Beauty, Beak, Biotechnology, Birds

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I want to tell you about a new and excellent award winning science book. It is about a Bald Eagle.

I grew up in a place where there are not a lot of Bald Eagles. In fact, there were few enough in the undeveloped areas around my home city that it was possible for a diligent bird watcher to pick out the rare Golden Eagle among the rare immature Bald Eagles. When we would visit the Schoharie Creek for camping, or drive over to the coast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Maine, we would see them, but ospreys were about as common, and there was quite a bit of interaction between the two. That was perhaps at the nadir of population density for both animals owing to the widespread unfettered use of DDT.

Much later I moved to Minnesota, where Bald Eagles are pretty common, and this shift in local population densities is probably why I appreciate them so much. I’m, like, “Hey, look, there’s a Bald Eagle!!!” and the average native Minnesotan is, like, “Yeah, ok, watch where you’re driving, okay there?”

It is not entirely clear to me why there are so many bald eagles right around here, other than the fact that they are common in Canada, and Minnesota is an extension of Canada, what with its moose, wolves, hockey players, and all.

But perhaps it is also a combination of habitat, migratory route distribution, and recovery for their populations, and I suspect other historical factors. I wonder, for example, if the Mississippi Kite has something to do with it. This is a bird that has a special niche. It is riverine, but not a fish eater. Rather, it eats insects and other invertebrates. But the nesting zone of this kite overlaps with that of the Bald Eagle, and they nest in colonies. It is conceivable that the smaller but more gregarious kite can exclude eagles. It is hard to find information on the Mississippi Kite’s former range, but it is said that they once lived far up the river in Minnesota (they are now only in the Lower Mississippi), and were wiped out. If the Mississippi Kite represents a nest-style morphotype, it is possible that the Bald Eagles do better in the upper Mississippi in the absence of that morphotype.

Anyway, for whatever reason there area lot of bald eagles here. The Chippewa National Forest in the Lakes Region of northern Minnesota has the highest density of Bald Eagles in the United States outside of Alaska.

Here’s a story that fits pretty much only right here. I had just moved to Minnesota from the Boston area. A colleague was coming into town to give a talk at the Minneapolis Museum of Art, pertaining to a Dayton collection of East Asian archaeological material being donated to the museum. So I went to pick him up at MSP Airport. As we were driving out of the airport and onto the highway, he asked me, “So, tell me one or two good things about living here instead of Boston.”

I replied, “Well, there’s more interesting wildlife around here.” And just as I said that, a bald eagle swooped by, just a few feet in front of the windshield of the car we were driving in.

“Like that one, right there,” I said, without skipping a beat.

Anyway, there’s lots of Bald Eagles around here.

Bald Eagles are symbols of many things. They are the official bird of America. A famous space ship was named “Eagle.” One of them tried to eat Trump. And so on.

A Book about a Bald Eagle

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle is an award winning science book that delves very deeply, much more deeply than most kid-level books, into at least four separate topics.

First, this is a story about a specific, real (not made up) eagle (to eventually be named “Beauty”). In this story, the egg comes first. We track Beauty the eagle through all the eagle life history stages, and few details are left out. A kid who absorbs this material will know ten times more than the average person about bird life history.

Eagles are not the most typical of birds (song birds are the most common and thus often considered more typical), but large raptors in general are fully bird-like but extreme, and of special interest in relation to humans; the main difference between an eagle and a song bird is timing. Eagles go through the same life history stages but they take years rather than one single annual cycle as almost other birds do. Humans have the same life history pattern as typical primates, but extended as well.

(Also, not mentioned in the book, a major division among birds is how sexual selection differentiates by sex. You have males elaborated (robins, cardinals, mallards), neither sex elaborated (crows), both sexes similarly elaborated (bald eagles), or each sex independently elaborated (love birds, parrots, macaws). Most of this probably has to do with nesting dynamics, ultimately. Eagles are the both-sexes-elaborated style bird, so males and females end up being virtually identical to we humans. But I digress.)

The life history story, exceedingly well done and highly engaging, and scientifically accurate, is the first large part of the book.

But then there is a catastrophe. A horrible thing happens to Beauty, and she almost dies. I guess a warning is needed here. It is not too gory, but it is a little gory, and some kids may be a little upset. But it is handled well by the authors.

After this point, it becomes a story of rescue and recovery, but also, a story about technology. In order to save the bird, it is necessary to build a prosthetic replacement beak. A biotechnology expert is brought in by the raptor rescue expert, and with a great deal of difficulty and trial and error, using 3D printer technology and excellent glue, the bird is made nearly whole again. There are details about what happens to the bird next that I won’t tell you, but they are very interesting. If you read this book you will learn things about bird beaks that you never thought about before.

The other themes are about the Bald Eagle as a symbol, conservation of raptors, and raptor rescue.

And, of course, there are numerous namechecks and callouts to other resources to learn more about eagles and eagle conservation, or get involved.

This is probably the best science book for kids to come out over the last two years. This is probably why it is the winner of the American Association for Advancement of Science/Subaru prize for excellence, and the California Reading Association Eureka Award for nonfiction (2017). It is also a Junior Library Guild selection.

There is an educational guide PDF available to go with the book as well, HERE.

I am going to keep my review copy of this book, of course, but I’m also going to buy a second copy and donate it to Huxley’s school library, or perhaps his classroom. Maybe one for each.

Beauty and the Beak should be a model for other science books for kids.

The Authors:

Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books (including Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue and The Twelve Days of Winter: A School Counting Book). She was also Director of Communications for Lindsay Wildlife Experience, which includes the first wildlife hospital in the U.S.

Janie Veltkamp is a raptor biologist and rehabilitator, wildlife educator, trained nurse, and master falconer. She has lifetime care of Beauty and led the engineering team who made Beauty’s prosthetic beak. Jane is founding director of Birds of Prey Northwest, in Idaho. She is the eagle expert for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Native American Aviaries.

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