Friday, May 03, 2002

Alleged Spies, Communists, and Prothonotary Warblers

One of the little-known but quite fascinating (especially if you're a birder) aspects of the Alger Hiss spy trial (about which much has been written; see, for example, The Alger Hiss Story) involved a beautiful little bird called a Prothonotary Warbler. This was one of the pieces of "evidence" used by the House Committee on Un-American Affairs to "prove" that Hiss had committed perjury. Read the details here.

What is especially notable is that three of the central figures in this case were self-proclaimed bird watchers: Whittaker Chambers (former Communist and the accuser), Alger Hiss (career diplomat and the accused), and John McDowell (a Republican member of the Committee from Pennsylvania who elicited testimony from Hiss that he had indeed seen a Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac River, thus supporting Chambers' contention that he and Hiss had once been friends, a fact that Hiss first denied--undoubtedly because Chambers was using an assumed name at the time).

Interesting statement made by McDowell during a Congressional hearing (the first ever televised) on this case, August 25, 1948:

". . . to discover a rare bird or an unusual bird . . . is a great discovery in the life of an amateur ornithologist. You can usually recall almost everything around it. It is like winning the ball game or the yacht regatta. You can recall the time of day, how high the sun was, and all the other things."

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