Posts Tagged 'books'

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.

The Fate of Us?

Environmentalist eschatology has it that the world is ending. Nature? I think not. The human world as we’ve known it, undoubtedly — that has been the pattern for as long as there have been humans; it’s just a question of timing. But the planet will abide. Much simplified and profoundly poisoned by humans, true, but the Earth will keep spinning, life will keep living, however much we’ve knee-capped it. One day, all this will just be a toxic layer in the geological strata. The HS — for Homo sapiens — Line?

It’s we who are the worry. Among ourselves, anyway. Ain’t nobody going to miss us when we’re gone.

Climate instability, global networks of trade, exotic diseases sparked at the ever expanding human/wilderness frontier. These three horsemen go together.. and have done so for some time now. This is the thought that inevitably bubbles up while reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of Empire. “The precise conjuncture of environmental damage, political disintegration, and religious ferment decided the final sequence of Rome’s demise.”

As we race towards our own climatic fate, much of historiography is now climatological. There was, for instance, a Roman climate optimum (200 BC – 150 AD), when the glory of Rome was something to write home about. It was warm and wet — only August didn’t see rain, unlike now when the Mediterranean climate is essentially dry through the whole summer. (Great for tourists, more problematic for food-production.) Remember marveling at the idea of North Africa being the granary of empire? Times were good (-ish, it depended where you lived and who you were, of course).

Then came three centuries of climate transition, becoming dryer and dryer. This transitional era saw two devastating plagues (165 AD, probably smallpox — hey, anti-vaxxers, this one’s for you, you selfish fuckers) and (249-262 AD, possibly something Ebola-like). Recoveries of sorts were made, but there was no going back; the borders were busted, the economy in decline, the barracks emperors a dime a dozen to the last trump.

Finally (for Rome) the one-two of little ice age (450-700AD ) and the Justiniaic Plague (541-543 AD, then reoccurring for 2 more centuries). This last seems to have been humanity’s first pandemic. Mortality may have been as much as half the population of the Roman empire–in Constantinople they say 5000 died a day. This was plague of the plague, the same bacillus (Yersinia pestis) as the medieval Black Death.

Harper touches lightly on the similarities between that decline and fall and ours — which of course we can’t know beforehand, but…. He doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. History speaks for itself. Climate disruption, political instability, untold suffering, massive migration, dictators promising walls and fantasies of ethno-racial nativism. I read history in light of the present. How will our times be remembered?

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably need some BBs of H.


Hornaday and Gannett’s Map Illustrating the Extermination of the American Bison, 1889. (A digital version here.) They were on the eastern side of the Appalachian chain in the colonial period.One of the sheets of Harold Fisk’s Ancient Courses [of the] Mississippi Meander Belt, 1944. (More detail here.) 6000 years of sinuous riverine movement. That beast’ll return, by the way, there’s no stopping it. The epic floods this year are only a forecast of things to come as outdated methods of control and old levees are hit with the reality of radical weather. So too the vicious politics: in the great flood of 1927, they saved New Orleans by drowning Greenville. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were displaced; 50% of the Delta population fled north within a year; it was ethnic cleansing by flood control.

Both of these were found in A History of America in 100 Maps, by Susan Schulten.

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.

More Whitman

“Nature marches in procession, in sections, like the corps of an army. All have done much for me, and still do. But for the last two days it has been the great wild bee, the humble-bee, or “bumble,” as the children call him. As I walk, or hobble*, from the farm-house down to the creek, I traverse the before-mention’d lane, fenced by old rails, with many splits, splinters, breaks, holes, &c, the choice habitat of those crooning, hairy insects. Up and down and by and between these rails, they swarm and dart and fly in countless myriads. As I wend slowly along, I am often accompanied with a moving cloud of them. They play a leading part in my morning, midday or sunset rambles, and often dominate the landscape in a way I never before thought of—fill the long lane, not by scores or hundreds only, but by thousands. Large and vivacious and swift, with wonderful momentum and a loud swelling perpetual hum, varied now and then by something almost like a shriek, they dart to and fro, in rapid flashes, chasing each other, and (little things as they are,) conveying to me a new and pronounc’d sense of strength, beauty, vitality and movement. Are they in their mating season? or what is the meaning of this plenitude, swiftness, eagerness, display? As I walk’d, I thought I was follow’d by a particular swarm, but upon observation I saw that it was a rapid succession of changing swarms, one after another.” ~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days. More Whitman in these e-leaves.

*After a paralytic stroke in 1873.

Whitman also notes the sounds of the grasshoppers, cicadas, katydids, and crickets. It was, after all, a world without the chemical warfare of herbicides/insecticides/fungicides, a world without hydrocarbon-based industrial farming. Insect life was unimaginably rich in comparison to the deserts we’ve made since.

People were proving their modern mettle, though: the last mass Passenger Pigeon hunts were in the 1870s and 1880s. The last great Bison slaughters were in the early 1870s.

In just the last couple days in the Republican assault on America:

Administrator in charge to hurting the poor and disabled is funneling taxpayer money to her GOP cronies.

EPA panel of industry shills advocating for more air pollution.

The militarized budget.

The nominee to head the Department of Interior works for poisoners.

White House foxes in charge of ethical chickens.

Garbage President of the white nationalists mocks asylum-seekers.

The unending lies of Donald Trump.

(Vicious and moronic son Don Don seems to have been unaware that Pulitzer Prizes have been granted to fiction for a century now.)

A Cedar Plum

“DID you ever chance to hear the midnight flight of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten. A friend called me up just after 12 last night to mark the peculiar noise of unusually immense flocks migrating north (rather late this year.) In the silence, shadow and delicious odor of the hour, (the natural perfume belonging to the night alone,) I thought it rare music. You could hear the characteristic motion—once or twice “the rush of mighty wings,” but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out—sometimes quite near—with continual calls and chirps, and some song-notes. It all lasted from 12 till after 2. Once in a while the species was plainly distinguishable; I could make out the bobolink, tanager, Wilson’s thrush, white-crown’d sparrow, and occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.”

~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days.

I was told recently that this book is hard to find in print, but here are two versions: the Library of America Whitman: Poetry and Prose includes it, and what patriot is without a copy of this volume? Also, Melville House has a handsome paperback edition of Specimen Days and Collect in its Neversink Library.

The name of this fascinating MH series comes from this passage in Melville’s White Jacket: “I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink. Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book- stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubt-less contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”

Both Whitman and Melville celebrate their bicentennial birthdays this year. Backyard & Beyond is on the case(s).


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