming couldn’t think of a name for his main character (or protagonist, as the literary types like to refer to it). While Fleming paced around in Goldeneye trying to think of a name, he spotted a bird book on the table (as it turns out, Fleming was a pretty serious bird watcher). The book he spotted was Birds of the West Indies; the author’s name was Bond, James Bond.

Meanwhile, back at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the American ornithologist who had written Birds of the West Indies, was happily minding his own business, studying stuffed birds and eating Philly cheese-steaks. Birder Jim had no idea who Ian Fleming was or that his rather simple name was about to become famous. Even when the real James learned about the secret agent James, it didn’t impress him much; in fact, he actually found it amusing. After all, birder Jim was famous in his own right. He was one of the world’s leading authorities on Caribbean birds and had won several awards for his ornithological work. Plus, the interest in 007 hadn’t gone mainstream yet. However, that all changed when it was reveled that JFK, America’s new president, loved the James Bond books. From that point on, birder Jim started receiving fewer calls inquiring about birds and more calls asking about Miss Moneypenny. (Actually, one of those calls may have been from me.)

Eventually, the real Bond sent a friendly letter to Ian Fleming, who wrote back and readily admitted what he had done. Fleming didn’t offer Bond any compensation, but he did tell Bond that he would gladly give him unlimited use of the name, Ian Fleming. He even suggested that if Bond discovered a new bird species, one that was “particularly horrible,” he could name the new species an “Ian Fleming,” as payback. (In case you are wondering, that never happened, probably because there is no such thing as a horrible bird.)

In 1966, in an effort to either cash in on the notoriety or to set the record straight, Mary Bond, Jim’s wife, wrote a book entitled, How 007 Got His Name. The book was a hit in Britain, but unfortunately, it was never made available in this country. I tried to obtain a copy to help me find some facts for this column, but the one copy I found cost $165.00. $165.00!! Forget that. (It’s easier, and way cheaper, to simply make stuff up.)

Sadly, Ian Fleming was a party boy and his excessive lifestyle caught up with him in 1964, when he passed away at the age of fifty-six. The ornithologist James Bond, living the boring life of a birder, made it to the respectable age of eighty-nine. Bond and Fleming didn’t have much in common, except that they both liked birds. They both may have even had birdfeeders, and if they did, you can bet whatever birdseed they used was always shaken…not stirred.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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