Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Wild Yards

In one sense, this is a rather depressing book. Nancy Lawson is the author of two books on the wilds of the backyard. This doesn’t seem to have had much effect on her neighbors. She’s surrounded by killers. Her neighbors are constantly felling trees, mowing and whacking, leaf-blowing, and, periodically, madly stomping on 17-year cicadas. Faster, suburbanites! Kill! Kill! They fill the neighborhood with stress-inducing noise (affecting people and animals, including insects) and toxic ‘cides in their dreams of sterile lawns. They think of the lawn and the garden as places of order and sterility in the service of human vanity. Basically, they despise life. They must not be fond of Lawson, who is attempting to foster it. Or her sister: a homeowners’ association spent four years and $100,000 battling her sister’s butterfly garden until the Maryland legislature codified wildlife-friendly plantings.

By now we all know about Monarch caterpillars/butterflies and milkweeds. Or do we? Things are more complicated than they look. Diversity is, once again, the key. Aphids, which usually cause people to hiss, and other herbivores on milkweed increase chances of Monarch caterpillar survival, probably because of dilution: there are just more things for predators to eat. Aphids sucking on milkweeds reduce the plant’s defensive armory, also good for monarch caterpillars. At the same time, it seems that caterpillars munching on the milkweeds simulate plant defensive strategies that help keep aphids at bay.

It also turns out Monarch adults collect pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) from not milkweed species, particularly boneset. This has rarely been observed; I’ve never seen it, but then, I didn’t know to look for it. I’ve probably thought the butterflies were just resting. Check out the Monarch RX project. Produced by plants as an anti-herbivory strategy–PAs taste awful to mammals–PAs clearly help Monarchs with something. One scientist studying the phenomenon speculates that the PAs may help against a nasty protozoan disease. (Grasshoppers, beetle, and fly species are also known to collect PAs from plants to re-purpose if for courtship and defensive purposes.)

Fill your roadsides and verges with milkweed? Well, traffic noise turns out to stress Monarch caterpillars, too. Some stress is good, of course, it keeps you on your toes. Repeated or constant stress, on the other hand, has negative effects. Researchers in this study came across their first biting Monarch caterpillars. Anthropogenic noise makes you less healthy, less productive, more aggressive (“you” here includes humans, other mammals, birds, insects, frogs…).

The various threats of the Western Honey Bee are elucidated. Good to see the latest science getting out there. Even providing sugar syrup for hummingbirds is questioned. (By now, most hummingbird feeders have found out that red dyes are actually bad for the birds.) Far better to plant species that provide nectar, infinitely richer in nutrients and, it seems, vital for hummingbird gut bacteria. It seems like we’re doing good things feeding hummingbirds, but are we? Nectar isn’t just sugar.

There is, in short, a lot to think about in this book.

New Book

Highly recommended.

Jared Farmer’s Elderflora is unexpectedly dedicated “To the caretakers, living and dead, of Green-Wood Cemetery.” He notes elsewhere in the book that he began to outline the book in Brooklyn, so one has to assume he wandered among Green-Wood’s vales and dales when he lived here. There’s another Brooklyn connection: Edmund Schulman, of Bristlecone Pine fame, was Brooklyn-born. The book, however, isn’t about the relatively young trees in Green-Wood.

Farmer is concerned with the really old ones, and how people have come to understand how old they are. They’ve often been mis-aged. They’ve often been loved to death, or just plain hate-killed. Why we Earthlings can’t have nice things: there are always the paradoxical Earth-destroyers amongst us.

Or just overly science-ized, as in the notorious case of the Bristlecone a predoctoral instructor in geography cut down in 1964 with the Forest Service’s ok. We learn here the original chainsaw operator, a seasoned tree-feller, took a look at the tree and refused to cut it, but of course they found someone else to do it the next day. There are always executioners. When the rings on this one were counted, and counted over and over again, there were 4,844 annual rings. It was the oldest Bristlecone known.

Farmer takes the “longest nineteenth century” as his basis, “the period when planetary age, evolutionary age, and arboreal age pulled consciousness far back in linear time, and, simultaneously when the energy transition to fossils fuels hurtled human impacts far into the future.”

The ancient ones he calls perdurables: “Perdurables are more than service providers. They are ethical gift givers. They invite us to be fully human—truly sapient—by engaging our deepest faculties: to venerate, to analyze, to mediate. They expand our moral and temporal imagination.”

Insect Books

Princeton Nature is going strong these days. Eaton‘s book is a slim compendium of insect lore. Just a few of the entries: Amber, Delusory Parasitosis, Killer Bees, Seed Dispersal, Snow Insects, Xerces Society. I could, frankly, handle a lot more of it. Two things really jumped out at me. On the subject of insect decline, there is much anecdote and debate, but one hard piece of evidence is a study of Whip-poor-wills that shows they are eating smaller insects than they used to; there just aren’t enough big ones any more. And how high do insects fly (or get wafted along)? Specimens have been found at 19,685 feet (6000m).

Piper’s book, as its cover suggests, is much more pictorial. “Richly illustrated” is a worthy description here. A lot of ground is covered, but the category “insects” is mind-blowingly vast, so, like the Eaton, this volume also leaves you wanting more. Here’s a taste: venom has independently evolved at least 14 times in insects; memories formed by the larva are retained in the adult; the dung of introduced cattle in Australia was of no interest to native dung beetles, who evolved with marsupials. The result was a continent plagued with furies of flies breeding in the cow pats until the introduction, starting in the 1960s, of numerous species of dung beetles.

And this, practically just off the printing presses, is a massive field guide to hundreds of species of spiders. I’ve literally just started looking at it…


Before Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote three books about the sea, which have now been brought together in a single Library of America volume. Some of the science is dated, but these are still delightful and worthy books, and any beach-comber, actual or metaphorical, would do well to have this volume in hand.

Catchy title, very interesting book. “Algae certainly will plague us in ever-increasing numbers, but still they are a source of hope. We already know they can be harnessed to create fuel, plastics, animal feed, vitamins, protein, edible oils, and other useful products.[…] they can remediate the waters we pollute.” And some day, long after all of us are gone, they may help cool down the planet as they’ve done before in Earth’s long history.

The current edition of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society (149.2; April-June 2022) is devoted to “The ecology of Quercus-dominated forest in the eastern United States.” There should be a subtitle: “On the Importance of Fire.” As you may know, our oaks are not doing great. They aren’t replacing themselves. More shade-tolerant species like Red Maple are thickening our forests. Oaks need large herbivores (driven to extinction by early humans in North Americas) and/or fire (once used by indigenous peoples to clear land for agriculture and deer parks) to open up the space and light they need. But the last century, following a century of cut-over of old growth, has been one of fire-suppression. Smokey Bear turns out to be hell of a landscape engineer and habitat-master. The disastrous effects of fire suppression are more readily apparent in the West than here in the East, but they are no less profound here.

Sunday plate passing...


The cover of this book grabbed me like a raptor’s talons. This is Georg(e) Forster’s watercolor of a Striated Caracara, a species confined to the Falklands, made during Cook’s second voyage (1772-1775) in search of the southern continent. There are nine other species of caracaras, birds found almost exclusively in South America. There are also some extinct species–and the Striated may well be heading that way.

Only the (Northern) Crested Caracara gets into the United States, with populations in Florida and Texas, and the occasional aberrant one getting as far north as Seattle and, on this coast, Bear Mountain in NY. (Bones of Pleistocene caracaras and California Condors, which used to range the continent, have been found near Bear Mountain, so the bird is, perhaps, coming back.) I saw a few near the Rio Grande.

Caracaras are falcons, but they seem closer to their parrot cousins than, say, Peregrines and American Kestrels. Inquisitive, communal, exploratory, able to learn and seemingly able to teach, with a wide latitude for what they’ll eat–practically anything and everything, including carrion and excrement (evidently seal poop is rich with partially digested gifts of the sea)–they’re rather like corvids. In fact, they take the place of corvids: until reading this, I hadn’t realized there are no crows or ravens in South America.

In addition to evolution, this book necessarily discusses geology and the reason for South America’s uniqueness, as well as its gifting of marsupials northwards into our backyards. There’s also much appreciation for Anglo-Argentine naturalist and ornithologist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), who was born in the land of caracaras to English immigrant parents. Hudson is probably best remembered for Green Mansions, a 1904 novel that was more successful in the U.S. than the UK, but he wrote a lot of books. There are 24 volumes in his Collected Works. Unmentioned here is his A Shepherd’s Life, which much influenced James Rebanks recent (and recommended) The Shepherd’s Life. I’m going hunting for Hudson’s Long Ago and Far Away: A History of My Early Life, praised by both Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, an unexpected combination of admirers.


More reading: this review/dismemberment of a book by one of the new eugenicists is important. These racists (and classists) have returned with a vengeance, peddling the same old bullshit of century ago, now wrapped up in willful misreading of DNA and genetics. They even come claiming to be “progressive.” (A nice nod to the dark side of the Progressive Era.)

The Social Wasps

Chris Alice Kratzer’s guide to The Social Wasps of North America is out and about. If you’re interested in the social wasps, and I know you are, you should really look this one up. Kratzer uses an interesting digital graphic style of illustration: it’s generic, or should I say platonic, packing a lot of information into the image. Remember, each species may have three castes: queen, workers (female), and male. (A field guide using photos is going to have a lot problems covering all these variations.) And among these there may be more than one color form — melanic, ferruginous, xanthic, etc. — often based on regional distribution, but with some inevitable geographic overlap. To represent this, individual illustrations of the wasps are divided in half; the author suggests using a small mirror to get a whole body sense. Have never seen this trick before.

Kratzer also rates the species with a “field ID rating” from easy to cryptic. Identification can, indeed, be tricky. As an example: Polistes fuscatus, which iNaturalist calls the “Dark Paper Wasp.” (Above is one of my pictures from early June, spotted in Princeton, NJ.) Well, they’re pretty dark around here, but they’re not all dark across their large range. Kratzer goes with the name “Imposter Paper Wasp” because they look like several other species. There are 8 pages on this one species in this book. (Below is another of my sightings from the Bronx, NY, from late June.)

Because it covers North America, the majority of the species in this book are south of the U.S. Tropics win when it comes to insect species diversity.

Coral Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans), which iNaturalist calls Guinea Paper Wasp. Rare around here. I’ve seen two of these in Bush Terminal Park (July)and this one in Green-Wood (early October).

The social wasps make up a tiny percentage of wasps, but because they may sting to protect their nests, they’re the ones most often noticed. They’re the ones who give wasps a bad name. But remember, it’s our blundering upon them that causes the reaction.

Yellowjackets streaming in and out of an underground nest is a sign. Heed it.

I do so by observing from a few feet away. They’ve never bugged me.


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Cuckoo, Cuckoo!

Sumer is icumen in,/ Lhude sing cucu, begins one of the oldest songs in English. The distinctive call of the male Common Cuckoo, just returned from winter in sub-Saharan Africa, has long marked the return of spring to Europe. People used to write to the Times to report the date they first heard it for the year. 

In studying the curious life history of the Common Cuckoo, Nick Davies asks many intriguing questions about brood parasitism and co-evolution. Moralists have, of course, been appalled for centuries about the Cuckoo’s way of doing things. The more interesting thing is how they do it—including careful observation of the host’s nest and the lightning fast laying of “forged” eggs—and what the host species do to defend themselves. 

There seem to be a lot of advantages of brood parasitism. Female Common Cuckoos are, for instance, well on their way back to Africa while other species raise the next generation of Common Cuckoos. Yet only about 1% of all bird species are brood parasites. Why should this be so? Not even all cuckoos do it: only 59 of the 141 cuckoo species in the world, in the family Cuculidae, are brood parasites. 

For instance, the cuckoos found in the Northeast U.S. are the Black-billed and Yellow-billed. Both are parental, meaning they build their own nests. They will occasionally lay their eggs in each other’s nests. And the Black-billed female will sometimes lay her eggs in the nests of other bird species. But this isn’t their usual way of reproducing, and any hatched young of theirs don’t dispose of the host’s hatchlings, as the Common Cuckoo does. 

Of the other brood parasite species, best known to North Americans is the Brown-headed Cowbird. I’ve seen Chipping Sparrow parents feed the enormous cowbird chicks here in Brooklyn. It’s quite amazing to see.

You should definitely explore along with Davies, his co-researchers, their fake eggs, stuffed birds, and decades of experiments in the fens. For those who want the audiovisual version, he presents his research at the Royal Society.

In Praise of Geography

Tim and Máiréad Robinson earned a living by making maps. Both passed away in the early wave of COVID last spring. They were in their 80s, but god-damn the eugenicist scum who blithely write off “underlying conditions” as an excuse. (This crowd of filth, the base of a GOP lately heard bleating about how divisive calls for impeachment are, is of the kind that deny that there were victims at Sandy Hook, to the extent of harrying parents of the children killed.)

Tim Robinson wrote books about the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemarra, what he called the “ABCs” of western Ireland. His subject was the “web of placelore,” the cultural encrustation of human habitation of the land, which he teased out by walking, for years, over the terrain.

I’ve read Stones of Aran, in which he details his walk around the edge of Arainn, the biggest of the Aran Islands (volume 1, Pilgrimage), and then through the interior (volume 2, Labyrinth). So good. I’m reading the first volume of his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind, now. It’s better.

There’s a chapter in this latter book about remains that encapsulates Robinson’s method. On foot, he explores the depths of human presence in the land, from the pre-historic to what’s remembered by the old fisherman to what he himself sees, hears, smells, all the while paying particular attention to the names on the land: Irish, anglicized Irish, and English. (“Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree.”)

The chapter, “The Boneyard,” discuses the prevalence of burial sites for unbaptized babies, not allowed on “consecrated” ground because of the cruelty of the Church; the local use of dog welks to make purple dye (albeit on a smaller scale than with the famed murex of Tyrian purple); the prevalence of tiny forams in the oceans, where they’re major players in the carbon cycle, and on the beaches when they die; and the site of a labyrinth made by a “land artist” in 1971, which the artist did not want pin-pointed on the Robinsons’ map. Robinson points out that the stones, like these other bones, hardly belong to the artist now.

In college, I majored in geography, which of course means “earth writing.” It is good to get back to a master of it.

NYRB Classics published the two-volume Stones of Aran here in the U.S.
Milkweed Editions has published Listening to the Wind, the first volume of the Connemarra trilogy. I’m not clear on whether they’ll do the other two volumes.
Penguin UK has the complete trilogy.

“Individually, none of the names I have mentioned is of much intrinsic interest. But if we think of all the place names that humanity has applied to the surface of this planet as constituting a single vast fingerprint, can we neglect even its most minute particularities in trying to identify ourselves?”

The Flying Zoo

The Blue Jay’s “flying zoo” includes “one flea, six species of lice, five types of ticks, and eight species of mites, in addition to being infected by nine kinds of flukes (trematodes), three tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm) and sixteen kinds of roundworms.”

Michael Stock’s The Flying Zoo: Birds, Parasites and the World They Share can get a little gross. Nasal leeches, anybody? Your adorable bird may be laden with parasites externally and internally, fighting off feather-chewers, blood-suckers, and gut-robbers.

A birding friend and reader of this blog (thank you, Janet!) thought I would like this book, and how right she was. The details are fascinating.

A few tidbits: Black swans have black lice, white swans with white lice, good camouflage for the lice. Different species of lice can be found on the wings, head, and body (not unlike the three specialized species that enjoy H. sapiens). A species of soft tick can stay dormant for 18 years, particularly helpful in bleak, isolated, seabird colonies. A nest being a great place to get lice, researchers can find out which bird species fostered Brown-headed Cowbird chicks by identifying the lice.

But beyond the details is the co-evolutionary story between parasite and host. “It does seem clear that intense selection pressure involving the immune system by birds against fleas has promoted flea specialization and likely flea speciation as well.” Eastern Screech Owls transport Blind Snakes to their cavity nests, where the snakes live off fly larvae, beetles, and fleas. “Owl nestlings in nests with snakes grew faster and lower mortality rates.” Fleas in the nests of Great Tits make it too humid for blowfly larvae; blowflie can have a worse effect on nestlings, so the fleas “may actually be helpful to their hosts.”

Using the example of a Black-capped Chickadee, Stock notes that a lot isn’t known about even common birds and their parasites.

This is a book that will make you look at birds with very different eyes.

Book and Flowers and Bugs

A month of summer yet, at least as the calendar goes. But Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers is good the whole year through. You’ll love opening this in early January!

I can’t better the foreword by NYBG’s Robert Naczi: “Gracie seamlessly integrates diverse facets about these plants—history, geography, habitats, human uses, morphology, classification, pollination, conservation, and more. Truly, this book has something for everyone, whether beginner or expert,hikeror gardener, entomologist or etymologist.”

In honor of Carol, who reads this blog (!), here are some interactions with common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. (If you’ve ever wondered why the species epithet means, essentially, “of Syria,” she explains the chain of errors that resulted in that.)
A tiny bee. Perhaps a sweat bee.
Nomada genus bee.
Scirtes orbiculatus, a marsh beetle.
Monarch egg.
That’s a honeybee on the left. I was trying to capture in pixels the pale ant here, but this is a bonus since it shows a yellow pollinarium, the two connected pollen sacs, or pollinia, that milkweed sticks to you in exchange for giving up its nectar.
Bembix genus sand wasp.
Great Golden Digger wasp.
And right next to this patch of milkweed in Green-Wood, a Great Golden Digger digs her nest site. While she sups on nectar, she provisions her young with crickets and katydids.


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