There are many stories that can be told about Dr. Ernie Provost. He was a legend when I took his Vertebrate Natural History1 class. “He’s forgotten more than most people ever know” was commonly used to describe him. His own turns of phrase could be more colorful; for example, he would describe any task or obstacle that promised to require a significant fee in blood, sweat, and/or tears as “a ring-tailed bitch-kitty.” It was an epithet often used for his exams, and his courses in general.
“Uncle Ernie” had a blue million2 stories attached to his name: some dealing with combat on volcanic sands, others with tracking down rattlesnakes in coastal scrubland. But if there is one Uncle Ernie story that has achieved contemporary folklore status among wildlife and ecology professionals, it probably involves duck feet.
Provost taught Ornithology at one time. He taught Ornithology students, as he did in Natural History, that while birds were all related, each species was unique. Much about a given bird can be gleaned by its morphology, from the shape of a bill to the structure of its feet. A mallard foot is different from a grebe foot, a barred owl flight feather is different from a redtail hawk flight feather, and a finch bill likewise differs from that of a whippoorwill. Therefore, he required that students study, not just the whole individual, but the feathers, feet, wings, and tails to learn how to identify species by a piecemeal approach.
Fast forward to the Practicum – the exam of concepts and identification using actual specimens. Among the assortment of bones and wings was a series of study skins, with paper bags covering all except the feet. To pass the test, the students needed to identify the critter based only on what could be seen.
It was clear that one student hadn’t studied enough. He might have recognized whole specimens, he might even have differentiated known ducks by their wings. But the minutia of webbing and talons was beyond him. The professor, sitting behind a desk at the front of class, couldn’t help but notice the increasing agitation on that side of the room.
Finally, the frustrated young man stalked up to the desk, threw his paper down, and stomped towards the door. Provost glanced at the page with its conspicuous blank spots, and called after the fellow.
“At least give me your name so I can mark that you were here!”
The dude turned around and held up one leg towards the professor. Hiking up his pants leg to expose his boot, he replied, “You tell me, you son of a bitch!”
That story was first told to me, with some embellishment, by Dick Payne, a professor at ABAC and acolyte of Provost’s; his version involved the wrapped bird specimens being thrown across the room to make identification that much harder. Other versions of the story, mostly attributed to a nameless professor, have cropped up since then. The story has become part of the mythology of college wildlife classrooms. When I pressed “Uncle Ernie” for the truth of the matter, he gave me the unadorned account which I have related to you.
1 “Life history strategies of vertebrates with emphasis on ecology, behavior, taxonomy, and systematics.” Part lecture, part lab.
2“a blue million” was another term Provost frequently used; means “an awful lot”