Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Animal Sex

nnrIt turns out that one of the best ways to tell species apart is to examine their genitals. There’s an incredible variety of forms of male and female sex organs, even within the species gathered together in a genus, and so for years biologists have been separating, for example, beetles that otherwise look rather similar, into different species because their genitalia look and correspondingly work together completely differently. This holds true for humans and our closest relatives, the apes and other primates, as well.

It’s only been more recently that scientists have been looking at the reasons for all this genital variety. Menno Schilthuizen’s new book, published by Penguin, is a fascinating look at the evolutionary underpinnings of the “naughty bits,” which of course are only naughty in an absurdly Puritan culture like ours.

So they might not actually be naughty, but they sure are varied! I was continually surprised by the examples here — the aforementioned beetles and primates, plus squid, spiders, ducks (NSFW!), dragonflies, sharks, mice, snails, and more — all making us H. sapiens seem rather, as we say, vanilla. But only seems: research discussed here on human strategies — of sperm dumping, sperm scooping, etc. — what our bodies are up to without us having any idea of what’s going on, should make us question most of what we know, or rather assume, about human reproduction and sex.

Schilthuizen begins with fundamentals and definitions. Among these is that excellent question of why lifeforms even bother with sexual reproduction at all when cloning is just so much easier, particularly when we consider that the first instances of sexual reproduction were probably something like the way fish do it still, the broadcasting of eggs and sperm into the water, a rather random and wasteful approach. Yet the random mixing of DNA (culturally, we usually call this “making babies”) turns out to a brilliant way to counter the also-random dangers of the environment and breakdown-prone life-systems (disease, mutation). So, it’s actually a good thing, biologically, that your kid looks like the postman; it’s a blow against the enemy in the endless war against viruses, bacterium, mutations. Which reminds me of the bower birds: super-successful bower-builders do get the lion’s share of mating opportunities, but unsuccessful ones are still in the game, sneaking around while the master-builders are hard at work on their bowers. It’s a wide, wonderful world out there, and this book makes for great reading about it. I highly recommend it.

*On a personal note, I ran into Menno birding in Prospect Park last month. An ecologist and evolutionary biologist based at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, he was here in the erstwhile New Netherlands to promote his book and enjoy some of our fabled spring migration. I’m glad I asked this unusually well-dressed birder if he was seeing anything interesting — he said he was, because it was all interesting to a European used to a completely different avian fauna — since I hadn’t otherwise heard about this book. Check it out. And prepare to start thinking differently.

Notes for Further Reading and Doing


Rob Jett’s ebook The Red-tailed Hawk Journals: A City Birder in Brooklyn is now available. Rob has been documenting the Red-tails of Brooklyn for more than a decade and tells how he first came to these adventures. It’s a great story.

Liam Heneghan has written a fine essay on the #1000UrbanMiles project he instigated. (I am quoted.)


I’ll be doing two Listening Tours in Prospect Park this spring.
Listening Tour May 4th 6am, with Brooklyn Brainery
Listening Tour, May 10 6am with NYC Wildflower Week.

Here are some of my previous musings on these curious mediations
Just Listen
The Listening Tour


stungIs it too early for a couple of quick ones? Non-Russian vodka, with Bloody Mary camouflage, if you please. This book is unrelievedly depressing and despairing. It makes you want to jump in the ocean and drown… but you’ll probably be stung dead by jellies before that happens. Should your grandchildren ever get ahold of this book, and see how you were warned, they will pummel you with it. And who will blame them? jelly-1Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-ann Gershwin details all that is ailing Planet Ocean. (“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,” said Arthur C. Clarke.) And what isn’t? Overfishing, pollution, acidification, warming, eutrophication, and above all these massive jellyfish blooms clogging nuclear power (oh, wonderful!) and desalination plant intakes, fish farms, beaches, bays, bights…. As Gershwin shows, these processes are not unrelated. Jellyfish — or since they are not remotely fish, just jellies — thrive on disruption. They have been practicing survival for half a billion years — they may be the oldest multi-organed animals — and in barely a blink of an eye, time-wise, we have made it easier for them, warming the water, killing their predators, removing their competition, poisoning and sucking the other life out of the water. They do what they do — in an amazing way, too, reproducing both clonally and sexually — but of course, their boom will inevitably lead to a bust, too. They can also eat each other.New York AquariumAn analogy Gershwin borrows from some other scientists: we aren’t just extracting the capital from the bank of the sea, we are burning down the bank, destroying those breeding grounds of future generations of sea life in the coral reefs (tropical, and the little known cold-water reefs), mangrove swamps, saltwater marshes, etc. Like weeds, the jellies come upon our ruins and feast, growing wildly. For every pound of seafood, ten or more times that weight is wasted, crushed, killed, rotted; this “bycatch” includes mammals and seabirds. Thousands of miles of “ghost nets,” and barbed long lines continue to float through the sea, lost from ships, but continuing to trap and kill. Recall all those false alarms in the Pacific and Indian Ocean over that missing plane; oil slicks and garbage far, far from humans (and that’s just what we can see — many of the most deadly things are invisible). And all that CO2 we’re pumping out, a good portion of it is absorbed into the oceans, radically changing them. Starry-eyed amoralists dream of terraforming other planets; we are recreating the primal seas of algae and jellies right here. The grim news goes on and on, cascading. Thalassa, Thalassa!
jellyApropos graffiti on panel truck.

I used the word “warned” above. But it seems much to late for that. Gershwin’s epigraph is from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.”

I’m so glad I haven’t reproduced. I could not bare to look them in the eye when they turn back from staring at ghastly seas of slime.

Unreal Nature

MITREEOn a recent trip to Croton Point, a friend noted how much he has been conditioned by television nature shows to expect spectacular close-ups, stunning cinematography and photography, and dramatic incidents in the wild. The real world is something quite different. Missing in those shows are the hours of footage, sometimes the days and even weeks it took to get those scenes, left on the cutting room floor. We were lucky that day to have a Bald Eagle fly over our heads at a relatively low height, giving us a breathtaking look. Usually these birds, and much else in the natural world, is at some distance, necessitating binoculars, patience, hours in the field, but here was an experience up close and personal. And… perhaps never to be repeated, unlike the DVD. Falco peregrinusThe Peregrine is best known for its lightning stoop, hurtling downwards at up to 200 miles an hour on its avian prey. I’ve seen that happen precisely once. Most often, I see these falcons flying swiftly, or perched far away, as on this Osprey nest platform at Marine Park. And perched for long periods of time: the House of Detention falcons don’t “do” much. The wind ruffles their feathers. They preen. They perch on one foot, they perch on both feet. This one vocalized, almost mewling, before it finally took off and flew low over the water, failing to scare up any Buffleheads into the air. I could experience this all day, but, by most lights, it would make for boring television.

Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature: America’s Romance With Wildlife on Film (…and television and now the Internet) is a history of a tangled relationship. Since film-making began, there’s been a struggle between science/education and commerce/entertainment. This isn’t just a case of documentary vs. fiction, since plenty of documentaries have use staged, sometimes even faked, scenes, and anthropomorphic narratives. Nature usually isn’t dramatic; entertainment evidently always must be. This historic tension holds true today: compare the tabloid-trash Discovery — which has done real harm with its nature porn — vs. the more “serious” — but hardly perfect — productions of PBS, or the different ways David Attenborough’s work has been presented to American audiences.

Mitman shows how the eras in which these nature films were made very much influenced what got made. This was technologically, but also ideologically, determined. In the 1950s-60s, during the Cold War, family life was especially stressed in both the suburban and the animal dens. Good wives stayed home and took care of the children, just like in the animal kingdom! (Beware all arguments that boil down to “it’s natural.”) And when that wasn’t the case in the animal kingdom, it was suppressed. For instance, starting in the 1950s, Americans were presented with dolphins as suitable subjects of wholesome entertainment at the movies, on TV, and in the new marine theme parks. There was a conscious decision to censor the sometimes violent, masturbatory, and homosexual sex lives of these mammals from the consumer. Voyeurism, yes, but not too much voyeurism. Meanwhile, John C. Lilly — even before he went off the deep end — was essentially torturing dolphins in experiments for the Defense Department, which was eager to militarize the creatures. This was the ugly backstory behind Flipper, cute-ification until death.

Mitman notes that one of the benefits of nature entertainment has been to interest more people in conservation. I’m not sure what evidence there is of this beyond the anecdotal. Such propaganda was very much the point for some nature film proselytizers during the last century. It is not for nothing that conservation organizations have concentrated on charismatic species like pandas — a concentration which has often short-changed supposedly non-charismatic, but just as important, creatures. But even when an encompassing ecological viewpoint is stressed, there’s still the problem of passive consumption of visual spectacle, which necessarily separates the viewer from the actual world. Sitting in a theater, in front of the tube, or, more likely, now, alone in front of the tiny screen, watching exotic, distant, highly manipulated material divorces one from what is all around us. There is no thrill of the serendipitous find, the startling discovery, the learning for one’s own, in these productions. Sure, there maybe some information worth learning, but I think the relationship of consumption to nature is the same as consumption to democracy: you’re not a citizen sitting in front of the screen, you’re a target audience.

I haven’t been to a zoo in decades. I was against the likes of SeaWorld long before Blackfish. I don’t think wild animals should be exploited for entertainment and profit. The urge-to-domestication in giving fluffy-wuffy names to wild animals is harmful, perpetuating a warped relationship in which humans are the masters, the imperialists. Everything Disney makes me sick. So I found a lot of this book hard to read, but it’s an important history, one everyone should be armed with.


It’s never too late to get some books for Christmas. Here are two excellent choices for gifts:

swneSpring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History, by Carol Gracie. Gracie, a reader of this blog, profiles 30 species of wildflowers (with variations) that herald the spring in our woodlands. The lovely (Spring Beauty, Lady’s Slipper) and the strange (Squawroot, Skunk Cabbage) — categories of our own devising, of course — are included. Gorgeous photographs illustrate the text, which discusses the taxonomy, history, lore, and cultural significance of these ephemeral blooms. As no flower is an island, these species accounts are also full of the animals that pollinate them, eat them, and spread them. A glossary and reference section round out the book.

botanyA handsome addition to the gardener’s shelf: Practical Botany for Gardeners by Geoff Hodge. Sumptuously illustrated. In addition to explaining over 3,000 botanical terms, the book offers short profiles of 14 botanists and botanical illustrators. One minor caveat, it was originally published in the UK, so some of the examples may be exotic.

Other books noted here on the blog this year:
The Unfeathered Bird
The Warbler Guide
The Old Ways and Wildwood
Life Along The Delaware Bay
The Forest Unseen

The Unfeathered Bird

frontcoverThis remarkable book goes well with chicken and, I would think, a nice dry white wine that hasn’t seen the inside of an oak barrel. Because a chicken is the closest most of us ever get to a featherless bird. Or, given the season, you could go with a turkey. Both of these birds are served upside down, which has always disorientated me. But, with the legs, thighs, wings, breastbone, back, wishbone… if you’re a poultry eater, you’re half-way to being an avian anatomist. It’s still hard to imagine these cooked carcasses as a bird, though, isn’t it? They have been manipulated by domestication, to become ridiculously breast-heavy, and, plucked, they look like that old union-busting troll Frank Perdue. But the basics are right there on your charger.

And yet, how astonishingly plastic those basics turn out to be….

Katrina van Grouw’s book is a labor of love, an epic, illustrated — indeed, hand drawn — examination of the variety of forms found underneath feathers,skin, and organs. She is mostly, but not solely, concerned with the skeleton: in birds, these are generally light and airy structures on a chickeny plan, but with an astonishing number of variations. The breast bone, for instance; strong fliers need a deep keel to attach those breast muscles to, weak fliers not so much; flightless birds look completely different again. Then there’s the number and placement of toes (those tiny, scaly, graspy things most people call bird feet are actually just the toes): we classify the song birds, passerines, not only because of their syrinx, but by their three forward/one back toe plan, good for grasping branches to perch upon. The location of the legs, too: for instance, out on the sides for loons, who are excellent swimmers but unable to do anything much on land but awkwardly crawl.

Did you know that, in categorizing birds, Linnaeus commented on their taste of their flesh?

Van Grouw also draws some interior views of pigeons: the so-called fancy pigeons (I think some of them are Frankenstein fancy, if you know what I mean), bred for generations for certain characteristics like tiny or enormous bills, or enormous crops as in the case of the “English Pouters.” Yet all are Columba livia, the “same” rock dove/feral pigeon we see on our streets (and sidewalks and awnings and bridges and…). Darwin was another person amazed by the variety of manipulations unnatural selection could be wrought on the shape, form, skeleton of a species — something we can also see in domestic dogs, where breeds and mutts span a mind-bending gamut. The very bones, which seem so solid, can change, and rather surprisingly quickly, too. There is much in this book about evolution, taxonomy, and the always shifting ground that are species, which all goes to illustrate the illustrations.
vanGVan Grouw will be speaking tonight at the Linnaean Society of New York and on Thursday at the Brooklyn Bird Club. The Princeton University Press, which has a very impressive natural history line, published this book. Ardea herodiasA Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, with its long neck folded, and standing on one long leg.

The Warbler Bible

warblerguideJust in time for the challenge of what Roger Tory Petterson called the “confusing fall warblers” in his ground-breaking field guide comes The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, with drawings by Catherine Hamilton. It is published by Princeton University, whose field guide line is very impressive. I know Tom, who lives in Brooklyn and gives tours for the Brooklyn Bird Club, and think of him as a warbler sensei, so this book comes with some expectations. All amply met.

There are 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada. There are 38 species on Prospect Park’s checklist (with three more on the rarities list, including an ancient sighting of the presumably now-extinct Bachman’s warbler). But this is insider baseball (yes, a lot of boy birders are obsessed by numbers, but they are mostly harmless), for the point is that the variety and complexity and sheer heavenliness of seeing these glorious birds should get you out into your local patch of woods.

In spring, as they hurry north to breed, some of these tiny songbirds bring the colors of the tropics with them, especially the males. Cerulean blue, flame, chestnut, orange, a whole palate of yellows. Wildly spectacular, if you’ve never seen them, and the reason why so many complain of “warbler neck” from straining for a view in the high canopies of our woods. Many species are unmistakable. But in the fall, as they return to their “wintering grounds” — since it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, it might better be said that migratory birds move from summer to summer; we ponderous simians, at the mercy of climate-wrecking hydrocarbon-spewing engines, are the ones at the whim of the globe’s axis — their breeding plumage has been shaken off. Now many of the males are as plain as the females. And the trees are still in leaf. How to identify these swiftly moving animals? Practice… and a thorough guide. While on the hefty side for the field, I suspect this richly illustrated (photographs, drawings, and song notation) book will become the book, which is what “bible” means, on the subject, much thumbed through during the long dry months of winter.

On the cover, Northern Parula on Eastern Redbud. Beautiful, but too easy!

Dead Trees

macfarlaneJust before my trip abroad, I came across Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. I remembered Macfarlane’s name from the introduction he wrote to one of my favorites, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, in the NYRB Classics edition. That was a good sign. And the topic of his book! A best-seller across Ye Pond, The Old Ways is about walking the ancient paths of Britain. Needless to say, I had to read it before walking along some of those very paths, ancient drove roads, and holloways — the very route, perhaps, that my ancestor Thomas Wills (1742-?) took when he crossed from Higher Hisley, a farm in Lustleigh on the eastern slope of Dartmoor, to Tavistock, the old stannary town on the west side of Dartmoor. Of course, we may have the wrong Thomas Wills in that moorish distance, but a Thomas Wills of Tavistock’s son Richard (1762-1833) is a sure link in the genetic chain. He lit out for some completely new ways, joining the British East India Company as a mercenary and never returning, ending up on St. Helena, where Napoleon would be exiled the second, more successful time; his (Richard’s, not Napoleon’s) grandson brought my great great grandfather Robert William Coventry Wills to America from St. Helena as a child in the 1870s. Ah, but I get side-tracked. That’s what happens on a path, when you come to a crossing. So I read The Old Ways, and liked it very much, along with his (Macfarlane’s) earlier The Wild Places; now I look forward to his Mountains of the Mind. hollowayIn eight days of walking 90 miles around the Dartmoor Way, I came across only about a dozen other walkers, two of them fellow Yanks, so perhaps the book’s best-seller-dom was largely of the armchair enthusiastic sort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, yet I wonder if there’s a comparison between a kind of nostalgia for walking these ancient trails — but not so much the actual walking of them — and the rise in bird-watching, which in some sense is a nostalgic activity because there are fewer and fewer birds to be seen.wildwoodIn Macfarlane, I learned of Roger Deakin. Deakin’s book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, which he finished just before his passing, sounded like it was something I must read, too. “The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity,” noted Deakin, stepping aside from his usual politeness. How true that is, even expanded into the “enemies of nature are the enemies of humanity.” Deaking also admitted “I have the kind of weakness for wood other people have for puppies or chocolates.” Like Macfarlanes books, Wildwood is episodic, sometimes only remote woods-oriented, but always fascinating and thought-provoking. I must track his other books down. Inspired by him, I titled this post after the generally disparaging term, used by the digitally-deluded, for physical books, which are, of course, recycled trees. tarka2While abroad, I was also reading Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, which takes place in Devon and hence was mandatory. I also learned about this from Macfarlane. First published in 1927, Tarka has evidently been in print for ever in the UK, but is harder to find on this side of the Big Leat. In London, I purchased a Penguin edition at Waterstones after failing at Foyles (“If you can’t find it there…” said the women in the gift store at the Natural History Musuem). It’s an animal story, but not one for the tots. Written by a veteran of the First World War’s trenches, it is not in the least sentimental. Indeed, it’s the opposite of all that: all the otters come to brutal ends at the hand of man and dog, and long passages detailing otter hunting, a “sport” said to be older than fox hunting — you can vomit over this breezy Sports Illustrated piece about the “sport” from 1955 — brought to mind escaped slaves being hounded. Williamson later joined the British Union of Fascists (cf. Mosley and those Horrible Mitfords, slapped down by old P.G. Wodehouse as the Black Shorts) which rightfully sunk his reputation, and hardly anybody reads his numerous other books anymore, but this intense attempt to see the world from an animal’s point of view (making it quite the double feature with The Peregrine, which may be said to be even more anti-sentimental) came before that grotesquery. It is a rather uneven novel, but one I think bears more recognition over here. The sentimental animal stories so often found in popular culture warp us; Williamson’s red-in-tooth-and-claw veers too far to the other extreme, but is nonetheless a sharp corrective. Interestingly, Rachel Carson considered Tarka a key influence. tarka trail footbridgeThese are lines from Williamson carved into a footbridge over the River Taw on the Tarka Trail. My route, the Dartmoor Way, merged with the TT through lush Belstone Cleave between Sticklepath and Belstone, where the publican at The Tors Inn suggested I drop down into the valley of the East Okement, rejoining the TT towards Okehampton. Done. Then I got back on the DW, which from Okehampton to Tavistock was also the West Devon Way (which was blazed, hallelujah!). Following the TT backwards would have taken me past North Tawton, where Ted Hughes lived for many years. Hughes was fascinated by Tarka, too, and evidently got to know the prickly Williamson. Hughes’ Moortown poems, about the years he helped run his father-in-law’s Devon farm in the 1970s, give you a visceral sense of livestock farming, like fingers reaching into a ewe on a cold morning to help pull out her lamb.

Life Along The Delaware Bay

I didn’t make it to the beach to witness the annual rites of spring of the Horseshoe Crabs (Limulus polyphemus). But I did manage a virtual trip with this beautiful book. Life Along The Delaware: Cape May, Gateway to a Million Shorebirds by Niles, Burger, and Dey, with photography by van de Kam, was published by Rutgers University Press last year. It’s a coffee table book with luscious photographs, but also one with a scientific bent. Indeed, even a point. The Bay is one of the most important ecosystems on the East Coast, but isn’t nearly as well-known as the Chesapeake. It’s especially important for shorebirds in migration, those epic flights to and from breeding grounds in Arctic Canada. For at least since the last ice age, this migration has coincided with the annual Horseshoe Crab breeding season. Massive amounts of Horseshoe eggs fed these long distance migrants, providing a vital half-way point. After more than a century of slaughtering Horseshoes for fertilizer, bait, and medicine, there are now many less Horseshoe crabs. Hence, less birds. A subspecies of Red Knot (Calidris canutus) in particular has been hard hit. These birds are known to fly six days straight (songbirds migrate during the evenings only, resting and eating during the day); indeed, before starting from Patagonia, Red Knots shrink their digestive systems to lessen their weight (mirroring the ability of birds to shrink their gonads once breeding season is over). The easily digested, protein-rich Horseshoe eggs are vital to the survival of the Red Knots. This is the main story told in this book, but it’s not the only one. It’s thoughtful, up-to-date, and, as noted, extremely well-illustrated.

Highlights of past Horseshoe Crab posts
Horseshoe Moon
Horseshoe Crabs

Two punks from Bergen Beach were recently busted for poaching horseshoes from Jamaica Bay. Telsons should to driven into their gonads. They were caught pretty much by accident, by NYPD detectives testing night-vision gear in a helicopter. Park Police have a boat, but it remains tied to the dock.

The Forest Unseen

the-forest-unseen-march-2012-198x300David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature is a must-read. Haskell observes a small patch of (very rare) old-growth Tennessee forest through the course of a year and reports on what he experiences, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. It is a book of meditations, grounded, quite literally, in a little patch of woodlands. I highly recommend it. See also Haskell’s blog.

Take, for instance, Haskell’s chapter on deer. He begins with the intimate relationship of gut biota in a ruminant, which allows it to eat plant material that we non-ruminants simply can’t stomach. (The part of this biological fact we are most familiar with is the meat industry’s feeding of corn to cows, which makes these grass-eaters sort of permanently sick, so that they are pumped full of antibiotics — analogous to our over-medicated society — which spread through the environment and, part and parcel of the environment, ourselves). From there he considers our contemporary deer problem, vast herds overbrowsing the forests and the suburbs. But things become more complex, considering our conceptions of woodlands were largely formed during a time when the deer population was nearly non-existent, an anomaly in North American history. Pre-Columbian Native Americans lived in regions filled to the brim with deer, a primary source of protein as well as a raw material for their entire culture; indeed, by making edge habitat with fire, they fostered deer parks. And before any humans were in North America, a reign of megafauna herbivores munched away at the forests, probably making deer-browse look amateurish. So what then is “natural” here?

Speaking of nature, Haskell also recently published this wonderfully sly Op-Ed about the myriad forms of sexuality to coincide with the fundamentalist argument about the alleged unnaturalness of homosexuality in the Supreme Court. Why, just walking outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, one discovers bisexual trees; gay ducks; hermaphrodite snails (with their arrows of desire); fungi, which are more akin to animals than plants but which don’t have sexes as either animals or plants would understand the term; and intersexed humans, who are born with characteristics of both the male and the female.antler


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  • Minimum of 7 giant dragonflies -- I think they're Swamp Darners -- in exit hallway of SI ferry. Perching on netting. Weird. 1 hour ago
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