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Bond, James Bond: the Birds, the Books, the Bond

IMG_2381 (002)It is well-known that author Ian Fleming appropriated the name of his Secret Agent 007 from a book in his library, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond. The first to connect the two in print was an anonymous reviewer of a then-new edition of the title (1960) in the sober Sunday Times (London), of all places. That writer had fun and ran with it:

“To show maybe that his life is not all sadomasochism, Smith and Wessons, and écrevisse-tails in a white wine and brandy, Bond has revealed himself as a bird-watcherAs the subject of West Indian birds is not without its sensational aspects, one must hope that Mr. Bond has seen fit to preserve a decent discretion, particularly in his treatment of the nuptial plumage of the copper-rumped hummingbird (Amazilia tobaci) and the private life of the scaly-breasted thrasher.

P.S. Terrible mistake! I now find that the author of Birds of the West Indies is a different James Bond, Curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and a top banana in ornithology.”

Has it ever been acknowledged that Fleming must have been the author of the above piece? The review is in the same “voice” as his letters. In his post-World War II career (Naval Intelligence), Fleming worked for the newspaper group that owned Times. As its Foreign Manager, he was responsible for its stable of correspondents from 1945, working full-time until late in 1959 although he continued to be a contributor until 1961.

Fleming would spend months-long holidays at his modest, beloved Jamaican estate, Goldeneye, where he wrote his series of spy novels, beginning with Casino Royale (1953). Fleming also had time to practice his hobby of bird watching. The author ended up discussing his inspiration for the name in several outlets, but it’s a story that often gets muddled with the retelling by others, sometimes even by Fleming himself. In a piece in The New Yorker, he is quoted as saying: “[W]hen I was casting about for a name for my protagonist I thought, My God, that’s the dullest name I’ve ever heard, so I appropriated it. Now the dullest name in the world has become an exciting one. Mrs. Bond once wrote me a letter thanking me for using it.”

In an interview published in Rogue (a competitor of Playboy) of February 1961, Fleming is quoted:

“I knew a bit about gambling and about the Secret Service and I thought it would be jolly to combine them. Had no idea of doing a series at the time. There really is a James Bond, you know, but he’s an American ornithologist not a secret agent. I’d read a book of his and when I was casting about for a natural sounding name for my hero, I recalled the book and lifted the author’s name out-right.”

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), Myakka River State Park, Sarasota County, Florida (photo by Mwanner, from Wikimedia Commons)

A knowing wink to the ornithologist is worked into Dr. No’s lair at Crab Key, off Jamaica. On one end of the island is a colony of roseate spoonbills, protected by the National Audubon Society. This bird sanctuary was supposedly inspired by Fleming’s visit to the flamingos of Long Cay Camp in the Bahamas. And Bond kills the evil-doer (spoiler alert) by burying him alive in guano. The ornithologist’s wife, Mary Wickham Bond, became intrigued by Fleming’s familiarity (characters, bars, stories) with the West Indies she knew as portrayed in Dr. No (1958). The couple had spent years on field expeditions in that part of the world. As a sometime journalist, writer and poet, Mary Bond also appreciated a good story (although her enthusiasm for the connection was not shared by her husband). She wrote Fleming in February 1961 about “JB authenticus.” She received this admission from Fleming, in the same jokey spirit as her letter:

“I was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. Even his name should be the very reverse of the kind of “Peregrine Carruthers” whom one meets in this type of fiction.

At that 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 …

Anyway I send you both my most affectionate regards and good wishes, and should you ever return to Jamaica I would be very happy indeed to lend you my house for a week or so, so that you may inspect in comfort, the shire where the second James Bond was born.”

The Bonds and Fleming did meet, three years later. While on a birding trip in Jamaica, Mary, under the pretense of looking for a place to swim while James Bond was in the field in remote, nearby islands, pressed for a visit. The couple dropped by Goldeneye unannounced. Fleming warmly received them despite being in the midst of an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He exclaimed to the film crew: “This is a bonanza for the C.B.C.! I never saw the man before in my life but here he is, the real James Bond.” And then to the ornithologist: “This’ll sell even more of your books and mine!” While the filming resumed, the Bonds joined Fleming’s wife on the villa’s beach, where a house guest just happened to have a later edition of the Birds of the West Indies in hand, trying to make an identification of what turned out to be cave swallows. This clip from that day has Fleming again explaining the origin of the name of the Secret Service agent while displaying his “bible.”

As the couple were about to depart after lunch, Fleming pulled out a copy of the not-yet-released You Only Live Twice. He inscribed it: “To the real James Bond, from the Thief of his Identity, Ian Fleming. Feb. 5, 1964 – a great day!”

It was a great day indeed, as it was their only meeting. After a series of heart attacks, Fleming died six months later. The memento of the Bond’s visit to Goldeneye, the signed copy of You Only Live Twice, sold to some lucky collector in December 2008 for $84,000.

Fleming Book Collections

Percy Muir, bibliographer and bookseller, was a great friend to Fleming who helped him start collecting in 1929. After rejecting the idea of acquiring modern firsts, Fleming asked the dealer to look for “books that marked milestones of progress – books that had started something” such as important publications on inventions, theories and scientific discoveries. Fleming’s library became important enough that he lent forty-four books to the landmark exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man, held in London in 1963. Only King’s College, Cambridge lent more titles. The catalog for this display is still a standard reference work (there are copies, including later editions, in several Smithsonian Libraries reading rooms). The Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington has this collection of Fleming’s rare books, acquired in a deal negotiated by Muir in 1970.

As an example of Fleming’s erudition, the code name of his spy came from John Dee (1527-1608), mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, philosopher, alchemist, and perhaps, according to scholars, spy for Queen Elizabeth. He was her advisor and signed his confidential communications to the Queen with the insignia, “007,” representing all seeing and a lucky number – for the Queen’s eyes only. But that’s another story.

Other holdings of Fleming’s library, including manuscripts and correspondence, came up for sale en bloc in 2013. One of the highlights was a copy of the second edition of Birds of the West Indies, signed by James Bond. It is evident – from Mary Bond’s account of a guest at Goldeneye having the latest issue and the book held by the author in the CBC TV interview – that Fleming owned other editions of the field guide.

For his part, Muir assembled a wide range of materials of the author. The bookseller’s collection, which was sold in 2005, contained a photograph of Bond and Fleming together during that Goldeneye visit. Now here is an interesting fact for those in rare books: Fleming, in partnership with Muir, was a founder and investor in the scholarly quarterly, The Book Collector—still a mainstay today.

There are bibliophiles with complete collections of first editions of Fleming’s titles; some of those are “association copies” (that is, a book owned by the author or a person somehow connected with it) such as real-life models for 007 (there are many candidates). And a library of the first editions of the novels and other Bondiana would not be complete without the Birds of the West Indies. Perhaps there are collectors out there of the ornithologist James Bond’s works. After all, it was Seymour Adelman, Philadelphia rare book collector and Fleming fan, who early on urged Mary Wickham Bond to write How 007 got his name (1966) and to assemble materials about the origin of the spy’s name and resulting experiences. These papers are now in the University of Pennsylvania Library’s special collections. Adelman, whose library remains largely intact at Bryn Mawr, wrote the foreword to another of her titles, To James Bond, with love (1980).

American Flamingos in Cuba. Photograph by Peter E. Hart (PEHart on Flickr)

The Ornithologist

Given the overwhelming and long-lasting popularity of the 007 novels and the never-ending movie series, it is the fate of the real James Bond, JB authenticus, to be mostly remembered for his connection to the fictional spy, an association tied up with the Birds of the West Indies. Not such a bad thing, although he apparently never traded on his name (his wife pushed it a bit with her writings, the source of the above quotes). Bond was not even tempted by the offer to land in a helicopter on the top of a movie theater for $100. One wonders though if he grew somewhat tired and resentful of the jokes, back-slapping and the occasional confusion of strangers between reality and the character and then even with the actor, Sean Connery. The field guide was the only work mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times, which, along with his Wikipedia entry, plays up the name. However, the ornithologist James Bond lived a long life with his own real adventures and had an output that far out-stripped Fleming’s twelve novels and nine short stories: He authored about 50 scientific papers and several books.

James Bond (1900-1989) was born in Philadelphia but spent many years as a boy in England. Fleming’s face fell momentarily during their Jamaican lunch upon hearing his guest had been educated at Harrow and Cambridge University (Trinity College). The joke would not have been as good (or proper?) if he was riffing on a fellow Englishman. Independently wealthy, Bond had given up a career in banking to follow his interest in natural history, working as an nonsalaried curator of ornithology at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Bond had no formal training in the sciences (it was a different time). Perhaps because of this, the ornithologist had quite the range, authoring Birds of Mt. Desert Island, Acadia National Park Maine and The Birds of Bolivia. He undertook his first exploration in the lower Amazon in 1925. Bond was part of the George Vanderbilt Expedition of 1941, contributing to the results of that voyage through the Bahamas, Caribbean, Panama, Galápagos archipelago, and Mexican Pacific islands.

The research of the ornithologist focused on nesting habits. He pioneered the theory that birds of that region originated in North America and were not of South America ancestry as previously thought. This idea was first presented in a paper addressed to the American Philosophical Society in 1933, The Birds of the West Indies, published by the Philadelphia Academy in 1936 (printed by Waverly Press in Baltimore), which covered most of the islands, with detailed descriptions of over 400 species. In his career, Bond explored more than 100 Caribbean islands.

Cuban Tody. The bird appears as the only color illustration in the first edition of Birds of the West Indies (Photograph by Peter E. Hart, PEHart on Flickr)

The Bibliography

The second edition of Birds of the West Indies was issued as the Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies (1947) but, in Bond’s lifetime, subsequent editions reverted to the original title. Continual updates followed as well as separate Check-list of Birds of the West Indies and Supplements of the check-list. The latest issue in Bond’s lifetime was in 1988. There was an edition from Houghton Mifflin in 1999, followed by one of 2002 from Collins. Remarkably, the book is still in print after eighty years.

The Smithsonian Libraries’ copy of the first edition (“Birds”, National Museum of Natural History)

Jack Holloway has compiled a helpful list with illustrations to begin to sort out all the separate Birds of the West Indies (another resource is linked here). There is some confusion arising from all the different publishers involved over the years, and the title even became part of the Peterson Field Guides series (a bibliographical warren in itself). Tangling up the accounting even more, Houghton Mifflin issued Bond’s book in 1993 as Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies and then in 1995, with Bond still credited as author, Birds of the Caribbean. There was a French translation, Guide des Oiseaux des Antilles, published in Lausanne in 1996.

For anyone interested in the daunting task of compiling a complete bibliography of all Bond’s works, an excellent place to start would be in the Smithsonian Libraries, specifically in the National Museum of Natural History Vertebrate Zoology Libraries (their “Birds,” as we say here) and in other branch repositories (including their “Fishes”) and the Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The Smithsonian Libraries even has the three books of Mary Bond. There are also several association copies: one inscribed by James Bond; those which were formerly owned by the Sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian and an ornithologist, Alexander Wetmore; and presentations by Mary Bond to another famous ornithologist, emeritus curator at the National Museum of Natural History, Storrs Olson.

The Bond

Fleming’s Jamaican home, Goldeneye (photo by Banjoman, Wikimedia Commons, 2011)

What are the other tangible remains of the bond between the novelist and ornithologist?

The estate of Goldeneye, owned briefly by reggae legend Bob Marley and then Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, is now a hotel. James Bond Beach is nearby, where scenes from the movie Dr. No were filmed (such as the famous scene where actress Ursula Andress arises from the surf with seashell in hand). And there are, of course, all the books and ephemera, written or collected or signed, by both authors in libraries and private collections.

The ornithologist’s study and research have led to his own memorials quite apart from Fleming. There were many awards and medals for his work. A newly discovered large rodent, hutia (Plagiodontia aedium bondi), whose habitat is in the southeast section of Hispaniola, is named for Bond. A new subgenus of plants found in the Caribbean and Central America, of the flowering Alternanthera, is now officially called Jamesbondia. Bond identified a biogeographic barrier between Tobago and the Lesser Antilles; this avifaunal boundary is known as Bond’s Line.

However, the principal homage to James Bond continues to be his bird guide – sought after as a collectible (the earlier editions now quite pricey) and frequently brought up as a fun fact thanks to Fleming’s playing up the connection in his lifetime. The Birds of the West Indies binds its author, Fleming and his fictional spy together. In the film Die Another Day (2002), Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, posing as an ornithologist in Cuba, is glimpsed holding a copy of the book.

A selection of Bond’s publications in the Birds Library in the National Museum of Natural History

Since the novelist has his own excellent bibliography, Jon Gilbert’s Ian Fleming: the bibliography (2012), isn’t it time for the bibliography of the ornithologist Bond—James Bond?

Cuban Emerald. Photograph of Peter E. Hart (PEHart on Flickr)
Cuban Emerald. Photograph of Peter E. Hart (PEHart on Flickr)


A beginning of the Bond research papers bibliography can be found in Smithsonian Research here.

Barker, Nicolas, ‘Bond and the “Book Collector”’ Book Collector, vol. 10 Spring 2014, pages 11-28.

Contosta, David R. The Private Life of James Bond. Lititz, PA: Sutter House, 1993.

Ferguson, James. “The real James Bond,” CaribbeanBeat (March/April 2011).

Sánchez-del Pino, D. Iamonico. “Jamesbondia, a new subgenus of Alternanthera(Gomphrenoideae, Amaranthaceae) from Central America and the Caribbean Islands.” Plant Biosystems – An International Journal Dealing with all Aspects of Plant Biology, 2014; 150 (2): 190.

Roseate Spoonbill (NASA photo taken between the Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Wikimedia Commons)







  1. Nancy

    This is an excellent piece of writing, Julia. I found both the text and the photos (and video) absorbing. Thanks so much for doing this!

  2. Thank you, Julia, for researching and writing this absorbing summary of the “Bond/Birding link”. Particularly fascinating to my son, David Allinson, an accomplished field ornithologist, and me, an espionage devotee and military historian. I have taken the liberty of sharing links to your piece to several of our friends with like interests.

    • Julia Blakely

      Thank you for the kind words, Sidney. It was a fun post to write, I didn’t know where it would lead! Julia

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