Posts Tagged 'books'

P. domesticus

Passer domesticusMost overhanging stoplights in the city are supported by these t-shaped structures, and most seem to have a House Sparrow nest on each end. (And everybody knows it: we once watched a crow poking its bill into a couple of them, to see if there was anything to eat inside.)

Passer domesticus: the House Sparrow’s affinity for human domesticity, including our food and our engineering, is built right into the species’ binomial. Here is a perfect example of a synanthrope, an animal that benefits from its relationship to us.

Synanthrope is a new word for me; I learned it in Jennifer Ackerman The Genius of Birds in a chapter called “Sparrowville,” from which I glean some of my sparrow IQ. I also recently wrote this on the great Sparrow Wars of the 1870s for JSTOR, digging into citations in that vast archive I get to play around in.

Initially introduced to the US in the 1850s, in Brooklyn (first at the Brooklyn Institute; then at Green-Wood Cemetery) and then other cities, the House Sparrow rapidly spread across North America. And beyond: today it’s found on all the continents, excluding Antarctica (but for how long?). This is one remarkably adaptable species, smart, aggressive, and open to novelty, innovation. And it has changed, evolved, as it has spread, making for yet another case study of evolution in human-time. Today, there are more than half a billion of them on Earth. It’s the epitome of an invasive species, negatively affecting other bird species profoundly.

Curiously, however, in its native England, “English Sparrow” numbers have plummeted drastically for unknown reasons in the last quarter century; in two recent trips to England, I saw only a lone pair, a strange experience considering how omnipresent they are here. Actually, numbers around the world have dropped; all birds, even the most adaptable, are suffering from our wanton degradation of the planet’s life systems.Passer domesticusHere’s a particularly boldly patterned male, with chestnut nape and large black bib. They start singing around here after the American Robin who greets the fore-dawn.

The Genius of Birds

unnamed-1Birds can see more of the light spectrum than we can; they can re-generate their hearing while we lose ours as we age; some of them have acute senses of smell that helps them find food, and home.

Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a synopsis of recent scientific discoveries about birds. If you are not up to date on the topic, at least as it has filtered into popular consciousness, prepare to be blown away by what she presents. So much detail has been discovered about avian cognition and intelligence in recent years that many of the old beliefs about birds have been utterly stood on their head. “Bird brain” is no longer a slur, it has become instead a mark of the ignorance of the person who uses the expression.

Ackerman discusses brain development, memory, navigation (both spatial and temporal ingenuity), song acquisition (it’s much like human speech acquisition), aesthetic aptitude, and adaptive genius. Just as an example: nest-building was long considered instinctual; it is that, but it also requires “learning and memory, experience, decision making, coordination, and collaboration.[…] It’s work that requires a suite of decisions about location, materials, and construction itself.”Turdus migratoriusAs a commonplace example, here’s an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) gathering a mouthful of nesting material under the tree the nest is in. Robins also use mud to help cement their structures of natural and unnatural materials.Turdus migratorius

While some of us believe in the study of life for its own revelations, others demand what is in it for them. Studying birds of course turns out to tell us a lot about ourselves. For something revolutionary is going on, or should be going on, in our consciousnesses: we’re learning that human beings are animals on this planet, too, intimately connected through the long chain of genetics and evolution. This is very much one of the points of Carl Safina’s magisterial book Beyond Words.Troglodytes aedonThis House Wren was proclaiming his territorial sway over the neighborhood of the Native Flora Garden recently. This is a rather small bird, but it sure is loud. His singing is fueled by testosterone, and the act of singing releases dopamine (more so in the spring) and opiates (more so in the fall). It’s long been a sneaking suspicion of mine that, while song certainly has its instrumental purpose, the birds do indeed enjoy it.

There were a couple of surprising editorial bloopers in Ackerman’s book, and one comment about NYC that was as out-dated as it was dubious to begin with. Editing, alas, gets little attention even at major publishers (Penguin in this case). The striking Scrub Jay on the cover is by Eunike Nugroho, who also did the Great Tit on the back. The internal illustrations, by another artist, are less eye-popping.

Many Forests Gone

UnknownEric Rutkow’s American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation is a history of America’s woodlands. It is therefore a history of loss: the great forests that once stretched from the Atlantic to beyond the Mississippi were certainly touched in part by native Americans, who burned for deer parks and plots for seasonal plantings, but it was annihilated in ruthless, regimental progression by the arriving Europeans. The primitive peoples of Europe who came to set their rather ironically named plantations here feared dense woodlands, the abode, it seems, of Satan. And yet they coveted them, too. The Pilgrims get all the attention, but a colonial project is always also about resource-extraction: an early flurry of interest in sassafras because it was believed to cure syphilis, but mainly tall white pines for ship masts ~ Britain was long tapped-out of mast wood and depended on the Baltics for lesser wood than New World’s. No ruling the seas without wood.

It was a wood-based culture for a long time. Even into Levittown, wood was in most everything, although people often didn’t realize it. The logging industries sliced their way through the Northeast, then the Great Lakes, then the South, and finally the Pacific Northwest. Introduced disease took care of the elms and the chestnuts.

This book is organized into many sections, entirely too many to turn into anecdote here. Here’s one,though: wood pulp paper. Newspapers actually became cheaper in the 2nd half of the 19th century because of the transition from rag paper to wood paper, marking the rise of yellow journalism (ancestry of the tabloids and television’s excremental effluvia, currently piling the Trump high and deep). It’s a telling example of how technology transforms society.

Rutkow has some happier tales, victories against complete devastation — of, for instance, the redwoods, and the saving of the Bristlecone Pines — so I guess we should be satisfied with those peanuts. (Peanuts, by the way, were about the only thing that would grow once the yellow pine forests were scalped.) Not to suggest the remaining redwoods are peanuts, but we only have scraps now, and I for one am not satisfied with just scraps.

Whalers, Ho!

During the First World War, whale oil was used to make glycerin for explosives. The irony here is leviathan: huge numbers of whales were killed so that parts of them could be used to slaughter huge numbers of humans.

Other fats could be used for glycerin, but the British didn’t want to use these other edible oils because of the politics of war-time scarcity. Of course, whale oil was also eaten in the UK and across Europe, transformed into margarine. In the U.S., meanwhile, a federal effort to get Americans to eat whale during WWI was unsuccessful. Of course, by 1900, the heyday of the American whaling industry was over, out like the old sperm whale candles. But whale oils were still used in watches, sewing machines, and industrial lubricants (spermaceti oil was particular prized by the U.S. military). The British and the Norwegians dominated the early 20th century whaling industry. Factory ships took to the seas in the 1920s, peak years for slaughter. The Depression put a damper on things, but as the ’30s progressed, the killing expanded as Germany and Japan entered Antarctic waters.

Whales were turned into fertilizer, pet food, animal feed (for chickens, mink, and silver foxes), soap, and cosmetics. The things made out of whalebone (baleen), like corset stays, horsewhips, and back-scratchers, would eventually be phased out by fashion and petroleum’s child, plastic. At the end of the Second World War, as large parts of Europe and Asia were threatened with starvation, international organizations looked greedily to whales to provide fats and meat for the hungry.(One counter-attack: Disney’s Willie the singing whale of 1946, a Bambi of the ocean, who just wants to sing opera, but is blasted by a harpoon. I generally can’t stand Disney product, but in this case it seems to have formed a generation that grew up to “save the whales.”)

We Americans don’t have a tradition of eating whale. (I wrote about this in my other venue.) We just liked them because money could be made from them. Whale products are now illegal in the U.S., but since there was no tradition of killing whales for food outside of aboriginal populations (who were made an exception to the rule) in North America, the ban was no hardship for the great majority of us. Those are the easiest bans of all. The nations that do go against the world-trend of not eating whale — Norway, Iceland, Faroes, Japan, etc. — maintain their defiance.

I have of late been reading D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. It is a big book, deeply researched, about the personalities, politics, and bureaucracies of whale research and science’s often entirely too close relationship with industry. I thought reading this would be a chore, but it is in fact hard to put down.

One particularly intriguing section details how American mammalogists took a leaf from the ornithologists who’d fought to save birds from being eradicated by hunters, the fashion industry, and even the state, which paid bounties on pest species. There was an interesting sense of pessimism amongst mammalogists in the Teens and Twenties. Looking back on the great extinctions of the end of the Pleistocene, they thought mammals were on their way out. (A century later, they’d be sickened at the devastation since). Disturbing statistics from the Antarctic whale fishery only added to the gloom.

Burnett’s earlier book, Trying Levianthan, is about a curious 1818 New York legal decision that firmly declared whales to be fish. The case was fought over taxes, but it was part of a larger debate between the new field of taxonomy and common sense, which is sometimes profoundly overrated. The jury came in on the side of biblical truth, evidence be damned, and as late as 1851, Melville’s Ishmael was sure as Jonah that whales were fish, too. Did I say “as late as”? 75 years later, the Jonasistas were going strong at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, which is usually remembered as the “monkey trial” but also very much concerned with the evolution of whales, the emergence of mammals, and the return of some of them to the sea.


HumboldtAcross the street from the southeastern corner of the Museum of Natural History is the Naturalists’ Gate to Central Park. Besides it is this massive bust of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the great German explorer, naturalist, and geographer. The bronze was unveiled on the 100th anniversary of his birth as part of the world-wide celebrations of his life and achievements, for he was then probably the best known scientist of his day. He was actually born before word “scientist” was even coined and in many ways he was actually the  last natural historian.

Charles Darwin, who would eclipse Humboldt in fame, was an avid follower. He took the multiple volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on board HMS Beagle. It was a small ship, and Darwin had to ask the Captain’s permission to bring the extra volumes. Humboldt? But of course. Darwin also bought Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Charles Lyell was also very much influenced by Humboldt. Darwin’s reading material were lights to the fuse of his thinking. (I unlock three original pieces of Darwin’s writing in this Jstor Daily piece.)
UnknownHumboldt himself was influenced by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, whose proto-evolutionary views Humboldt and Goethe devoured in the 1790s. All these connections, and others to Bolivar, Thoreau, Perkins, Muir, Haeckel, are nicely elucidated in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.

In high school I wrote a report about Humboldt, so I’ve long known something about him. (In fact, I can’t remember any other papers I wrote in college or graduate school.)

Wulf makes a bold argument that Humboldt, who has largely been forgotten in the English-speaking world, is the founder of our modern environmental sense of the world as an interconnected web of life. (The world ecology, from oecologie, was coined by the Humboldt-inspired Haeckel from the Greek for housekeeping.) In addition to all his other observations about South America, Humboldt noted the effects of deforestation and argued that humans influenced the climate. He was a polymath, his politics were in the right place, and he insisted on the unity of imagination and science (the Romantics, who downplayed the science, ran with him on the poetry side). Science, of course, has become so specialized that it’s hard for any one person to grasp it all today. We rely on popularizing writers to decipher the jargon of the journals. Wulf’s history is wonderfully readable.

By the way, when Darwin finally met his hero, he hardly got a word in edgewise. Humboldt was famous for talking a blue, no, an ultraviolet, streak. The Kosmos, as he named his culminating work, was bursting out of his head, evidently all the time (he seems tireless: at 60 his was charging around Siberia).

Cosmos is from the Greek for order and beauty ~ that is, the universe, as we perceive it.

The Narrowest Edge

“We so easily settle for the diminished world around us, a world that, in terms of the richness and abundance of plant and animal life, may be a mere 10 percent of what once was. Unaware of what we have lost, we can’t imagine what we might restore, and instead, we argue over how many of the scraps we might still take.”TheNarrowEdge

When M and I were walking along the Northumberland coast last June, we came across a flimsy barrier cutting across the beach at Long Nanny. It was the beginning of nesting season and the beach was closed. We were wondering how to get around to the other side when a ranger emerged from the dunes. She told us we could actually pass right along the water’s edge. She also offered us a scope view of the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) and Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) nesting there. The Little Tern in particular is now rare, and needs to be protected from blundering beach-goers, unleashed dogs, ATVs and other vehicles, as well as egg stealers (a rather British pathology).

Fencing and explanatory signs in New Jersey, Deborah Cramer tells us, are fairly effective, but those who heed the barriers the least are joggers and dog walkers. (I’m not surprised: narcissism seems to run high in these cohorts: their “rights,” as they will argue, trump all others.) On our coast, both the beach-nesting Piping Plover and long-distance Red Knot feeding on beaches are in dire straits. Their remarkable evolutionary adoptions aren’t much of a match for the rapid disruptions we cause.

Cramer, quoted at the head, is author of The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey. The bird is the Red Knot, Calidris canutus, specifically the rufa lineage which migrates along the Eastern shore of the U.S., one of six lineages for the species. The “ancient crab” is the Horseshoe, which actually isn’t a crab at all, but rather akin to spiders and mites. Its ancestors go back nearly half a billion years, marking it one of the great survivors in a world in which 99.9% of all life forms no longer exist anymore. Species come and species go, nothing new there, but what is new is the human cause of all these extinctions and the radical simplification of the world. We’re supposed to be the moral animals, after all.

This is a wide-ranging book, like C. canutus rufa itself, from Tierra del Fuego to Arctic Canada, with stops along the way. Yes, it concentrates on one bird doing badly in the Antropocene, but there are so many ramifications here. Horseshoe Crabs were once turned into fertilizer by the millions, now they’re chopped up for bait and bled for medicine (few people realize that drugs and vaccines, IVs, pacemakers, stents, catheters, etc. are tested for bacteria with an extract made from the blue blood of Horseshoe Crabs: if you’ve been in a hospital since 1985, you can thank the Horseshoes for making sure you left alive.)

The radical transformation of the Arctic is another theme here. Red Knots and many other birds nest in the far north, where the radical heating is creating havoc in all sorts of ways: less nutritious food for seabirds, far too many mosquitos for nestlings, Polar Bears ravaging nesting areas because they can’t find enough ice and hence seals to eat. These are only some of the factors; the complicated intersections of all these things, the wonder of the world, are fraying and shredding in endless ways now. We’re simplifying these webs and cascades of life to an alarming degree. Nothing good is going to come of it, and horrors like species-jumping viruses are already roaring out of the rents and tears.

Cramer tries to be optimistic, but the weight of it all is too much for that. Still, we live, we read: this is very much worth reading if you, like me, think knowledge is important, however impotent.

Owls In Culture

athenaDid you know Florence Nightingale had a pet Little Owl? She rescued it and named it Athena, after the Greek goddess, who was ssociated with owls (so much so that the binomial for this European species is Athene noctua). When Nightingale — the first person named after the English version of Firenza, by the way, where she was born; her sister’s middle name was the less fortunate Parthenope — had to go off to become famous during the Crimean War, she left Athena to fend for herself (?) in the family attic. Florence and others thought the bird would feast on the mice infestation there. But it was so tame it starved to death, knowing only that spindly pale creatures entirely overdressed in non-feathers fed it regularly by hand. A moral for keeping wild things wild, even if they would otherwise die?

I gleaned this anecdote (but added the moral) from Desmond Morris’s Owl, one of the Animal series by Reaktion Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the U.S.), which I found recently at the Strand. The picture above is from the book: Athena was stuffed and is on display at the Nightingale Museum in London. I enjoyed reading this book on Superb Owl Sunday.

I’ve read about half a dozen of the Animal series. Each book concerns itself with a different species. They’re more about the human culture of animals, in art, mythology, medical quackery (eating owl eggs to cure drunkeness, for instance) and so on, not so much the natural history of the animals themselves. Owl has, however, a quite good summery of natural history at the later end of the book. With a different writer for each book, they’re uneven productions, but certainly worth a look. The illustrations are small but give a good sense of being curated in the best sense. There’s a Botanical series now as well, but I haven’t seen any of them.Chauvet Morris, who came to fame with the The Naked Ape in the late 1960s, starts his short survey with the typically large-eyed oval face of owls, which look surprising human-like, at least for birds. The owl scraped into the wall in France’s Chauvet cave 30,000 years ago, pictured above, is his first example of a prehistoric owl.

Because they’re nocturnal and make some wonderfully strange sounds, owls have long been assigned ambivalent meanings: they are witchy, harbingers or messengers of death or bad luck, but sometimes also good guys, the wise old owl. (In fact, while owls are excellent nocturnal hunters, and have amazing hearing, with a big chunk of brain power devoted to it, corvids are wiser if you consider smarts to be about problem-solving.) Reading a litany of these associations from around the world, and the quack uses of owls, it’s a wonder that any owls have survived our narcissism. Ah, well, another species to escape, somewhat, our primitive grasping for significance and meaning. elk owlThis is a tee-shirt of mine, btw, a gift. I call it the Elk Owl.


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