Birds, butterflies and bees — what do they have in common ? Assembling this group of 20 books as gifts or for personal reading– resource guides, travelogues, memoirs and more — makes clear that they are beloved or beguiling, their characteristics and behavior are fascinating, and that virtually all have an uncertain future resulting from climate change, disease, loss of habitat, urbanization and the “Anthropocene” era now underway. Give a book or two, but most especially, get involved in any of the ways these author-conservationists propose. The world will be better for your efforts!
Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, John M. Marzluff; Illustrations by Jack DeLap (Yale University Press) 320 p., 7 x 9 ¼ $30 Biologist and bird watcher John Marzluff (at the University of Washington) has neatly filled the gap in our knowledge and in most birding literature with a contemporary look at the bird world in cities and urban settings. “Everything I have learned as a conservation biologist,” says he,” tells me cities are bad for biodiversity – the sum total of life in an area – yet the feathered collective I encounter seems wholly unconvinced.” In the Seattle area, he sees bald eagles hunting from street lights, peregrine falcons (once threatened and endangered) living under bridges or atop skyscrapers, and a host of other species in the trees and on the ground. For all of us who live in cities and the close-in suburbs, this is perfect book to understand the conundrum – and the surprising abundance – of birds that now live in our urban centers. He adds 10 specific strategies to make urban environments a lot more bird friendly. A dividend: Marzluff’s essays are available online at the Yale University Press web site –a great way to preview the book before you buy. Check out contents/essays and illustrations
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, Thor Hanson. (Basic Books) 336 pp illus. $25.99. Did you know that when the Titanic sank in 1912, its cargo includedmore than 40 cases of feathers, no doubt destined for fancy hats produced by the millinery trade. Thor Hanson has written a magnum opus on feathers – lots of facts, good natural history, and insights into the many ways that humans seek and study them.Hanson himself explained his fascination in a beautifully written and illustrated Audubon Magazine article:
“ …[N]othing competes with feathers for sheer diversity of form and function. They can be downy soft or stiff as battens, barbed, branched, fringed, fused, flattened, or simple unadorned quills. They range from bristles smaller than a pencil point to the 35-foot breeding plumes of the ongadori, an ornamental Japanese fowl. Feathers can conceal or attract. They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment. They can store water or repel it. They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom, and whine. They’re a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered.” Hanson’s feathers web site and book review
Check out the fascinating gallery of feathers posted in his Audubon story and then beat it to the bookstore for a great addition to your library!
The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw (Princeton University Press) 304 pp 385 illustrations $49.95 If you’re interested in what’s beneath the feathers, this book of anatomy is for you. Yes, it is a coffee table book – beautiful illustrations drawn from real bird skeletons representing 200 species—and fascinating, if at moments, a bit grotesque in the honest depiction of every part of the anatomy. But there’s plenty of “meat” here too. The New York Times review says “ the text doesn’t compete with the wit of the drawings, but serves…[as a] supporting actor.” Yes, it is anatomy, but the Times says, “you don’t need to love birds to fall for this book.” Sounds like kudos to me. Unfeathered Bird web site Details at Princeton Press
The Thing with Feathers: The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human. Noah Stryker (Riverhead) 288 pp 27.95 Called an “entertaining and profound read,” The Things with Feathers is the work of birder, naturalist, young explorer Noah Stryker, who’s been from the Amazon to Antarctica in search of birds and their behavior. Clearly, this ornithologist has his own take on how birds coexist with humans, and he’s sharing his knowledge in this well-received book. As Newsweek’s review points out, “The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the deft artistry of bowerbirds, the extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, the lifelong loves of albatross, and other mysteries—revealing why birds do what they do, and offering a glimpse into our own nature.” Mini-review
Bird Song Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds is a 536-page reference book that features some 750 North American birds and a built-in digital audio player that brings their songs to life. Edited by Les Beletsky, featuring audio sounds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 750 color illustrations, 750 maps, electronic sound module and carrying case! (Chronicle Books) Hardcover $100-125. Fun video shows demo of the Bird Song Bible. Details on the book/audio
Extremes of the Bird World
A Feathered River across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, Joel Greenberg. (Bloomsbury) September 1, 1914 marked the date of Martha’s death – a female passenger pigeon named for “First Lady” Martha Washington — the last of her species on earth, an ecological catastrophe caused by humans (an early example of the “Anthropcene period” now underway) resulting in total extinction of these birds. Their feathers were sought after, the birds themselves were a huge source of protein, untold millions of adults and juveniles killed (in very ugly ways) while nesting; put up and shipped in barrels to every part of the country. It’s estimated that the population once totaled “25 % to 40% of North American birdlife,” literally several billion birds. If you can get past the horror of their demise, you will find a wealth of material on this beautiful and admired species – and lessons to be learned. And Greenberg tells a larger story – about the “planet’s sixth great episode of mass extinctions”— that may have started with Martha, but did not end there. (Think elephants, rhinos, tigers, bison, wolves) Passenger Pigeon Book Author’s web site
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, Andrew Lawler (Atria Books) publication expected Dec 2 2014. 320 pp Why would anyone write a book about chickens ? For one thing, they are ubiquitous –possibly the most dominant source of protein worldwide. And increasingly, they are attracting backyard “farmers” who live in the suburbs and want fresh eggs every morning. This fascinating history begins with the chicken’s arrival in the U.S. with the first residents of the Jamestown Colony (1607), and later the key role that free and enslaved African-Americans played in raising chickens in the 18th and 19th centuries – they were prohibited from raising beef and hogs – that they could eat (and sell). African-Americans brought food traditions with them that influenced mainstream white tastes: the West African practice of frying pieces in oil. A transcendent moment came with the opening of China in the 1840s, the arrival of breeds in the U.S. from Asia that had never been seen before. These chickens were crossbred with the hardier American varieties – and voilà – farmers were producing varieties like the Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red. Chicken also became a staple item in immigrant households from Eastern Europe. “By 1900, New York City boasted 1,500 kosher butcher shops, stocked by train cars filled with live chickens that arrived mainly from farms in the Midwest.” In time, “It became the most engineered of animals….[and] what is now humanity’s single most important source of protein.” Lawler’s New York Times oped on Chickens (November 2014) Lawler’s web site
Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America, Roberta J. M. Olson. (Skira Rizzoli) 10.5 x 13 inch volume, 448 pp. $60. This is a showcase of the watercolors that Haitian-born John James Audubon painted—a herculean effort — for creating for his masterpiece, The Birds of America. In addition to fine color plates, the book offers the backstory of how the young explorer, naturalist, and self-trained artist painted hundreds of bird images over three decades. Audubon’s Aviary was named one of Amazon.com’s top books for 2012. The New York-York Historical Society just completed the second part of the exhibition trilogy for Audubon’s sesquicentennial. Don’t miss the opportunity in 2015 to see part three at the museum. This volume – with 474 Audubon avian watercolors in the museum’s collection– contains 710 illustrations, including many with birds life-size as they were originally rendered by Audubon. It’s perfect as a permanent addition to any library. Video
Audubon in Fiction
Audubon fans will appreciate knowing there are three works of fiction – all still in print and available– related to the naturalist-artist. Writer Joyce Hinnefeld In Hovering Flight (a RogerTory Peterson description of the bobolink’s song) creates the “complex and fragile world” of bird artist and activist Addie Sturmer Kavanagh, ornithologist and musician Tom Kavanagh, and their daughter, poet Scarlet Kavanagh. (Unbridled. 263 pp. 2008). Review in Washington Post
Two other novels use Audubon as a point of departure: Creation, by Katherine Govier, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, “recreates the summer in which ‘the world’s greatest living bird artist’ finally understood the paradox embedded in his art: that the act of creation was also an act of destruction.” Web site and Audubon’s Watch, by John Gregory Brown, “ inspired by a brief journal entry made by the artist and ornithologist John James Audubon. This richly atmospheric novel traces the paths of two men whose lives are inextricably linked by the tragic events of a single night.” Goodreads review
America’s Other Audubon, Joy M. Kiser. (Princeton Architectural Press, $45). It’s a happy coincidence that when Kiser arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for her first day on the job, she spied an exhibition case with lithographs from a book of illustrations of bird nests and eggs. Her curiosity paid off – although her project ultimately took nearly 15 years. The Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, created by native Ohioan Genevieve Jones, and then by her family, is a remarkable story of a young talent cut short (she died from typhoid fever at age 32) and the commitment they shared to complete what she had begun. It took seven years for them to complete the lithos of 130 birds of Ohio, along with their nests and eggs. While most of the original 100 sets of prints on the finest paper have largely disappeared, this volume reproduces the original art work for the first time. Washington Post blog and T Magazine (NY Times)
A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America, Jeffrey Glassberg Sunstreak, 2012 415 pp 3500 color photos. Paperback $29.95 All the butterflies of North America and Hawaii are included in this book. That’s around 3500 pictures of wild butterflies shown in full color – with ventral, dorsal shots, and males and females, along with some caterpillars. Why is it called “swift” ? The volume is sized to take with you into the field, and photos are sized to help you make “swift” decisions. There are arrows to show you what to look for. If you are puzzled about what caterpillars feed on (they need host plants), there is a compilation for you. Glassberg also wrote Butterflies through Binoculars in 1993 which helped popularize butterfly watching. Details
Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year Robert Michael Pyle (Yale University Press) 576 pp, 17 maps softcover $25 Author of Chasing Monarchs (and many other books), Robert Pyle spent a year on the road to track down as many of the 800 species he could find of butterflies known in the US. In 365 days he covered 88,000 miles in a 1982 Honda, ranged into every region of the US, documented his encounters (both human and butterfly) and found his quarry, as well as changing habitats and environmental stressors are affecting butterfly populations. First issued in 2010 as a hardcover, the book was reissued recently in paperback by Yale University Press. Hooray! Says Lincoln Brower, Research Professor of Biology, Sweet Briar College and an expert on monarch butterflies, “I immensely enjoyed the diverse, humorous, and incisive tales Pyle relates in his always-elegant prose, and I was very strongly moved by his subtle inserts here and there on the issues of habitat loss and conservation. Review at Audubon Magazine Details and online reviews (Yale) and Xerces Society review
Butterfly People An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, William Leach (Pantheon/Random House) 358 pp $32.50 “…Leach’s compelling thesis, says The Economist, ”is that 19th-century America provided a uniquely hospitable time and place for lovers, and especially collectors, of butterflies.” To find out why, you’ll need to plumb the depths of this fascinating book which starts in 19th century England. It turns out that a Brit, William Henry Edwards – known as the grandfather of the butterfly movement – was among the first to develop the study of living butterflies, not just as preserved museum specimens. While the movement eventually petered out, Leach is hopeful that human desire to understand the natural world – and chasing butterflies is certainly one way – will be stoked anew. Radio interview with the author at NPR and Book review and excerpt
BEES (and Bumble Bees)
A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, Dave Goulson (Picador) 256 pp $26 and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identifiation Guide, Paul Williams et al (Princeton University) 208 pp paperback $42.95 There are some 250 species of bumblebees in the world – who knew? – with many in decline, and as many as half of the 46 species found in the US at risk. The threats can be found all over – loss of habitat, climate change, and various kinds of new insecticides. But here’s something that was a surprise: commercially raised bumblebees (they arrive in a box) are being used to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes. In Bumblebees of North America you will find a rich resource detailing each of the species, maps of their ranges and photos. Dave Goulson’s Sting in My Tale is a personal quest. There’s a bumper crop of useful information, and a warning that commercial bumblebee operations may actually be spreading disease worldwide (you’ll have to read this!).
Goulson’s book includes the tale of buying a dilapidated farm in central France—and the restoration of a 13-hectare meadow that has attracted rare species. Do people want to have bumble bee nests in their yard ? Probably not, but Goulson argues that “old compost heaps, sheds, patios, rockeries” and other places are ideal for the underground cavities that will allow them to nest. Both books make it clear that bumble bees – not just honey bees- are essential pollinators that help supply us with at least one third of our plant food crops. Try to imagine the world without them. And check out the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust.
Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley. (Princeton University Press) 273 pp. $29.95. Dr. Seeley’s decades of minute observation have produced a rich reward –a cornucopia of information about decision-making, hive relocation, queens and their selection of their replacement. “Some have said,” Seeley writes in conclusion, “that honeybees are messengers sent from the gods to show us how we ought to live: in sweetness and in beauty and peacefulness.” A message well worth considering in our fraught world. New York Times review and Cornell University review
Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, Mark Winston (Harvard University), 296 pp $24.95 “Being among bees is a ‘full-body experience,’” writes Mark Winston –biologist and director of the Center for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University– who has devoted 30 years to researching bees and experiencing their world. You can tell he is intoxicated: the sight of workers ferrying their pollen to the hive, the scent of honey and beeswax, and the sound of legions of bees at work. He says they are “a pinnacle of animal sociality” –sounds like us ? Shouldn’t we fear a world without bees – at least one third of our fruit and vegetable crops depend upon these pollinators — and create healthier interactions in farming, the suburban world of lawns and pesticides, and urbanized environments that deplete natural habitat? “A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides.” The toxic mix that results from the interaction is just one of the myriad ways we are weakening the populations. This is a great book to learn from. To get started, read Winston’s recent New York Times op-ed. Listen to Mark Winston on radio and Reviews and resources
Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World, Alison Gillespie (Croyden Hill) 2014 321 pp paperback If you live in the Northeast United States, this book is for you. Gillespie spent 2013 with beekeepers in Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York –to learn about urban beekeepers, and how do they do it despite declining habitat and a public that is often antagonistic toward these stinging pollinators. She interviewed some of the leading urban bee keepers, so you’ll be learning their ways—and how they are dealing with colony collapse disorder and other threats. Guthrie is a believer in the power and poetry of bees, “ For centuries the honey bee has symbolized industriousness or selflessness, but now—in a new urban twist—it has become a symbol of a human willingness to acknowledge and connect with the natural, the good and the pure even in the most unlikely places.” Gillespie’s web site and book review