Was this just another backyard bird feeding guide? That would be nice, but not too exciting. After all, feeding birds is just a matter of getting a bird feeder and keeping it full, right? Was it an indictment of what some might consider a bad practice, because it brings birds in close contact with killer windows and cats, and causes them to become dependent on fickle human providers? Was it yet another guide to help bird lovers in their never ending battle with squirrels and other feeder-exploiting non-birds?
But, I figured, what the heck, I’ll have a look. And I’m glad I did. This is a great book because it is full of stuff you would have never thought important or interesting, but that is, in fact, important and interesting.
Americans have been feeding birds on a variable but more or less regular basis for well over a century. Human feeders have become part of the ecology of birds, and the practice has probably figured into the redistribution of a number of species, some invasive, some not. Bird conservation and birding, and generally, interest in birds, has been significantly enhanced by the practice of “bringing the birds to the people,” which is usually the reason to do this. The annual backyard bird count, which plays an important role in tracking conservation and zoological status of birds, is an extension of backyard bird feeding.
Just as importantly, and really, one of the main reasons to read this book, is that the practice of feeding birds, supplying feed, designing feeders (and baths and other things) is an historically rich, complex, nuanced, and fascinating endeavor. Understanding the history of feeding birds is a little like collecting stamps. You can’t avoid myriad connections with history, in this case, world political history, history of American industry, game hunting, conservation, and, the environmental movement.
The history starts in the nineteenth century, when regular feeding of birds became a thing. By the early 20th century, books on the topic, and a commercial and do-it-yourself industry, formed around the problem of delivering seed. Over time, various seeds and other feed products were invented, and the same industry that feeds our pets and farm animals got involved in producing bird feed. Before World War II, the practice and the associated industries were established, if not yet fully mature.
Things got tough during the depression and World War II, because of limited resources (see especially the chapter on “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed”).
Somewhere in there, the practice of feeding game birds developed. Bird baths were invented and deployed. Suet was introduced. Windows and cats increasingly became problems, and increasingly, solutions developed (partly).
The authors investigate the spread of various species, including invasive species, with bird feeding. Of particular interest is the spread and distribution of the Cooper’s Hawk, which in some areas specializes in hanging around the feeder-equipped backyard where it is easy to find prey. (This hawk specializes in catching birds in close quarters.)
During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the practice involved a lot of experimentation, including how to address squirrels, and a further diversification of feed types and types of birds attracted, and the development of more companies making more products. By the end of the 20th century, the practice was fully institutionalized, and most of the current practices and products were developed, from seed to suit to hummingbird juice.
If you are a feeder of birds, this book will help you be a better feeder of birds. More importantly, it give you something else. Both bird watching and bird feeding (and lots of other things people do) are pleasurable, and people get hooked on these activities, their leisure time enriched. But these are also activities that are potential touchstones to other, vast areas of knowledge. Just as birders could, in my opinion, have an even better time birding if they knew more about the ecology and evolution of birds, bird feeders can appreciate this activity a great deal more knowing about the history. And this history is not dry, or a hard slog of any sort. The book is engaging, compelling, and just plain cool.
We often hope, even assume, that technology will fix our problems. We also know that sometimes technology creates a problem. In this case, technology can help us fix the problem of needing to keep the fossil carbon in the ground by making use of the sun, but created the problem of vaporizing birds with intensely focused solar energy. But then, the engineers applied adjustment to the technology to save the birds!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
Changes in the daily variability of high and low temperatures in certain regions may stress wild bird populations. A new study of semi-wildish Zebra Finches demonstrates this. I have a post on the research here, at 10,000 birds. Have a look!
Check out my latest contribution to the bird blog 10,000 birds:
Faithful Loons and Human Lunacy
Every year there manage to be two Loons out in front of the cabin, up in Minnesota’s lake country. They nest on the same, ever-expanding semi-floating but occasionally shrinking nest over behind the point, so we can’t see the nest without going across the marsh in a canoe. It is a great place to nest, but for one small detail. Behind the embayment formed by the point is a tall bluff, the edge of an ancient river valley that passed through the area during one or more (probably a few) prior interglacials. Maybe it was a version of the Mississippi River, maybe it was a version of the Warren River, likely both. Atop the ridge, where no one will ever build cabins because it is too high up, is a grove of white pines. A good way up one of the tallest pines is an Eagle’s nest.
Every year there manage to be two eagles up there in that nest. Plus hungry offspring.
So the Loons produce, probably, two chicks. Often …
When I studied the Efe Pygmies of the Congo, I discovered (and yes, it was me who discovered this amazing fact everyone now knows) that the Efe organize their space in elongated linear trails. They knew all about everything along those specific trails, and their knowledge of other trails was often very limited. If an Efe person spent time living with a group associated with a trail, he* would learn about that trail as well. Most interesting is that one’s knowledge of important things like where to find food (or danger) was based on experience not on general principles. So an Efe off his trail, or another trail he knew about, was not much better than, say, me (after a couple of years gaining my own experience) at having a clue. Also interesting is that there is a relatively formal connection between historic families (you can think of these as “clans”) and regular use of specific trails or sets of trails. So an older male member of Clan X will tend to know all the trails anyone in Clan X knows.
Unless you are living in a chicken coop, you have probably heard about the Turkey Crisis in Minnesota and surrounding upper plains/midwestern states. Every few days we hear more news: Millions of farmed turkeys are being put down in one turkey farm after another, because the farm’s turkeys are infested with the H5N2 bird flu.
I should say right away, that according to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, there is no significant risk of a turkey shortage. While it is always bad to count your chickens before they hatch, apparently this is not a big problem with the larger fowl.
The flu is probably carried to the turkeys by migratory birds. Once it is established at a turkey farm, the birds are generally put down. So far this has cost Minnesota turkey farmers millions, probably tens of millions, of dollars.
There are two reasons to be concerned about this, but it is also important to keep the epidemic in perspective.
The first reason to be concerned is, of course, because turkey farmers are taking it in the neck, a distinction usually reserved for the turkeys themselves. Anything that badly affects farmers is bad for the local or regional economy. The second reason is the small possibility that emerges any time there is a lot of bird flu activity. This, of course, is the possibility that a new version of a virus will emerge that will affect humans. The chances of that are very small, but the possible consequences are of course great, as new viruses in a population can be highly virulent. There have been no known cases of humans being affected and it is highly unlikely that this will happen.
I should also note that the turkey virus does affect chickens as well, but according to experts, less so. The virus spreads easily from turkey to turkey, but has a harder time spreading among chickens.
I checked with Lara Durben of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association to see how much H5N2 is affecting the turkeys and turkey farming here. She told me that so far about 26 farms have been affected, which is just under 5% of the total number of farms statewide (about 600). “In Minnesota, about 1.6 million birds have been destroyed because of this strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza. That compares to a total number of birds raised in Minnesota of 46 million annually – so about 3.5% of the total number of turkeys raised in our state will not enter the marketplace because they have been destroyed,” she told me.
Durben also anticipates that the number of new cases will go down shortly, as Spring passes into Summer, but possibly pick up again in the Fall. “The virus does not thrive in heat, and the spring migratory bird season will be over. However, we do assume that cases will pick up again in the fall with migratory birds heading back south and cooler weather. USDA researchers are telling us that we should expect to see this particular strain around for the next 3-5 years in all four flyways of the U.S.”
So that is good news. Less good news is that this s the first time that the US has seen H5N2, and it is highly virulent. This is the worst pathogenic avian influenza Derben has seen.
Since we are talking turkey, please have a look at these related posts:
<li>A two part interview on the history of the Turkey: <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/12/02/a-partial-history-of-the-turkey-podcast/">Part I</a> | <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/12/15/a-second-helping-of-turkey/">Part II</a></li>
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/11/22/the-feast-a-thanksgiving-day-story/">The Feast (A Thanksgiving Day Story)</a></li>
<li><a href="http://10000birds.com/history-of-the-turkey-and-the-first-thanksgiving.htm">The Domestic Turkey and the First Thanksgiving</a></li>
This is one of those great examples of research you can probably use in an advanced biology classroom (high school) or intro college bio pretty effectively. It includes birds. It includes hormones. It includes evolution. What else is there, really?
The bottom line: Females in one species of bird manage to figure out that under certain, occasional conditions if they produce really obnoxious and overbearing sons, those sons will do well. So they do. There is a phylogenetic reasons they can do this, and it has to do with development and adaptive change. In other words, this example is a Tinbergian wet dream.
A new study has suggested that migratory songbirds in East Asia are in trouble, and has called for national action and international co-operation to deal with the threats posed.
The study reveals that several migratory songbirds are declining in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, owing to a range of threats across many countries. …
The East Asian-Australasian Flyway, running from Siberia and Alaska down to South-East Asia and Australia, supports the greatest diversity of migratory birds on the planet, with 170 long-distance migrant songbirds and more than 80 short-distance migrants…..
Currently available evidence suggests that habitat loss and hunting are the two most significant threats on the East Asia flyway. Other problems such as invasive species, climate change and collision with man-made structures can also have a big impact.
Some species, like the Vulnerable Izu Leaf-warbler and Pleske’s Grasshopper Warbler, are particularly at risk due to their small breeding ranges and because their entire wintering ranges remain unknown to scientists – thus hampering effective conservation. The Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting used to be abundant, but has drastically declined as large numbers are trapped annually for food in South-East Asia and southern China.
The domestication of the turkey probably first took place around 2000 years ago in south central Mexico, possibly for their feathers and ritual value rather than their meat. Their rise to the top of the American festive table came much later, not with the Pilgrims but with Charles Wampler, whose efforts to promote turkey raising started Rockingham County, Virginia, on its path to Turkey Capital of the World. That much we heard in the previous episode of Eat This Podcast. In between domestication and proto-industrialisation, however, the wild turkey almost vanished from America, hunted to the edge of extinction. Nature types – and hunters – really thought the turkey was a goner, and it was the hunters who brought it back, to the point where there are now turkeys in 10 states, including Hawaii, that originally had none….
Read the rest here, and listen to the podcast (in which I, as well as various turkey experts, am interviewed) HERE.
The previous podcast, “A partial history of the turkey,” is here.
“As Thanksgiving ebbs into memory and Christmas looms on the horizon, Eat This Podcast concerns itself with the turkey. For a nomenclature nerd, the turkey is a wonderful bird. Why would a bird from America be named after a country on the edge of Asia? The Latin name offers a clue; the American turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, while the African guineafowl is Numida meleagris. But why did the first settlers adopt a name they were already familiar with, rather than adopt a local indigenous name such as nalaaohki pileewa for the native fowl. Simple answer: nobody knows…”
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.