Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

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.
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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).

The Big Book of Eagles

But let’s start… small: the Pygmy Eagle weights about the same as a pigeon. Whaa-ut? Hieraaetus weiskei is found on New Guinea and some of the surrounding islands. Evolutionary pressures on islands can sometimes result in rather small animals. Interestingly, this species is said to be one of the closest living relatives of the largest eagle ever, the extinct Haast’s Eagle of New Zealand (Harpagornis moorei). The Haast’s was a “33-pound (15kg) giant that preyed on moas” and that died out circa 1400 when the Maori killed off the last of the moas. (Islands can also cause gigantism.) The Pygmy Eagle used to be lumped with Australia’s Little Eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides), but DNA and other evidence suggests it is its own species. Notwithstanding these small examples, eagles are some of the largest and rarest of birds. The largest recorded wingspan of an existing eagle species belongs to a female Wedge-tailed Eagle: 9’4″. The heaviest, a 20-pound Harpy Eagle. Harpy Eagles are tropical forest birds, so like Accipiters they have relatively short and stocky wings for maneuverability amid trees; while massive birds, they only rank about 6th in terms of wingspan. There is much more such information in this illustrated natural history by Mike Unwin and David Tipling. They cover most of the eagle species found in the world.

Sure, this is a coffee-table book, so the pictures are impressive. But thankfully it’s also one informed by taxonomy, ecology, evolution, and conservation, all the good things. Pictured is an adult Bald Eagle, one of two species of eagle found in the US. This one passed high overhead of me last Saturday in Green-Wood Cemetery here in Brooklyn, approximately the third time I’ve seen one there. Interestingly, it looks like a photographer who was also in Green-Wood that day pictured a lower flying younger bird, easily distinguished because it takes four to five years for the Balds to get their white heads and tails.

From last year, young eagles on Staten Island.

A Philosophical Botany

In Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany Matthew Hall’s argument doesn’t strike me as provocative, but for others grounded in anthropocentrism, zoocentrism, Cartesian dualities, and very out-of-date biological understanding, it may.

“Plants and humans share a basic, ontological reality as perceptive, aware, autonomous, self-governed, and intelligent beings,” he writes.

As fellow eukaryotes, plants and animals (and fungi) all share nucleated cells as our foundational organizational structure. Even more fundamentally: there would not be life on earth as we know it without plants expelling oxygen as waste. They are the primary converters of solar energy into life, without which we would not exist. Eating plants, or eating the things that eat plants, we are completely dependent on plants. Yet we certainly do not give plants the respect and care we should. Quite the opposite, in fact. The thingness of plants makes them easy to dismiss, uproot, poison, pave-over, manipulate, and above all, disregard.

Hall discusses the roots of the lordly disregard of plants in Western thought (the Judeo-Christian-Aristotlian nexus); alternatives in other worldly traditions (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist); and older approaches (animist, pagan, Indigenous). Then, detailing recent discoveries of kinds of sentience and mentality in plants, he’s off to the races. A blurb on the back makes the inevitable allusion to Peter Singer’s groundbreaking Animal Liberation. So what about plant liberation?

Hall counsels a restorative approach. A combination of restorative justice and ecological restoration? Profound food for thought.
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This blog is not predominantly a plant blog. I just don’t know enough to handle the plants. So may I suggest In Defense of Plants as an excellent corrective?


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