Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Dinosaurs Past and Present

What do we know about dinosaurs now and, perhaps more interestingly, how do we know these things? Michael J. Benton lays it out in Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology . Origins, taxonomy, intelligence, reproduction, diet, locomotion, and, of course, the cause(s) of extinction are topics covered here.

Surely the most notable and surprising thing in our understanding of dinosaurs in the last couple of decades has been the discovery of dinosaur feathers. Colored feathers! (Good gravy, there were ginger dinosaurs!) With the added brain-expander that these feathered creatures were not fliers. They were using feathers for insulation and/or sexual attraction before feathers for flight.

Those scaly toes, those beaks! Most of the dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago. But not all of them.
Birds in Winter: Surviving the Most Challenging Season by Roger F. Pasquier is a compendium of research. From migration to toughing it out, our feathered dinosaurs are no slouches when it comes to the cold. (The absence of cold, on the other hand, is already telling in our warming planet, especially for sea birds who depend on cold currents that enrich the seas at the base of their food chain.) There is no no one size fits all to this, by the way. The great takeaway from this relentless collection of natural history observations —there are thirty pages of bibliography — is that variety is all.

Just one example: American Kestrels cache food throughout the year. In the non-breeding season, they’ll often store food for later in the day, and sometimes even the next day. Vertebrate prey can obviously hold up longer in the cold. Our breeding pair seemed to store food overnight. I’ve seen no winter caching myself. Research suggests that the birds will eat before the long cold night.

And this just in: colorful bird eggs, not something seen in reptiles, are another inheritance from dinosaurs.

Against the Grain

“The founding of the earliest agrarian societies and states in Mesopotamia occurred in the latest five percent of our history as a species on this planet. […] Measured by the roughly 200,000-year span of our species, then, the Anthropocene began only a few minutes ago.”

And look what we don’t that tiny bit of our time here on Earth!

If you’re like me, you learned that the first states, and hence civilization, arose with agriculture and sedentary lifestyles (sedentism) in early city-states. But we now know that agriculture and sedentism predated all this by a couple thousand years.

James C. Scott’s Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is one of those books that overturns stale thinking and makes you look afresh at the world we’ve made. Things like the reluctance, until quite recently, of the great majority of the world’s population (call them barbarians, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, peasants, etc.) to be sucked into cities/states. Cities were places of slavery, disease, and simplification. Nomadic people were far healthier than urbanites, until quite recently. The state is based on the domestication of fire, captives, livestock, plants, and women.

And from a wide range of plant and animal food, we’ve been whittled down to a handful of grains, hard little nubbins that are easy to count, tax, and control.

The book begins with this gut-punch quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: “Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing… The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires; the integration into a political system, that is to say, of considerable number of individuals… into a hierarchy of castes and classes….It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Our oldest story is Gilgamesh. It is not insignificance that the killing of the forest guardian Humbaba (Huwawa) precedes the cutting down of the cedars.

A Reading List

I’m just catching up to the Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America by Jeffrey Glassberg. Glassberg is an old butterfly hand, who’s written a couple of other guidebooks to the subject. (Never enough guidebooks!) He takes a firm stand against amateur netters and collectors (i.e. killers), commercially raised butterflies, and butterfly releases at weddings (I didn’t know this was a thing). This is a photo-based guide with a lot of rarities who show up in the LRGV (took me a second to track this down: Lower Rio Grande Valley, which is, of course, essentially Mexico). A lot of the very similar species are next to each other, which is of course helpful. I’d rank it pretty darn good, so let’s see if the next butterfly season presents me some puzzlers to solve with this book.

Princeton University Press has really gone in hard for the field guide market. A brand new addition is the Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America. They profile over 400 fly species, mostly using museum specimens with some photos of live insects in situ. This is a case where drawings might have worked better, but that would have taken a monumental effort. As in many examples of the varied world of Insecta, some species can’t be identified beyond genus level without the body in hand. Still, a valuable addition to the shelf, not least for telling us how many fly species are out there doing pollination.

Fraud in the Lab by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, translated by Nicholas Elliot, is quite important. This should be read by everybody, but especially people in the science communication business, whose job it is to translate scientific discoveries from the arcana of the literature to every-day language. Media hype over scientific discoveries that may be powered by ambition, prestige, and/or plain old greed are an awful combo. Was interested to see that Charles Baggage’s 1830 Reflections on the Decline of Science in England had a taxonomy of scientific fraud that still holds up.

On the to-do list:

Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby Dick by Richard J. King. King’s two other books suggest this one will be fun.

Tarka The Otter, by Henry Williamson, coming in April. First published in 1927 and never made into Disney codswallop because it makes Watership Down look like a bunny story. It’s really a re-telling of the First World War with an otter and a hunting dog for veteran Henry Williamson and the Hun. Just add a T to Hun and you get hunt: otter hunting used to be a thing in the UK. From 1900-1950, some 200 a year were killed in sanctioned hunts; as these are official numbers, this is probably an undercount. The population was halved during the 1960s. Only about 8 a year were hunted into the early 1970s, before the wretched practice was banned. Fox hunting, meanwhile, that other orgy of upper class sadism, was finally banned in 2002 (Scotland) and 2004 (England and Wales); it’s still legal in Northern Ireland, evidently.

What’s on your natural history to-read list?

All my book notices and/or reviews are found here.

Based on DNA evidence, the Great Auk was in no danger of extinction before humans started slaughtering them. How very Megafaunal.


Alan F. Poole’s Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor

In my half century life, there has been a great recovery of Osprey populations after ruthless persecution and even more ruthless chemical warfare. Luckily, this long-distant migratory bird is highly adaptable. They readily take to artificial nesting spots: 3 of 5 pairs in North America nest on human-made structures, many deliberately placed for them.

Pandion haliaetus is found around the world in four subspecies. The largest concentration of these fish hawks is found (in breeding season) in the Chesapeake Bay region. Driving across the Potomac River Bridge, for instance, is remarkable for sightings of flying birds, and nesting sites. Pandion haliaetus carolinensis is the subspecies we’re familiar with in North America; genetic evidence suggests the birds spread out around the world from North America during the Pleistocene.

Curiously only the Australian/New Guinea population is a southern hemisphere breeder. Others winter in the southern hemisphere (South America, Africa, India, SE Asia) but don’t breed there. Interestingly, not so much is known about the Japanese population. The cover photo is of one of the least populous subspecies, P. h. ridgewayi, found in Cuba and the coast of Belize.

Hazards abound. Fish farmers in winter months take a toll. The birds are a bellwether for toxins; our chemical civilization continuously releases new poisons into the ecosystem, and tens of thousands of the old ones pre-date testing requirements. Eastern Europeans still shoot them; the generally good news on recovery from the UK (over a million people have visited an osprey nest site in Scotland since 1959), France, Germany, and Scandinavia is not seen in Poland and nearby countries. The Mediterranean crossing during migration still bristles with guns.

Osprey’s have 8-9 feet of intestine. Fish make up 99% of their diet. They’ll eat almost any fresh or salt water fish, but particularly like the species that school in shallow waters.

About half of each year’s young don’t make their first birthday. For those that do make it, they usually take an extra year in their wintering areas before returning north to breed. So a bird born this year won’t return until 2021. Adults, of course, return every year, often unerringly to the same nest site. Mates spend the winter apart. Their winter grounds are often very contained, just a few square miles. The trip back north in early spring is faster than the trip south, when they often stop to rest up and eat. (Females in particular are pretty weak after breeding season.) Cuba is the route south of the majority of birds in the east.

Alan F. Poole has spent years studying these birds. He writes a good book. Pictures from a banding I helped out at in 2010.
Another in 2012.
And again.

In 2016, a pair of Osprey nested on a light tower at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, sorta-kinda in sight of my apartment. There were young, but no repeat performance.

Trump reminds us how fragile such victories as the Osprey recovery. An authoritarian party of profiteers-in-death can sweep away the good works of the past. He’s trying to gut science from the EPA and other parts of government at the behest of the plutes, polluters, and future-killers. The Republicans are the party of death for humans, animals, and planet. In a very important action this week, the rape-minded Injustice, B. Kavanaugh, signaled his Federalist Society mission loudly and clearly: to strip the ability of federal agencies to regulate.


Our week of books continues with Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King.

This is a collective biography of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Deloria, who took on the “scientific” racists, eugenicists, ethnocentrists, and anti-immigrant forces of a century ago. It is a fascinating story. They helped to transform how we think about race and sex, but they didn’t kill the reigning monsters off. This has been made all too clear in the excrement-personality, elected by a minority of America, to the Presidency. Trump has expressed eugenicist thinking, supported white nationalists and nazis, and is a misogynist of the first rank.

I’m a pretty close student of that era, but I was surprised to discover that the Married Women’s Act of 1922 stripped citizenship from American women who married non-white foreign men. Paging Stephen Miller, who, of course, would not have been considered white in the 1920s because he’s Jewish. (One imagines the nazis clustering around him as he tries to get credit for concentration camps, baby-kidnapping, and walls at the border: “Guys, we did it!” “What do you mean ‘we,’ Stevie?”)

As King reminds us, the original Nazis were careful observers of the American system of authoritarian apartheid. They modeled their race laws on America, substituting Jews for African Americans. The best-selling eugenicist Madison Grant, the originator of the “Great Replacement” myth in The Passing of A Great Race, and the man who exhibited an African at the Bronx Zoo’s earlier incarnation, was one of Hitler’s heroes. (See also Henry Ford.) The Germans made sure to catch up on the eugenics congresses hosted by Grant’s institutional base, the American Museum of Natural History, whose president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another leading eugenicist, and one of Boas’s detractors.

The American program of sterilizing “morons,” sanctified by a 1927 Supreme Court decision based on lies about the women at the heart of the case, was another model for the Nazis. Lies and bogus science were, in fact the basis of all this horror.

There used to be an attic at AMNH filled with the shelves of busts of the dozens of supposed “races” of humans, taking Johann Blumenbach’s 1777 notion of five races — American (i.e Arctic), Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian — to even more outlandish levels of absurdity. “Caucasian” is the only one of Blumebbach’s terms to have survived. Grant, by the way, changed the name of his top race from “Teutons” to “Nordics” once the U.S was in WWI: we couldn’t have the best race raping Belgians, now, could we?

The cranky, crusty Boas died in 1942. His reputation went south as successive generations of anthropologists took him to task for various things. The “critical studies” crew has been even more critical in the post-modernist, post-colonial era. The academy, after all, works best by eating its antecedents. (King’s second epigraph is from Max Planck, who said science progresses because the opponents of the new eventually die off.) But King makes a very good argument that Boas and Co. are worth revisiting in our ugly times.

Meanwhile, don’t take any b.s. from racist old Uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table tonight. Happy holidays to you!


Oh, the French! Everybody knows Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster, but who knew Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a trained cormorant he would walk on a leash? “Tom” “supposedly” drank absinthe but met his (it’s hard to sex them) demise when a hunter shot him. Hunters being hunters…

Richard King’s The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History examines the cormorant, or rather multiple species of them. One species, the Spectacled, has been extinct since the 19th century, with only a few skins and bones left over; there was no image of it from life. The Chatham Shag is critically endangered. The Bank Cormorant and Pitt Shag are endangered. Ten more species are vulnerable. Four are threatened.

In the West, they birds are generally disparaged, especially by sports fishers and aquaculture industries, who can not abide competition, nor hearing about their own culpability in depleting fish stocks. They will sometimes illegally slaughter the birds to show who is boss. But mostly they depend on the feds and the states to manage, that is, kill, cormorants. It’s a little know fact that even before Trump’s thugs came in, the federal Wildlife Services program existed to kill wildlife for special interests, including recreational fishing. King cites estimates that 15-31% of the Double-crested Cormorant population had been killed legally in the seven years before his book was published (2013). Even nature advocacy groups get in on it, bemoaning the power of cormorant guano to threaten habitat for prettier birds on isolated rookeries. In Mississippi, the farmed catfish industry built ponds in the middle of the cormorant migration route, so now they blame the birds for depredating “their” fish.

Cormorants have a black reputation that goes way back: they are evil, gluttonous beasts, sea ravens. No charismatic cuteness here, but snake-like necks, Gothic wings spread. Milton called Satan a cormorant. In the 19th century, a “cormorancy” was another name for plutocracy. It’s true, these birds can be quite visible when they swallow large fish, and we hominids are particularly liable to be by influenced, even made hysterical, by spectacle. (And also by color-coding?)

In the East, cormorants, much like dragons, aren’t considered evil. But they were for a long time exploited as fishers, with rings around their necks so they couldn’t swallow their catches. In Japan, the state subsidizes this traditional fishery as kind of heritage show.

This is a good, deep look at the interface of humans and animals. As usual, the animals — as if we weren’t animals ourselves — get the short end.

“We are shooting the coal mine canary. We are poisoning the messenger. We are taking a pickax to the tip of the iceberg because this is easiest to reach,” writes King. Not the over-fishing by humans, the pollution, the habitat destruction, the dams on rivers, the climate change. King notes that he doesn’t quote many coastal fishermen in his book: they look for the birds, who tell them where the fish are. Lots of birds equal lots of fish. “It’s not smart to shoot your indicators,” says one.

Double-crested, the main species around here, showing the double crests of breeding plumage finery. And, of course, those eyes!

For those still wondering what the impeachment is all about, Walter Schaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, explains.

The Incredible Egg

Tim Birkhead’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg is a perfect thing in and of itself. This a short but intense look at what we know and don’t know about bird eggs. We know an awful lot because of hens and the billions of chicken eggs that are produced every year around the world. Yet there is still much that is not known about eggs. Especially those produced by the many other species of birds out there.

Here’s something that was cleared up for me. In temperate zones, the low ambient temperatures can keep eggs in suspended animation for two or more weeks. Birds generally only lay one egg a day, and some clutches have as many as ten eggs. Incubation doesn’t have to start until they’re all in the nest.

And blue eggs? American Robins are famous for them, but this color is not uncommon among open-nest builders. They certainly seem very visible to predators. But this threat may be balanced against the blue part of the light spectrum being absorbed by the embryo, which reduces the duration of incubation and hence vulnerability to predation.

Also, what you may know about extremely pyriform guillemot eggs safely rolling around in a circle on a narrow cliff is wrong. This standard story is based on empty egg shells, the blown eggs once so feverishly collected around the world. (A few collectors still persist in threatening endangered birds, especially in the UK.)

Birkhead does the egg in vinegar trick too.
Chicken eggs from a Westchester Co. backyard.

It’s books all week here. Please don’t use Amazon, whose “fulfillment center” sweatshops are permanently maiming workers.The ruthless company has twice the national average of severe injuries on the job. Yesterday also saw another report on the exploitative conditions right here in NYC, in the Amazon sweatshop on Staten Island.

Degenerate Americans

Does the stereotypical boastfulness of Americans — da biggest & da bestest, by jimminy! — stem from a deep insecurity?

Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, by Lee Alan Dugatkin, is about the mammoth chip on the shoulder of the early European Americans. Their betters in France told them they were degenerate, puny, and sickly, because of North America itself. The cold and the damp here shrunk everything, animals wild and domestic, people native and come-ashores.

The world’s most renown naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon said so, over and over again in the dozens of volumes of his 36 volume Histoire Naturelle. The theory of New World degeneracy was spread further by the nasty Prussian clergyman Cornelius de Pauw, shilling for the Prussian ban on out-migration. Back in France, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, often referred to as the Abbe Raynal although he was always getting in hot water with the church, piled on. Even after Franklin had the Americans and Frenchmen at dinner together stand up, proving the Frogs were shrimps in comparison. Raynal was at that dinner.

The Englishman William Robertson’s monumental History of America (1777) ventured “the principal of life there seems to have been less active and vigorous.” Kant, Hegel, John Keats, even young Charles Darwin all followed Buffon’s lead. Meanwhile, on the side of evidence were Humboldt, Byron, and Mazzei, who wrote 14 volumes in defense of the New World after having introduced viniculture to Virginia.

Neither Buffon, de Pauw, or Raynal had ever seen North American in person. Buffon believed the reasons for American biological inferiority were climatological. The cold and damp made the natives childish and the Creoles, meaning Europeans born in the New World, degenerate to the same level. (Other than this wildly influential but baseless crotchet, Buffon was an impressive naturalist for his day; he accepted the fact of extinction, something Jefferson didn’t. Raynal was vocal in his anti-slavery sentiments. History is complicated.)

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a sustained argument against Buffon’s theory of degeneracy. He also thought a large moose who show Buffon up. But it would take more than that: most of the 19th century was about Americans trying to get over their inferiority complex in regard to Europe.

One of the most galling European charges about the Americas is that the birds here did not sing. Yes, you heard that right.

The all-singing all-dancing Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, put the only footnote in that whole corpus: taking de Pauw to task for claiming the dogs in America were mute.

All this Euro-trash nonsense may have made Americans overcompensate. The boosterism, ignorant jingoism, and fundamentalist bellicosity of “God’s country” now boils down to grunts of “We’re number one” — in the face of much statistical evidence to the contrary.

Our week of books continues.

Re: Wild

“We’re not just losing the wild world. We’re forgetting it. We’re no longer noticing it. We’ve lost the habit of looking and seeing and listening and hearing. We’re beginning to think it’s not really our business. We’re beginning to act as if it’s not there any more.”

I am preaching, as they say, to the converted. But we all know there are many out there who could use the good word. Simon Barnes’s Rewild Yourself: Making Nature More Visible in Our Lives is for them. it is short and to the point of breaking the terrible trend he describes (quote above) in his introduction.

While his dependence on the spells and magic metaphors tried my patience, I skipped his chapter epigraphs from C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. (If that’s what you have to do to hook the young ones, then “ok millennial.”)

Basically, Barnes has lessons for paying attention. One of his “spells” is getting some waterproof pants. It is an English book, after all, but his point about getting out there and watching, and sitting on your bum in the mizzle, is well taken.

We have the senses enough already, but we’ve muffled them. I’ve been leading dawn chorus listening tours for years now to encourage people to open up their city-shuttered ears. His chapter on peripheral vision is after my heart. Many of us are tunnel-visioned into our screens all day long. (As I began that last sentence, I glanced outside and saw a small flock of birds out one window, then the accipiter they were crowding.) Catching movement at the peripheries is nine-tenths of nature observation.

Writes Barnes, “Nature will be with you always. I remember being baffled by a survey that asked how often I went birdwatching. I don’t go birdwatching. I am birdwatching.”

Which reminds me of a better translation of Descartes famous cognito: not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am thinking, therefore I am.”

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

A month before the big gift-giving holiday, so I’m inaugurating a week of posts on books. Please don’t use Amazon; the obscenely profitable company looks like its escaped from paying even a single $ in federal taxes again this year. Even if he’s incontinent, Jeff Bezos does not need another (the 26th?) bathroom in his DC mansion. Try Indiebound if you don’t have a local bookstore.

Why Birds?

Why not mammals, asks Simon Barnes in The Meaning of Birds. He doesn’t use the example of dogs and cats, but these do illustrate our affinity for our fellow warm-blooded, lactating fur-balls. Of course, these are domesticated animals, tamed for precisely their human-philic characteristics. Wild mammals, which we nevertheless try to cute-ify and commodify, know better. They don’t want much to do with homicidal maniacs. Except for a few exceptions (and places), mammals are quite scarce to the eye. Cagey, elusive, nocturnal. (Did you know that the majority of mammal species, by far, are bats?)

Most birds, on the other wing, are diurnal. They’re found everywhere. They’re beautiful, sing marvelously, and fly, all extremely powerful attractions that have pulled us towards them for a very, very long time.

This is, in short, a book for the bird or nature skeptic in your life.

The forces of death — really, there’s no other way to describe them in 2019 — want to dump toxic dredging material in Jamaica Bay, a vital area of habitat in New York City. A bill before Governor Cuomo to extend the anti-dredging law awaits his signature. He must be waiting to see if the people can talk louder than money over the issue. Here’s more about the issues and the legislation, which has passed both houses in Albany.

I’ve cut and pasted this letter from Joshua Malbin on the nysbirds-L/ebirdnyc mailing lists for inspiration if you’d like to add your voice communicating to the governor. As always, personalizing such things is the best way to go.

“I am writing to urge you to sign S.4165/A.5767 into law. This important bill would extend permanently protections for Jamaica Bay against dumping hazardous dredged material that are currently set to expire in 2022.

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected bird sanctuaries in the Northeastern United States, and the bay itself is an ecological treasure all New Yorkers can enjoy. People fish in its waters year-round.

The constant threat from city, state and federal agencies to use the deep portions of Jamaica Bay as a garbage dump for contaminated sediment has long been one of the biggest threats to the future of the bay. While these threats started to appear decades ago, they have found new supporters as various dredging projects around the city have created a need to get rid of sediment that is often contaminated. In addition, the research that has more recently come to light highlights the amazing role that the deep portions of the bay play in supporting massive amounts of marine life that would cease to exist should they be filled in.

Please sign sign S.4165/A.5767.”

Incredible that we have to keep on doing this, right?


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