Superlative: The Biology of Extremes is almost as extreme, or shall we say, hopeful, in its marketing-cover claims as the animals discussed are outlandish. If the cure for cancer was going to be found in a shark, we would have already found it. But despite what the book promises on its cover, Matthew D. LaPlante’s book is a detailed, engaging, and informative look at ongoing and recent scientific research from the perspective of an experienced journalist.
There are three categories of science book authors: Scientists, who write the best ones most of the time, science-steeped (often trained-as-scientists) science writers, who can write some pretty good books, and journalists who delve into the science and sometimes write amazing books, other times write books that are good books but not necessarily good science books. Superlative: The Biology of Extremes is in the higher end of the last category. It is about the scientists, the teams, the work more than the cells and polymers.
Also, LaPlante has another set of credentials: He is deeply, severely, hated by Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Oh, also, the book is at present deeply on sale.
This is a series of essays by biologist Chrisiane Nusslein-Volhard, engagingly and skillfully illustrated by Suse Grutzmacher (and translated by Jonathan Howard) about the aesthetic sense talked about by Darwin, its evolution, distribution, function, meaning, across animals. The essays take a Tinbergian approach to explore most aspects of how thinks look or are looked at, how paterns, colors, and other features play ar ole in sexual selection, and how the underlying genetic connect to these important surface features, allowing us to understand the phylogeny of this physical-behavioral nexus. This is the scientist talking about the science. The book itself is also a bit unusual, as it is designed to fit comfortably in a pocket or purse. Take it to the dentist office or hair stylist! (When the Pandemic is over.)
People in central or northern United States (excepting the Pacific Coast) need to get their hummingbird feeders ready, but don’t put them out until the birds are about to arrive! One of the more common mistakes people make with hummingbird feeders is putting them out too late. That’s like opening your lunch restaurant at 1:00PM. If you had a lunch restaurant that you could open, which you don’t. Another mistake is putting the feeder out, with the “nectar” in it, too early so the sugary liquid goes bad. That’s like getting the salad bar in your impossible lunch restaurant all ready the day before. Fake nectar doesn’t wilt, but it does go bad.
In order to make this work, you can use the Hummingbird Central Spring Migration map. Click here to visit it. This is what it looks like this morning:
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama make up Central America. Notice that had I not used the Oxford Comma there, you’d be thinking “Costa Rica and Panama” was a country like Trinidad and Tobago. Or Antigua and Barbuda. Or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anyway, those countries have about 1261 species of birds, and the newly minted Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Princeton Field Guides) by Andrew Vallely and Dale Dyer covers 1,194 of them (plus 67 probably accidentals). Obviously, many (nearly all) of those birds exist outside that relatively small geographic area, up in to North America and down into South America. But I’ll remind you that there are some 10,000 bird species, so this region has a bird list that represents 10% of that diversity. Nothing to shake a beak at.
This is a classic Peterson/Petrides style guide, with the usual front matter about bird id, geography, habitats, etc. Species draswings are on the left leaf while descriptions and range maps on the left. The drawings do not have Peterson Pointer lines, but there are a lot of drawings to clarify regional versions and life history stages. In fact, the attention to regional variation is a notable and outstanding feature of this file guide.
There is also an extensive bibliography with over 600 references. The book is medium format, not pocket but not huge, and just shy of 600 pages long. Also, last time I clicked through it was on sale. Know somebody going to Central America over winter break? Get this for them as their holiday gift!
Like the Princeton guides tend to be, this is a very nice book, well written, well constructed, and likely to become the standard for that region for the foreseeable future.
Wildlife of Ecuador: A Photographic Field Guide to Birds, Mammals, Reptiles, and Amphibians by naturalist Andrés Vásquez Noboa, witih photography byablo Cervantes Daza, covers mainland Ecuador (but by “mainland” we also mean ocean mammals). Focusing only on non-piscine verts, you will need to go elsewhere for your inverts and plants and such. But you get the point. This book covers most of what you are looking for when you are out in the wild looking for animals.
This is not a comprehensive guide, but covers the most frequently seen animals, totaling to 350 distributed across over 400 plates.
There is a good chance that if you are an American or European going to Ecuador, you are visiting the Galapagos, in which you will want to check outg Wildlife of the Galápagos: Second Edition. A rather broad gulf of evolutionary change and outlandish biogeography separates Ecuador from its famous island possessions. But there is a good chance that if you are going to teh Galapagos, you are making at lease one nature related stop, so this is the book for you.
This is a well done nicely bound standard field guide of field guide size and format with animal info and excellent photos on the same pages, and organized by taxonomic category (not all field guides are!). You might think a tiny country like Ecuador does not need range maps, but the topography is highly variable with conditions running from lowland moist to alpin-ish and from wet to dry, so there are, indeed, range maps as needed. And, that ecological diversity is explained in the preface material.
I highly recommend this book for travelers to the region.
Many years ago I was working on a project that, if I recall correctly, used the basic idea of the mouse-elephant curve to test out some statistical feature of reality or some such thing. Or the reverse. Either way, the point is I was using the mouse-elephant curve data.
What is the mouse-elephant curve? This:
You take all the mammals from mouse to elephant, and plot their metabolic rate or, if you like, brain volume, or any other metric, against body mass. You may or may not log an axis. The final result is supposed to be a straight line that approximates all the points. Then, you can measure how “off” any given species is by calculating its residual, or, how far off the line it is. One well known outcome of this procedure is the term “relative brain size” which shows that humans have ginormous brains compared to everything else on the mouse-elephant curve, even though they do not have the largest absolute brain size. (Never mind that cebus monkeys have larger relative brains.)
Anyway, I was working on this and talking about it with my friend Mark Pagel who is a statistics expert and a biologist, and he said something like, “That’s OK, but this is all theoretical, the mouse-elephant curve is made up.”
“What ever do you mean,” I asked.
“The metabolic rate scales to mass the way it does because body surface area scales allometrically to mass, right?”
“Ah, right… so?”
“How many of the animals on the mouse elephant curve have ever been measured for body surface area?” he asked.
“Zero, I’d bet.”
And that is when I realized that we know noting about anything.
Think about this for a second. You can find decades old texts explaining that mammals use XY chromosome compliments to determine sex. But where was the database for all mammals that showed the karyotype for each species? Nowhere. No one had done that. We probably had humans, mice, all the other lab animals of which there are probably about a dozen species, and the farm animals, of which there are probably fewer than a dozen species. That might seem like a good sample, but almost every farm mammal is a bovid, then you add horses, then you add close relatives in the old world murid family, and some closely related primates. Who knows, maybe they had more than that. But there could easily have been some subset of mammals that had independently and subsequent to their split from other mammals evolved a different chromosomal system. (There actually are multiple systems in mammals if you count ALL the mammals, but I’m speaking here of placental mammals.)
OK, maybe that is not easy to imagine, but it is possible to imagine.
The thing is, when it comes to organismic biology, we have made a huge mistake. Lots of research was done on a relatively small number of species, then rather suddenly, the fields of ecology and organismic biology were sidelines and everything became genetics. Genetics is nice and all, but it is not possible to directly answer every single question with just genetics.
This is why I was happy to see the beginnings of a project to cat scan all the cats, and along with the cats, all the other vertebrates.
I quickly add that even though the project is billed as scanning all the verts, and has in its various forms been called “scan all the frogs” or “scan all the vertebrates” etc, it is not that at all. At most, this project will scan a large but incomplete sample of genera, not species. And it really is a problem that they are claiming that they are scanning everything when they simply are not, because this will cause people to think this job is getting done when it is not.
Also, they are scanning a minimal number in each group, and only the available museum specimens. Museum collections are notoriously biased and there may be other problems with 3D morphology as well. Ultimately, a really useful project will scan a full range of development, multiple individuals at each stage, both sexes, etc. And, of I’m sure the folks doing this project understand this. And, eventually this may get done.
I wonder if it will be possible to use these scans to develop surface area estimates for several species of mammal ranging in size from, say, a mouse to an elephant? Of course not … there are no preserved elephats, or for that matter, any large mammal, so all of those critters are not part of this “scan everything” project…. 🙁
The resulting 3D renderings will be uploaded to an existing digital depository, MorphoSource, created by Doug Boyer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where they will be freely available for research in fields such as comparative anatomy, evolution, developmental biology, and biomimetics.
You can find out more about the project by clicking here, and depending on if you have a subscription, get either a summary or a more detailed accounting.
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature via the senses (mainly visual and auditory) of birds, and of the reader. I’ve spent a fair amount of time communing with nature, either living with foragers in the Congo, or when I was a kid, being left in the forest by my parents who would drive away quickly, that sort of thing. You learn to read the signs of nature, and part of that is understanding what other animals are understanding, because that is information.
I review Yong’s book here. This is a fantastic book that you will really enjoy if you have any interest at all in nature or birds. Or not. You’ll still enjoy it.
This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Richly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.
New this year is the important conservation oriented book Birds in Trouble by Lynn Barber. This is about birds threatened by all manner of things. In particular, she looks at just under 50 species in the US that have specific reasons to be considered as threatened.
Not new this year, but a book that I like so much I always want to mention it (when talking about bird books) is Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Birkhead, Wimpenny, and Montgomerie. Check it out. The title says it all.
Waterfowl of North America, Europe and Asia by Sebastien Reeber is one of those bird books you keep handy and use to expand your knowledge of birds laterally. You see a duck, then you explore the duck’s kin globally in this very nice looking and at the same time informative book.
The Crossley Guides
The Crossley ID Guides did not come out in 2016, but I list them here because they are still current, must have, highly innovative and beautiful books. If you don’t have the appropriate guides for your area, get them!
Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary. As she grows into adulthood, only a few of her eggs mature, are released into the oviduct, and are fertilized by sperm stored from copulation that took place days or weeks earlier. Within a matter of hours, the fragile yolk is surrounded by albumen and the whole is gradually encased within a turquoise jewel of a shell. Soon afterward the fully formed egg is expelled onto a bare rocky ledge, where it will be incubated for four weeks before a chick emerges and the life cycle begins again.
The image of the owl at the top of the post is a screen grab from this gallery of photos by Ana Miller. I’ve got a couple of original Millers hanging in my library. You should get one too! Makes a great holiday gift.
These are my suggestions, mostly books, for holiday gifts that have some sort of science relevance. See this guide for gift ideas for kids. (There is a pretty good chance that there is an idea or two in the Kids Guide for the adult in your life, depending on the adult.)
For your Uncle Bob
Get ready for your favorite science-denying uncle, whom we all know of as “Uncle Bob” (though he goes by many different names) with these two important books related to climate change.
The book’s structure swaps back and forth between science (the parts written by Paul Douglas) and scripture (the parts written by co-author Mitch Hescox). I don’t know Mitch, but from the blurb I learn: “Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), the largest evangelical group dedicated to creation care (www.creationcare.org). He has testified before Congress, spoken at the White House, and is quoted frequently in national press. Prior to EEN, he pastored a church for 18 years and worked in the coal industry. Mitch and his wife live in Pennsylvania.”
Now, you might think that the chances of an Evangelical Christian reading my blog is about zero. This is not true. Many Christians, ranging from Evangelical to less-than-angelical read this blog, they just don’t say much in the comments section. Except those who do, mainly those denying the science of climate change. Well, this book is for all of you, especially the Evangelical deniers, because here, the case is made on your terms and in your language, in a very convincing way, and, including the science. It turns out that, according to the Bible, you are wrong on the Internet.
Let’s say that you are a fairly active atheist who likes to annoy your Christian relatives at holidays. If that is the case, then this book is for you!! This is the book to give to your Uncle Bob.
I can’t attest to the scriptural parts of this book. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with Scripture or have nothing to say about it. Both assumptions would be highly erroneous. But, in fact, I did not explore those parts of this book in much detail, just a little. But I am very familiar with the science in this book, I’ve delved deeply into it, and I can tell you that Paul has it right, and it is very current.
If Your Uncle Bob is Investment Savvy
Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm is the ideal climate change book for the person who is always checking their stock portfolio or watching the real estate market, or, simply, planning on moving or retiring soon. It is is also a very up to date examination of climate change science, the effects of climate change on humans, policy related problems, and energy-related solutions. Everyone should read this book, and if you teach earth system sciences you should consider using this book as a guide in your teaching, or in some cases, assigning it in class. The book is written to be read by general audiences, so it would work well in a high school or college setting.
As Romm points out, climate change will have more of an impact on humans, including you, than even the Internet. It is an existential issue. Romm acknowledges that some of these impacts are already happening, but that future impacts are likely to be very significant. Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen remarkable superstorms, significant drought, notable wildfires, and killer heat waves. These events have made people sit up and take notice. For this reason, more people want to know more about climate change, and indeed, everyone should know something about this problem. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is an effort to provide that information to the average person.
While we are on the subject of Climate Change, here are must have, must read titles that are not necessarily new, but always worth mentioning. I’m giving you links to my reviews so you can find out more.
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/08/24/mad-about-science-denial-this-book-is-for-you-and-your-uncle-bob/">The Madhouse Effect</a>, by Michael Mann and Tom Toles, is an excellent holiday gift. Not only is it a festive red in color, but it is full of cartoons. It is current, forceful, an excellent choice given the current political circumstances. </li>
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/04/30/dire-predictions-understanding-climate-change-must-read-book/">Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change</a>, by Michael Mann. This is the IPCCC "Scientific Basis" report converted into a very readable and illustration rich format. This is the book I give to science teachers. </li>
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/03/11/climatology-versus-pseudoscience-exposing-the-failed-predictions-of-global-warming-skeptics/">Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics</a>, by Dana Nuccitelli. This book proves that climate skeptics are FOS. </li>
This is not Yet Another Popular Book on how people don’t get science. This is a very well written, accessible, thoughtful analysis of the history of science vs. anti-science from the beginning of modern science itself, but focusing on the recent and current anti-science effort. Why is this happening? Who is doing it? What can be done about it?
This and much more is all covered. Also, since the book has been out for a few months now, the price has dropped so get a copy cheap!
I’ve written a detailed review with extensive commentary HERE.
A second book I’ll mention in this category is “Truth or Turthiness” by Howard Wainer. I wrote a review of that book here. Give this to your favorite skeptic so they can hone their skills.
The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.
A typical entry focuses on an order, and the orders are arranged in a taxonomically logical manner. A living or classic fossil representative is depicted, along with some boney material, in the form of drawings. Artist’s reconstructions, photographs, maps, and other material, with phylogenetic charting where appropriate, fills out the overview of that order.
The text is expert and informative, and very interesting. the quality of the presentation is to notch. The format of the book is large enough to let the artistry of the production emerge, but it is not a big too heavy floppy monster like some coffee table books are. This is a very comfortable book to sit and read, or browse.
I should also mention Don Prothero’s other book, just out at the end of last year so maybe you already have this, “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.” I reviewed it here.
“The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth is an excellent geological overview of that amazing place. But it is also, explicitly, extensively and intensively, an exploration of the creationist view of the Grand Canyon, and the Canyon’s role in proving that evolution is not real.
It turns out that Evolution is real, the canyon is amazing, and this book is another excellent choice of a volume to pass on to a teacher in your local middle school or high school. I review it here.
Here is a list of general science books that I regard as excellent. Where I’ve written a review, I’ll link you through to that review, where I’ve not yet posted a review, I’ll link you through to the book itself on Amazon.
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/07/15/venomous-how-the-earths-deadliest-creatures-mastered-biochemistry/">Venomous: How the Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry</a>, by Christie Wilcox is just plain fun. And, disturbing at many levels. A great read. You won't be able to put it down, but if you do put it down, check for scorpions first!</li>
<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/02/11/the-serengeti-rules-the-quest-to-discover-how-life-works-and-why-it-matters-book-review/">The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters</a> by Sean (The <strong>B</strong>iologist) Carroll uses the key principle of homeostasis to explore complex biological systems. Very readable, fascinating. </li>
<li><a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062368591/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0062368591&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=ae6dda6c59963fb2a33896f24ee7adcb">I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=0062368591" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Ed Yong is about the gazillion cells that live in and on you, and how they are really, well, you. This book is about what is regarded by many as another revolution in thinking about how life works. Great read. </li>
<li>Do not. I repeat do not. Do not bring this book on your next airplane flight. You will learn things from <a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0143127322/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0143127322&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=f36c25867554f9981edfaa2f5ade91bc">The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=0143127322" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> that will amaze you and, frankly, freak you out. </li>
<li><a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1623493870/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1623493870&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=7a055e283bdd1e4337ab8502a03ff7c9">Alligators of Texas (Gulf Coast Books, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi)</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1623493870" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Louise Hayes (Photos by Philippe Henry) may be of local interest, but I include it here because it is an excellent monograph on this particular animal. If you live anywhere near the Gulf Coast, but especially Texas, this book needs to be near your back door. </li>
I have a handful of super excellent bird books that are new and should be of interest to anyone with a science bent, not just bird people.
Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence was written by Nathan Emery, who is a Senior Lecturer (that’s like a Professor of some sort, in America) at Queen Mary University, London. He researches the evolution of intelligence in animals, including primates and various birds, and yes, including the crows!
He and his team “…have found striking similarities in the behaviour, ecology, neurobiology and cognitive mechanisms of corvids (crows, rooks, jackdaws and jays) and apes. [Suggesting that] these similarities are adaptations for solving similar social and ecological problems, such as finding, protecting and extracting food and living in a complex social world.”
The book is really great, the best book out there right now on animal intelligence, possibly the best book so far this year on birds. This is the kind of book you want laying around the house or classroom to learn stuff from. If you are writing or teaching about anything in evolution or behavior, this is a great way to key into the current work on bird intelligence.
HERE is my full review of this book, including musings about the subject matter.
Another bird book, that I’ve also labeled as the best bird book of the year, is What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young. This is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park. (My full review is HERE.)
And, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.
To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.
This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)
This title is more for those specifically interested in birds. It is one of those books that looks at an entire category of birds over a large area. The title of Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide, by Sébastien Reeber could be rewritten to say “Temperate and Subtropical Waterfowl of the Northern Hemisphere,” though that would be a bit misleading because a large percentage of these birds migrate long distances, so really, it is more like “Waterfowl of the world except the ones that stay in the tropics or otherwise don’t migrate north of the tropics,” but that would be a silly title.
Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is large format. The up and down and back and forth dimensions are not as large as Crossley’s bird guides, but it is way bigger than a field guide, and thick … 656 pages. The plates start on page 32 and the detailed text and photograph rich species accounts run from pages 177 to 616, to give you an idea of the balance and expansiveness found in this volume.
This book is organized in a unique way. There are two main parts. First, 72 plates show peterson-style drawings of all of the birds that are covered, with the drawings arranged on the right side, with basic ID information, range maps, and references to other parts of the book on the left side. This allows the user to find a particular bird fairly quickly. Importantly, the pictures cover both sex and age variations.
The second part of the book significantly expands on the plates, and is cross referenced by plate number, with extensive text and multiple photographs to add very rich detail.
So, when it comes to your preference for drawings vs. photographs, you can have your cake and eat it too. Also, when it comes to your need for a basic field guide vs. a more in depth discussion, you can have your cake and eat it too there as well.
This is really an idea gift book for a bird lover. Chances are they don’t have it, chances are, they’ll love it. Write a nice inscription in it.
To paraphrase Walter Brooke playing Mr. McGuire, in his conversation with Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben in The Graduate, “Just one word … are you listening? … Plasticity. Its a great future. Enough said.”
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.
Just a pointer to my latest post on 10,000 Birds exploring recent research in which scientists created a GMO chicken with the normal bird beak replaced with the terrible face of the ancient thunder lizards! Well, not exactly, but sort of. Click here to read all about it!
H5N2 is a bird influenza virus that is making news. This mainly affects domestic fowl, and in this sense is not a topic central to 10,000 Birds. But, wild birds are part of the story, and the virus itself has changed and has been known to make wild birds ill. And, of course, the reputation of certain species of birds as troublemakers for humans is a problem in bird conservation, so this is worth watching. Here I have a quick summary which I’m afraid lacks a lot of information that we’d like to have but just don’t….