Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Recent Books

Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History is hard to put down. He’s a determinist, arguing that our species have been ruled by Milankovitch cycles; climate change; plate tectonics; and geology, among other physical factors. Some of this is probably too superficial and glib, but it sure makes for fascinating reading. By the way, you’re reading this on a screen controlled by microchips made of silicon dioxide, which is also the basis of glass, and, back in the Stone Age, a major component of the kinds of rock (chert, flint, obsidian) used to make tools. The more things change…?

Speaking of geology, Sandra Herbert’s Charles Darwin, Geologist reminds us that young Darwin went out on the Beagle as a geologist. In fact, he wasn’t even the ship’s naturalist initially. He shipped as the gentleman companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy (who later turned fundamentalist), who couldn’t socialize with his crew and needed someone of his own class to dine with. The ship’s official naturalist (and surgeon, the two tasks often went together) was Robert McCormick, who quit after seeing Darwin in action. Darwin also paid his own way, or rather his father did: £600 for outfitting for the journey and £1200 or so during.

Everybody remembers “Darwin’s finches,” except Darwin, who bollixed his collecting of these birds on the Galapagos. Ornithologist John Gould sorted out the bird specimens, realizing the mixed-up birds from the islands were all finches. In the Galapagos archipelago, it was different types of mockingbirds (and turtles) that got Darwin seriously wondering about transmutation. For four decades now Peter and Rosemary Grant have been documenting how the islands’ birds evolve in real time in relation to the climate.

Noted:
With Extinction Rebellion making headlines, Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism may be premature.
Sprout Lands by William Logan.

What are you reading in natural history (writ large) lately?

A.C. Bent & Co. on Raptors

Arthur Cleveland Bent published twenty-one volumes in his Life Histories of North American Birds between 1919 and 1968. The last two volumes were posthumous. They originally came out in the U.S. National Museum Bulletin. Later they were republished by Dover. There’s an internet edition now.

The Dover paperbacks are a standard sight in used book store natural history sections. But I’d never seen the volume(s) on raptors until last month. Turns out Bent produced two volumes on diurnal and nocturnal raptors, originally published in 1937 and 1938. The Dover edition I purchased at Oasis Books in Gloucester Court House, VA, came out in 1961. One Frank Schoff put his name and “1962” inside Part 1. “3/62” is written in Part 2, but seems to be in a different hand. These covers, though….

Bent’s method is to cite the literature, his own (evidently extensive) notes (dating back to the 1880s), and many correspondents. There are a fair number of collaborators, too. For instance, the Eastern Sparrow Hawk (what they used to call American Kestrel) chapter is written by one.

It’s all wonderfully anecdotal stuff. There is some great material in these things. But if you’ve never delved into them, beware! Bird-people were a bloody bunch back in the day. Egg-collectors, bird shooters, stomach content turner-outers (to see what the birds ate) galore.

Bent goes to subspecies level. It was also an era of “splitters,” meaning rather more species than are now accepted.

Here, for instance, is how I use such archaic material. Driving south, we saw a good number of Ospreys. More recently, I counted five kettling together over Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. I’ve often wondered how many of these fish hawks a habitat can contain. Bent, writing before DDT, speaks of regular colonial breeding. E.g.: in 1911, Gardiners Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, had an estimated 200 nests. The island is about 3000 acres. Through the magic of ebird, I thought I’d check out how many Osprey have been reported there recently. However, there’s not a single report from the island! The island, rather remarkably, has been privately owned by the same family… for nearly four centuries. There are no ebirders in the current crop, evidently.
***

It seems to be World Horseshoe Crab Day… I’ve written quite a bit about these creatures.

Wright On Sparrows

The big book of little brown jobs is here at last. The enviably erudite Rick Wright has written a very readable reference guide to the LBJs, sparrow division. It’s not a field guide: the hardcover large format precludes that. (I presume a paperback will follow; there’s also an ebook version, but you know those are bad for you, right?) And, as the beginning of the introduction states, it’s not the typical birder’s book. “Most bird books treat their subject as one entirely separate from the cultural world that humans inhabit, focusing exclusively on what for the past 2.500 years we have called “natural history”: identification, behavior, and ecological and evolutionary relationships. But birds have a human history, too, […].” Yes, each of the 76 species of Passerellidae family sparrows covered here has an entry that discusses field identification in depth, range and geographic variation, and subspecies. The photographs are excellent (each is noted to place, month, and photographer). But the heart of the book is made up of the stories of the birds and the bird people. “Everything we think we know, someone had to learn,” writes Wright, who’s blog also testifies to his deep familiarity with earlier ornithological work. “A fuller awareness of the slow evolution of ornithological knowledge over the centuries can inspire modern birders both to greater ambition and to greater patience with their own development. If scientific ornithology is still debating the status, indeed the very existence of, for example, the Cassiar Junco a century after its discovery, we field observers can be more comfortable in our own uncertainties.”For instance: the Little Sparrow, Fasciated Finch, Ferruginous Finch, or the Shepherd. These are all old names for the Song Sparrow, now known biologically as Melospiza melodia. Virtually cosmopolitan in my experience, by which I mean they turn up in most habitat I visit around NYC, Song Sparrows were the first birds I noticed having accents in their song. The ones on Nantucket don’t sound the same as the ones here. (They do peculiar things with their “r” — ahh — up there….). Turns out they’re “one of the most geographically diverse birds in the world.” In the past, ornithologists have counted up to 50 subspecies; today it’s about two dozen.Very much an addition to your hardcore natural history bookshelf.

(Sparrows from my blog archives, from the top: Field, Chipping, White-throated, Fox, Song, Olive, Grasshopper — the latter two photographed in Texas)

Snake Book

Snakes of the Eastern United States by Whit Gibbons is an excellent addition to the natural history bookshelf. It’s sumptuously well-illustrated by many photographers.

Here’s the skinny on our snakes: there are 63 species of snakes native in the eastern US. There’s a serious north-south gradient: Maine has 10 native species (one of which, the timber rattlesnake, may be extirpated from the state) and Florida has 45 native species.* About 20 of the 63 species are endemic to the US east of the Mississippi (and Louisiana). There are subspecies and color variations for more than a few of all these.

Only 7 of the 63 species are venomous. They get way too much not just bad press but wrong press. These snakes are very reluctant to bite humans. And if you do get bit, we have a medical system of sorts that functions pretty well for this kind of thing (the cost is another issue, which we should be able to solve with Medicare for all were it not for our masters wanting us to worry ourselves and bankrupt ourselves to death). You have a better chance of being killed by lightning than being killed by a venomous snake. Bites from dogs are three times more fatal. Sure, the Venomous Seven can be dangerous, but use common sense, know what to look out for, watch where you’re going, wear boots when hiking, leash your dog, et cetera.

I’ve seen too few of these critters: Rat, Garter, Ribbon, Northern Water (pictured below). This year, I’m aiming to spot a Brown.

*There are some 3000 described species in the world. More than 140 of these are native to the entire U.S. This book also touches upon four introduced species, including the nightmare pet trade African python currently eating up Florida.

Northern Water Snake:

These nature goals were written for NYC, but are apropos everywhere.

Carbon Democracy

“Humankind has consumed about two trillion barrels of oil since the rise of the modern petroleum industry in the 1860s. It is worth repeating that burning the first trillion took about 130 years, but we went through the second trillion in only twenty-two years. […] The world’s fossil fuels were formed out of 500 million years of buried sunshine. Whether we spend most of this ‘capital bequeathed to mankind by other living beings’ within a span of three hundred years or four hundred, from the perspective of geological history, or even merely of human history, the era of the Anthropocene is brief and extraordinary. […] The geological language captures not so much the brevity of time in which the energy from fossil fuels has enabled agency on a new scale, but the extraordinary length of time, looking forward, over which the effects of this brief agency will be felt. The modes of common life that have arisen largely within the last hundred years, and whose intensity has accelerated only since 1945, are shaping the planet for the next one thousand years, and perhaps the next 50,000.”

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, 2013. This is one of a number of Verso’s thought-provoking and paradigm-challenging approaches to the politics of climate change.

Raptor Us

As I turned the corner onto 41st Street across from the park, preparing for the hike up the moraine, I noticed a big bird take off from the slope above the park’s retaining wall. It was a Red-tailed Hawk, of course, and it landed in a London plane tree anchored in the sidewalk. Crossing the street to stand beside the tree’s bole was but a moment’s work for me. The hawk paid no heed to my efforts, nor to three other bipeds passing below. Instead, it swallowed some food in just a few bites. No feathers flew, so perhaps it was a small mammal. The bird was about 15 feet away from me. That’s some FID — flight initiation distance to the ornithologists, a mark of habituation to humans. In fact, the bird hopped down to a lower branch that was even closer to me. It was one of my closest encounters ever with these big raptors, an almost daily sight here in Brooklyn. I’ve been reading Urban Raptors: Ecology and Conservation of Birds of Prey in Cities (edited by Boal & Dykstra). Neither Red-tailed Hawks nor American Kestrels, the most common nesting raptors in NYC, rate their own chapter, but there are lessons to be extrapolated. Adaptability, dietary catholicism, ability to withstand human presence (now, that’s an achievement).

Like for instances:
Last weekend, a young Bald Eagle sailed over the block and down towards the avenue. It was below eye-level for us here on the 4th floor atop the Harbor Hill Moraine. What a thrill! Yesterday, an adult was high overhead Green-Wood. That’s three sightings of at least two different eagles this month within a mile of home.Here’s a shot for ID purposes only, taken through a moon roof. This is a Merlin atop this regular American Kestrel perch one avenue (long) block from home.This antenna, five blocks away, is a more infrequent American Kestrel perch, but only because I don’t pass it all that frequently.A pair of Peregrines. They’ve been seen up here almost every day for months now. This morning: one was there when I first looked at 7:09am;  both there at 7:18am. Only crappy weather keeps them elsewhere. Another Peregrine, in the Bronx this time.And another Red-tailed Hawk, also in the Bronx.

Stay tuned for more raptors in the New Year. I already have the whole month planned for “Raptor Wednesdays.”

To Bee Or Not To Bee

When Europeans brought their domesticated honeybees to the New World, they joined the 4000 other species of bees all ready here. That’s a lot of different kinds of bees, but the invasive honeybees, the cattle of insects, the serfs of industry, get virtually all the attention. This is a shame. Honeybees are problematic, to say the least. (I was once a big advocate, but I’ve revised my thinking, not that I don’t think they’re fascinating.)

“The honeybees from a single domestic hive consume pollen and nectar that might otherwise provision 100,000 nest cells for diggers, masons, leaf cutters, and other native bees,” writes Thor Hanson in Buzz. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, the link above goes to the article he cites on this. The most significant effects of industrial honeybee colonies are in wild areas, not agricultural ones. It certainly makes you think about the explosion of bee-keeping, as here in New York City.

Green-Wood Cemetery, for instance, has hives in the Dell Water, which they want to revert to a more nature-friendly section. They have another batch of hives near the pollinator dream-world of their new native plant hillside. Are they undermining their own best efforts?

Hanson’s concise but comprehensive new book raises such questions. It should broaden everybody’s bee horizons. Like other insects, bees are disappearing in our lifetime. (Because, it might be argued, of our lifetimes). As noted here and many other places, this disappearance is two-fold: species are winking out, and the numbers within surviving species are shrinking. The causes are all anthropogenic and interconnected: toxins, imported pathogens, habitat destruction, climate change, industrial monocropping to feed the locust-expansion of human beings. One study found residue from 118 different pesticides in hives from around the country; these included poisons long since banned, like DDT, which persist in the environment. The synergistic interactions of all these chemical weapons are a whole other front in the war against life.
***

The author suggests you read the end notes. Duh! Here you’ll find much else that just couldn’t fit into the narrative. (Boy, do I know that feeling!) Like, for instance, the number of specimens Darwin sent home (8,000) and the number Wallace, who earned his living doing this, did (125,000; 83,200 of which were beetles).


Share

Bookmark and Share

Join 582 other followers

Twitter

  • RT @PublicI: When Aimee Maddonna wanted to become a foster parent, she was turned away by a state-funded agency. Why? She wasn’t Protestant… 34 minutes ago
Nature Blog Network

Archives