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Bond, the ORIGINAL James Bond
The British spy 007, star of the new flick Quantum of Solace, may show a flair for fast cars, but his real-life namesake harbored a different passion: birds.

James Bond (left) and novelist Ian Fleming.
Ewell Sale Stewart Library/ANSP

Secret Agent 007 loves Aston Martins, shaken martinis, and beautiful women. The “original” James Bond, however, had more prosaic passions. That’s right, the charismatic British spy had a real-life counterpart, best known for his role as an ornithologist. Still, the name sharing is more than mere coincidence.

The real James Bond was an American most widely identified by his Birds of the West Indies. First published 1936, it was at the time considered the definitive field guide to avian species found in the Caribbean. As it turned out, Ian Fleming, the creator of 007, was an avid birder who had a house in Jamaica and owned a copy of Bond’s book. The byline on the cover grabbed his attention, and his fictional British spy was soon christened. Fleming didn’t bother to notify his character’s namesake, however, before publishing the first of his famous spy novels, in 1953. And while the 007 books were a sensation in the United Kingdom, they didn’t make an immediate splash across the pond. James Bond wasn’t affected by the popularity of Fleming’s character until he saw a review for the 1960 edition of Birds of the West Indies in London’s Sunday Times. “I can barely bring myself to write that James Bond, like practically everyone else in the newspapers these days is trying to establish a new image for himself,” the Times reviewer wrote jokingly. “Bond has revealed himself as a bird-watcher.” The review went on to right itself, acknowledging that Bond was, in fact, “a top banana in ornithology.”

After seeing the review, Bond’s wife, Mary, penned a letter to Fleming, chastising him for brazenly stealing her husband’s name and pilfering some of his island adventures. Fleming was guilty of hijacking the name, but he also had the highest respect for the real Bond. He wrote back to tell the couple that he considered Bond’s birding guide “one of my bibles,” and that the name on the cover struck him as “brief, unromantic, and yet very masculine.” He offered “limitless apologies” to the ornithologist and also invited the couple for a stay at his estate in Jamaica, which the Bonds accepted a few years later.

Fleming may have thought the name exuded a macho anonymity, but using it for 007 robbed the flesh-and-blood Bond of his obscurity. “He was quite a shy and private person, and I think he kind of resented the notoriety,” says Robert Peck, a senior fellow at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, who had worked with Bond. Indeed, Peck’s quiet colleague, who for decades served as the academy’s curator of ornithology, was more concerned about being respected for his work in ornithology than for any ties to a glamorous fictional spy.

Born into a well-heeled Philadelphia family in 1900, Bond started out on a career in banking. But the conformities of finance didn’t suit him, so he took off for Brazil in 1925 with his friend and future colleague Rodolphe de Schauensee. While collecting specimens in South and Central America for the Philadelphia Zoo and private citizens, Bond fell in love with field work.

After that initial trip, Bond went back for weeks or months at a time. It was during his travels throughout the Caribbean that he realized the birds of Trinidad and Tobago generally resembled birds found in South America—but that on Grenada and islands to its north, the birds shared qualities with their Central and North American cousins. In 1934 Bond wrote a paper for the American Philosophical Society detailing his observations.

At the time, there were many ornithologists involved in mapping birds, but the question of how populations like those in the Caribbean evolved wasn't often addressed. “To look at distribution and think about what it means,” says Kenn Kaufman, Audubon field editor and originator of the Kaufman Field Guide series, “[was] something people were just starting to do.” The line of species distinction between Tobago and Grenada, later renamed “Bond’s line” by ornithologist David Lack, also proved true for some other animals, including beetles and amphibians.

Bond’s pioneering work is testimony to his sharp, scientific mind. Although he had no formal training in ornithology, “he really educated himself, and he was a voracious reader,” says Peck. Bond loved his fieldwork, in part for getting him away from the family pressure of high society and excruciating cocktail parties. “He came from a very privileged background but was a very modest man,” Peck says. In the Caribbean, he insisted on being part of the local community. He befriended locals whenever possible, Peck remembers, in order to gather as much information as he could about birds.

Bond’s enthusiasm for fieldwork didn’t wane, even later on. He was obsessive in keeping up to date with the science, even after leaving his post at the museum. Kaufman remembers coming back from a trip to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in 1985, while he was working at The Academy of Natural Sciences, and meeting Bond who was then in his mid-eighties. “[He] was really a delightful person to talk to and a total gentleman,” says Kaufman. Peck agrees that Bond was always thrilled to speak to fellow ornithologists but “did not suffer fools lightly.”

That’s one trait Secret Agent 007 and the real Bond share. And the comparisons stretch a little further. Bond attended Cambridge University and retained a slight English accent throughout his days living in Philadelphia. “He was very attractive, always well dressed, very English in his style,” Peck remembers. And while he was more of a wine drinker, he occasionally did have a martini or two.

Did you know?

Fleming set the scene of Doctor No on a Caribbean island—one strikingly similar to Great Inagua, to which Audubon has had longtime ties and which houses an Important Bird Area. Frank Graham Jr. wrote about the flamingo-full island (and how it figures into Fleming’s novel) in “Burning Desire” [July-August 2005].

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