Fact Check

The Tale of 'Wash. Biol. Surv.'

"I followed the cooking instructions on the leg tag and I want to tell you it was horrible."

Published Jul 29, 1999

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Farmer mistakes the inscription found on a banded bird for cooking instructions.

A popular started out as a joke at least as far back as the 1940s, one which played on the stereotype of the backwards, rural farmer as too unsophisticated to recognize the significance of a banded bird, too unschooled to interpret the designation on its band as anything but cooking instructions, and too poor to let something he'd killed go to waste by not eating it:

According to the Knight-Ridder News Service, the inscription on the metal bands used by the U.S. Department of the Interior to tag migratory birds has been changed. The bands used to bear the address of the Washington Biological Survey, abbreviated "Wash. Biol. Surv." until the agency received the following letter from an Arkansas camper:

Dear Sirs:
While camping last week I shot one of your birds. I think it was a crow. I followed the cooking instructions on the leg tag and I want to tell you it was horrible.

The bands are now marked "Fish and Wildlife Service."

In one early telling, the angry note sent to the government came from an Alberta farmer, not an Arkansas camper:

In Washington, a government survey was ordered to study the migratory habits of birds. Thousands of all species were released with metal strips attached reading, "Notify Fish and Wild Life Division. Wash. Biol. Surv." Hugh Newton writes, "The abbreviation was changed abruptly following receipt of this penciled note from a vexed Alberta agriculturist: 'Gents: I shot one of your crows last week and followed instructions attached to it. I washed it, biled it, and surved it. It was awful. You should stop trying to fool the public with things like this.'"1

By attributing the 1998 Internet version to Knight-Ridder, someone passed off a decades-old joke as a recent news item, prompting Smithsonian magazine to take a look at the venerable legend. According to their findings, the story may have begun back in the 1920s, when the government used a batch of bands on which the abbreviation "Biol." was misspelled as "Boil":

Bird banding even has its own urban legend, a 70-year-old misprint that has gained new credence, thanks to the Internet. Last year, several newspapers and wire services reported variations on the folowing tale, which was circulating widely on the World Wide Web: the government, they claimed, had changed the inscription on bird bands from "Wash. Biol. Surv." — an abbreviation for Washington Biological Survey — because on some bands "Biol" was misspelled as "Boil." A camper (sometimes a hunter or a farmer) supposedly wrote to say he found a crow (or a coot or a vulture) wearing the band, followed the directions to wash, boil, and serve, but the bird still tasted horrible. John Tautin [head of the U. S. Bird Banding Laboratory] tried to track down the origin of the story and found that in the 1920s a batch of bands did indeed carry the misspelled abbreviation. While some banders at the time were afraid folks might misinterpret the inscription, Tautin can find no evidence that anyone actually did.

Although it doesn't involve animals, an anecdote related in a book about the 1986 New York Mets baseball team somewhat echoes this legend:

At an autograph gig in New Jersey several years back, an irate fan approached [catcher] Ed Hearn, who was sitting behind a table. "Where's [Met infielder] Tim Teufel?" the man yelled. "I'm gonna kick his ass! He's trying to pick up my wife!"

Hearn, an admirer of the quiet, religious Teufel, was shocked. "Tim's trying to pick up your wife?" he said. "What makes you say that?"

The man handed Hearn a baseball bearing Teufel's signature. "Look," he said. "He signed it for her and put his room number on the ball!"

Hearn laughed hysterically. The ball read: Rom. 116, as in Bible verse Romans 1:16.2


Cerf, Bennett.   Good for a Laugh.     New York: Hanover House, 1952   (p. 66).

Golden, Francis Leo.   Laughter Is Legal.     New York: Pocketbook, 1953   (p. 224).

Pearlman, Jeff.     The Bad Guys Won!     New York: HarperCollins, 2004.   ISBN 0-060-50732-2.

Williams, Rolla.   "Author Sees Waterfowl as More Than Flying Targets."     The San Diego Union-Tribune.   24 October 1984   (Lifestyle; p. 5).

Weidensaul, Scott.   "Saving Birds with a Ring and a Prayer."     Smithsonian.   September 1999.

The Charleston [West Virginia] Daily Mail.   "How Straight Does a Crow Fly?"     5 April 1931   (p. 18).

Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader's Digest Wit and Humor.     Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, 1949   (p. 84).