Category Archives: Books

Books On Birds And Nature

Here we look mainly at bird books, but I wanted to also mention a couple of other items on non-birds. I’ve mixed in some new books along with a few other books that have come out over the last couple of years, but that are still very current, very amazing books, and since they have been out for a while, may in some cases be picked up used or otherwise less expensively.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.46.45 PMLet’s start with the least-bird like book, one that will be a must have for anyone traveling to or studying Africa. This is The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals: Second edition. This is a newly produced edition of this now classic work, which pretty much replaces most of the other guides. However, be warned, the book is a bit big and thick. If you are going on safari, consider also getting something smaller and more pocket size such as Pocket Guide version of Kingdon or the more classic Dorst and Dandelot A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa.

Kingdon is a naturalist and an amazing artist. The guide is detailed and has more species than any other guide. The maps are excellent and detailed. The drawings are both lifelike and designed to highlight key features. The text includes a lot of background on evolution and physical variation. This is just a great book. For African mammals, this is, these days, the guide.

A book with all the African mammals is fairly large. There are just enough carnivores in the world (excluding seals and their kin) to put them all into one book. Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) is just plain a lot of fun. It is a bit silly, perhaps, to have a field guide to all the carnivores, because where exactly are you going to travel and see all the carnivores? But it is amazing to see them all in one place, well organized, similarly treated.

51zayKv8lYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Flight has evolved many times, and only some of those evolutionary events are visible in living form today. We have to assume that flight is one of the most useful adaptations, and at the same time, difficult to emerge. David Alexander’s On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight is a careful and intriguing look at the evolution of fully powered flight in the four major groups that achieved this ability.

While birds have received the majority of attention from flight researchers, Alexander pays equal attention to all four groups of flyers-something that no other book on the subject has done before now. In a streamlined and captivating way, David Alexander demonstrates the links between the tiny 2-mm thrip and the enormous albatross with the 12 feet wingspan used to cross oceans. The book delves into the fossil record of flyers enough to satisfy the budding paleontologist, while also pleasing ornithologists and entomologists alike with its treatment of animal behavior, flapping mechanisms, and wing-origin theory. Alexander uses relatable examples to draw in readers even without a natural interest in birds, bees, and bats. He takes something that is so off-limits and unfamiliar to humans-the act of flying-and puts it in the context of experiences that many readers can relate to. Alexander guides readers through the anomalies of the flying world: hovering hummingbirds, unexpected gliders (squirrels, for instance), and the flyers that went extinct (pterosaurs). Alexander also delves into wing-origin theory and explores whether birds entered the skies from the trees down (as gliders) or from the ground up (as runners) and uses the latest fossil evidence to present readers with an answer.

The following several books are bird books that have been available for a range of time (mostly not too new, at least one quite old) but that are either really nice books, or invaluable references.

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Bird Guides

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle is the definitive guide to warblers. It includes all the North American species, with excellent visuals and a lot of information about the birds and their songs, including sonograms designed to actually relate the visual image to the sound itself, as an aid in identification. Because, let’s face it, you are going to hear a lot more warblers than you are going to see. Which is why they are called “warblers” instead of “colorful little birds.” Perhaps unique among bird guides, this book has quizzes to make sure you are keeping up. There are piles of other information about warbler watching

All of the Crossley ID guides are fantastic. These are not pocket books, but they are car books. You put them in your car when you are out looking for birds. These guides are unique in the way the birds are depicted, giving you views of the birds as they actually look in the wild, including really far away or hiding in the bushes, or all the other things birds do. Everyone needs to have a couple of these.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.06.23 PMThe Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (The Crossley ID Guides) mirrors the typical Peterson type guide in its coverage. This is to be supplemented by the very valuable The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors for the hawks and such. There is also a The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland.

Some of the Crossley guides come in an alternative binding format

Bird Books About Birds (evolution, history, biology)

There is a handful of books that I tend to go back to again and again to learn things about bird biology, the history of bird research, or other things beyond field identification.

The first one I would recommend is The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul Elrich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.13.49 PMThis is an older book but little of the information is out of date. This is where you look up some bird you’ve been watching or wondering about and find out the real tale behind the tail. Since it is an older book you can obtain it for just a few dollars.

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie is an authoritative, rich, well written, big, giant, tome that reviews the history of research, and the researchers, over many decades of bird study. Bird biology is a major part of organismic (meaning, not inside the cell or body, but outside) biology. So, in a sense, this book is a history of our understanding of how animals in general work. Again, because it has been out for a few years, you may find a good price on a used edition.

The next six books cover conservation, the intersection of birds and art, or expose detailed information about a single group of birds. They are all coffee-table level quality but rich in information and in some cases just plain inspiring. They are all current, but not right out of the publishing houses, so they can be obtained at a reasonable price, in most cases.

The World’s Rarest Birds (WILDGuides). There are something over 10,000 species of birds (thus the name of the famous blog). Of these, just under 600 are in very very serious trouble, some to the extent that we are not sure if they exist, others are so rare that we know they exist but there are no good photographs of them, others are merely very likely to go extinct. There are patterns to this rarity, having to do with what threatens birds on one hand and what makes certain birds vulnerable on the other, but the range of birds that are threatened, in terms of size, shape, kind of bird, habitat, etc. represents birds pretty generally. It is not just obscure frog-like rainforest birds of Borneo that are threatened. Chance are you live in a zone where there are bird species that have gone extinct over the last century, or are about to go extinct over coming decades, including birds that you will never see unless you are very very lucky.

Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a beautiful coffee table style book full of information. All of the world’s species are covered (amazingly there are only 18 of them) and there are more than 400 excellent photos. The book covers penguin science (science about them, not by them). There is also quite a bit about their conservation.

The layout of the book is interesting. The last section of the book, by Julie Cornthwaite includes portraits of each species, and a compendium of interesting facts such as which is the fastest penguin, strange things about their bills, their odd moulting behavior, interesting color variants, how they “fly”, interesting mating facts, and what threatens them. Then there is a table organized taxonomically giving their status, population estimates, ranges, and main threats. Following this is a two page bird-guide type spread on each species, with a range map, photos, descriptions, information about their voice, breeding behavior, feeding behavior, etc. That is what you would expect in a book about penguins.

But the first, and largest, part(s) of the book provides its uniqueness. The first section, by Dui De Roy, covers penguins generally, or specific exemplar species or groups of species, to provide an overview of what penguin-ness is all about. The second section, edited by Mark Jones, consists of 17 essays by various experts on specific topics, such as how penguins store food, how they are tracked at sea, and penguin-human interaction. I would like to have seen more about penguin evolution (which is interesting) but the sparsity of coverage of that topic does not detract from the book’s overall quality.

Five families of birds make up the group that could be referred to as the Cotingas and Manakins, which in turn include species with such colorful names as “Pale-bellied Tyrant-Manakin,” “Bare-necked Fruitcrow,” “Peruvian Plantcutter,” and “White-browed Purpletuft.” And certainly, you’ve heard of the Andean Cock-of-theRock. These birds and their relatives are THE famous colorful amazing birds of the Neotropics, the birds people who go to the Jungles of Central and South America go to see. “… the song of the Xcreaming Piha,… the loudest bird on Earth, is used by moviemakers to epitomize jungle soudns the world over, no just in its native South America,” we are told by the authors of Cotingas and Manakins, an amazing new book that you need to either add to your collection right now or give to your favorite birder.

How are birds related to dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs? Where do birds live, and not live? How many bird species are there, and how many actual birds, and how does this vary across the glob? What about endemics?; Where ate the most local species found? Mike Unwin’s The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation covers this and more in a richly illustrated detailed global survey of Aves.

The image at the top of the post is by Analiese Miller. Ana is a fantastic bird photographer, and you can see some of her work either by visiting my house and looking at my wall, or by visiting this web site.

Sins of Our Fathers, a New Novel by Shawn Otto

Sins of Our Fathers, by Shaw Otto, is coming out shortly but can be preordered.

JW, protagonist, is a flawed hero. He is not exactly an anti-hero because he is not a bad guy, though one does become annoyed at where he places his values. As his character unfolds in the first several chapters of Shawn Otto’s novel, Sins of Our Fathers, we like him, we are worried about him, we wonder what he is thinking, we sit on the edge of our proverbial seats as he takes risk after risk and we are sitting thusly because we learn that he does not have a rational concept of risk. We learn that his inner confusion about life arises from two main sources: the dramatic difference between his temperament and upbringing on one hand and the life he ended up with on the other, and from unthinkable tragedy he has suffered. And so it goes as well with the other hero of the book, Johnny Eagle, who is a flawed, almost Byronic antagonist. Flawed because he is not the bad guy yet is an antagonist, Byronic because of his pride. There is also a troubled young man, a full blown antagonist we never come close to liking, and a horse.

SinsOfOurFathersWhen I moved to Minnesota from the East, I quickly encountered “The Indian Problem.” Not my words; that is what people called it. Very rarely major news, but still always a problem, the concept includes the expected litany. Poverty, fights over spear fishing rights, casinos and fights over off-reservation gambling, and the usual racism. I lived near the “Urban Res” but was told never to call it that. Doing some historic archaeology in Minneapolis I came across a hostess, of the first hotel built in the city, who had written elaborate stories of Indian attacks in South Minneapolis, part of the Indian Problem, after which she and her hotel gave refuge to the victims. None of which ever actually happened. I read about trophy hunting by the farmers in the southern part of the state, who took body parts from the Native Americans executed as part of the Sioux Uprising, and heard rumors that some of those parts were still in shoe boxes in some people’s closets.

Later I married into a family with a cabin up north. I remember passing Lake Hole-In-The-Day on the way up to the cabin, and wondering what that meant — was a “Hole in the day” like a nap, or break, one takes on a hot lazy afternoon? And the cabin was an hour or so drive past that lake. Many months later, I did some research and discovered two amazing facts. First, Hole-In-The-Day was the name of two major Ojibway Chiefs, father and son, both of whom were major players in the pre-state and early-state histories of the region, of stature and importance equalling or exceeding any of the white guys, like Snelling, Cass, Ramsey, after which counties, cities, roads, and other things had been named. But no one seemed to know Hole-In-The-Day. It was just a lake with a funny sounding name like most of the other lakes. The other thing I learned was downright shocking: The cabin to which we have driven many summer weekends is actually on an Indian reservation, as is the nearby town with the grocery store, ice cream shop, and Internet. On the reservation, yes, but not near any actual Indians. So, I could tell you that I spend many weeks every summer on an Indian Reservation up north, and it would not be a lie. Except the part about it being a lie.

Otto’s book pits the white, established and powerful, Twin Cities based banking industry against an incipient Native bank and the rest of the reservation. The story is a page turner, but I don’t want to say how so, because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. I am not a page-turner kind of guy. I am a professional writer, so therefore I’m a professional reader. I can put a book down at any point no matter what is happening in order to shift gears to some other task awaiting my attention. But I certainly turned the pages in Sins of Our Fathers. The most positive comment one can make about a piece of writing is probably “this made me want more.” That happens at the end of every chapter in Otto’s novel.

But just as important as Sins of Our Fathers being a very very good book, which it is, it also addresses the Indian Problem. It does not matter if you are in, of, or familiar with Minnesota. The theme is American, and I use that word in reference to geography and not nationality, through and through. Everybody has an Indian Problem, especially Indians. Tension, distrust, solace and inspiration in modernized tradition, internal and external, are real life themes and Otto addresses them fairly, clearly, and engagingly. “Fathers” is plural for a reason, a reason you can guess.

It is important that you know that Sins of our Fathers is not Minnesota Genre though it is set here; it is not Native American Relations and Culture Genre though that is in the book. It is action, mystery, adventure, white knuckle, engaging, well-paced, and extremely well written. There are aspects of this writing that recommend this book as an exemplar in plot development, character construction, dialog and inner dialog, narrative distance, and descriptive technique.

Sins of Our Fathers is Shawn Otto’s first novel (but not his first book).

Shawn Otto is the founder of Science Debate. He is a science communicator and advocate. He is also a film maker, and among other things wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie “House of Sand and Fog.”

Ten Thousand Birds

There are over 10,000 species of bird on the Earth today. There is one blog called “10,000 Birds” for which I write a monthly article, in case you did not know. But this post is about Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, a book by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Monegomerie.

Birds and various studies of birds are central to evolutionary theory and the development of all of the surrounding biology and science. Here’s a short list of key roles birds have played in evolutionary biology:

<li>Darwin's study of pigeon breeding was central to <a href='http://www.powells.com/partner/41349/biblio/9780674637528?p_ti' title='More info about this book at powells.com' rel='powells-9780674637528'>On the Origin of Species</a> and later works. </li>

<li>The Galapagos <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/02/14/charles-darwin-finches/">finches</a> and other birds, observed by Darwin during <a href='http://www.powells.com/partner/41349/biblio/9781626365605?p_ti' title='More info about this book at powells.com' rel='powells-9781626365605'>The Voyage of the Beagle</a> were also key in the development of his work.</li>

<li>Darwin's work involved a great deal of other birds, such as <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/02/13/darwin-and-the-voyage-10-rheas-1/">the Rhea</a> and helped shape his thinking about species.</li>

<li>Skipping past many examples, and far ahead in time, The Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy was the first major application of DNA to develop phylogeny. </li>

<li>As described in <a href='http://www.powells.com/partner/41349/biblio/9780679733379?p_ti' title='More info about this book at powells.com' rel='powells-9780679733379'>The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time</a>, the Grants' study of finches in the Galapagos advanced evolutionary theory with detailed tests of Darwin's models, and influenced <a href="http://gregladen.com/wordpress/wp-content/pdf/Laden_Wrangham_Roots.pdf">one of the most important works on the origin of humans</a>. </li>

<li>Birds have often been used as examples in teaching evolution.  Have a look at this example: <a href="http://10000birds.com/a_new_case_study_of_natural_selection_in_birds.htm">It May Be Hard To Swallow, But Bumpus Could Get Bumped To The Back Burner</a> </li>

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is an absolutely spectacular book. It is big and heavy and over 500 pages long. It is dark green like all great scholarly books. Despite it’s great lenght it has only 11 chapters, so you know the material is treated in depth. It has dozens and dozens of pages of notes and references. It has an appendix with a list of 500 ornithologists. It has a separate appendix with a list of ornithologies.

That’s all nice but the meat of the book is in those long intense chapters. These chapters provide a very thorough, detailed, and fascinating history of ornithology, often focusing on the ornithologists, their quirks, their visions, the contexts in which they worked, and their findings. So, yes, this is a history of the science. The story starts when birds first flew into the field of evolutionary biology, or perhaps, were captured by it, and traces the history of biology from a birds eye’s point of view, including the development of the modern synthesis, and on to the behavioral revolution of Lack, the conceptual revolution of Tinbergen, and the ecological reframing of MacArthur.

This could serve as a very readable core of a college elective in the history of science, though it is certainly not a textbook. Richly illustrated, well written, engaging.

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at Sheffield, and has done major bird research. He wrote The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. Jo Wimpenny is a bird researcher at Sheffield. Bob Montgomerie is professor of biology at Queen’s University in Ontario, and studies the evolution of plumage and bird sex.

Among Cannibals

I have lived among Cannibals, according to a lot of people who claim to know. The number of times that the “tribal” people of the Congo have been called cannibals is too great to be counted, most notably in great literature like The Heart of Darkness but most commonly, I suspect, from the pulpit or soap box by those raising money to spread this or that word. Most Europeans and Americans don’t know it, but many people who live in the Congo are quite convinced that the bazunga … the white foreigners … are cannibals. I’ve listened closely to these assertions, made by many individuals, and I’ve lived in both places for considerable time and I can say something about these claims.

They have a case. Continue reading Among Cannibals

Life Science and Earth Science Teachers: A few books for your classroom

I like to pass books about science on to the teachers in my daughter’s school for them to have in the classroom (or to pass on to the library, as they wish). Now that you’ve heard this idea, you will want to do it to!

Here’s a few suggestions of recent titles that could be available used or cheap.

Continue reading Life Science and Earth Science Teachers: A few books for your classroom

Evolution Of Language, The Symbolic Species (Terry Deacon)

Evolution of Language: Deacon vs. Pinker

In considering the evolution of human language, I think it is helpful to contrast these two books, and the ideas presented in them:

Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

and

Stephen Pinker’s “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.)

Neither book is exceptionally new, and in fact, Pinker has cranked out a number of books since The Language Instinct. However, I think The Language Instinct is the best of Pinker’s volumes for this discussion. In it, he lays out the basic evolutionary psychology argument in a way that is most directly contrasted with the ideas in Deacon’s. Also, The Language Instinct has a great chapter called (if memory serves) “The Language Mavens” which is worth reading whether or not you agree with or even like the rest of Pinker’s book.

Continue reading Evolution of Language: Deacon vs. Pinker