Ornithological Expert “Thinks” a Crow Is A Bird and Insists that Seagulls Aren’t

crow flying

Bird expert "thinks" this might be a bird.

In U.S. v. Byrnes, the defendant was convicted of making false statements to a grand jury investigating illegal trafficking in exotic birds. The issue involved the materiality of statements as to whether some illegally imported swans and geese were dead or live when the defendant received them.

To bolster its case, the government called a collector of Australian parrots who testified the defendant had delivered some swans and geese to her. Defense counsel cross-examined the witness, an immigrant from Germany who had difficulty speaking English, in an apparent effort to challenge her credibility as a bird expert. Here’s the interesting colloquy:

Q. Mrs. Meffert, do you recall testifying yesterday about your definition of birds?

A. Yes.

Q. And do you recall that you said that the swans and geese were not birds?

A. Not to me.

Q. What do you mean by that, “not to me?”

A. By me, the swans are waterfowls.

Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Meffert was cross examined as follows:

Q. Are sparrows birds?

A. I think so, sure.

Q. Is a crow a bird?

A. I think so.

Q. Is a parrot a bird?

A. Not to me.

Q. How about a seagull, is that a bird?

A. To me it is a seagull, I don’t know what it is to other people.

Q. Is it a bird to you as well or not?

A. To me it is a seagull. I don’t know any other definition for it.

Q. Is an eagle a bird?

A. I guess so.

Q. Is a swallow a bird?

A. I don’t know what a swallow is, sir.

Q. Is a duck a bird?

A. Not to me, it is a duck.

Q. But not a bird.

A. No, to other people maybe.

The government stipulated that swans and geese are birds.

Because it makes me laugh every time I read it, this opinion gains entry to the Strange Judicial Opinions Hall of Fame.

United States v. Byrnes, 644 F.2d 107, 110 n.7 (2nd Cir. 1981). Thanks to Walter Fitzpatrick.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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