Posts Tagged 'books'

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?

Beech Nuts

The root of the word book is the same as that of the word beech.

The late poet C. D. Wright’s posthumously published Casting Deep Shade is an “amble inscribed to beeches and co.”

Appropriately, this book itself is a lovely thing. The unusual trifold cover makes it highly inappropriate for subway reading, but there are plenty of other places to read. (This reminds me that I see many less e-readers on the trains now than I did when they were first being touted. Another e-gimmick gone to dust and toxicity.) The text block within is thus bare naked, showing all the parts of the binder’s craft. The pages here become heartwood, a creamy heartwood. Only after reading the book for a while did I notice that the boards were covered on the inside with wood grain-textured paper.

Pictured: a weeping variety of Fagus sylvantica, the European beech, highly favored as an ornamental on these shores. Next to this weeper is a stand-up tall one, and the nuts and husks it has piled on the path. The foot of another below. All in Green-Wood, local kingdom of the the threatened beech.

Consider, if you will, the lobster

Andrew Selkirk, the inspiration for DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ate a lot of crawfish and spiny lobsters while marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands. When he returned to Scotland, he took up lobstering.

This is the kind of thing you learn in Richard J. King’s Lobster. This book is one of the Animal Series from Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago in this country. Each book tackles one animal, or, sometimes, several — since there may be more than one species of said animal. One taxonomist has tallied 248 species of lobster, for instance. Some are still being discovered. Each of the Animal books interweaves biology, history, and human culture with great illustrations. I wasn’t aware of the Dürer work above, for instance, and I’m pretty aware of Dürer.

I’ve found the series uneven. King’s a good writer, though, and knows his A-B-seas. I’m looking forward to his natural history of Moby Dick, officially released next week from Chicago.

The word lobster comes from the Latin for locust. Lobstermen call ’em bugs. I once found one on the rocks near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn Bridge Park (one park, two bridges). A ranger said it was probably swept down from Long Island Sound by the ferocious currents of the tidal strait we misnamed the East River. The Sound used to host a vibrant lobstering industry, but warmer waters, pollution and pesticides, and over-fishing put paid to that. Further north, however, in the Gulf of Maine, lobstering is going gangbusters, and is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries there is.

But for how long? We’ve seen this movie before, many times.

Some lobster species have extraordinary larval forms. They are thin, transparent, all legs. This was news to me. I thought they were just smaller lobsters…. But then crustaceans are most wondrous and curious creatures. Remember that Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, which are basically crabs who glue themselves to a substrate and batten down the hatches when the tide runs out.

Vocabulary builder: what’s the opposite of anthropomorphizing, the giving of human characteristics to animals? What about when you give humans animal characteristics? King uses theriomorphizing, from theriomorphic, meaning a deity in animal form.

In Beringia

“We polar whales are a quiet inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace… I write on behalf of my butchered and dying species. I appeal to the friends of the whole race of whales. Must we be murdered in cold blood? Must our race become extinct?” An editorial in The Friend, October 15, 1850. This Honolulu-based paper was a temperance publication aimed at sailors.

I found this plaintive call in Bathsheba Demuth’s fine book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. The cetaceanophile editorial fell on ears stopped up with the desire for wealth and, further down the line, wages. Bowhead whalers reduced the population of this large and slowly maturing whale substantially before the markets for them crashed. Balaena mysticetus are the longest-lived mammals, reaching an astonishing two centuries in age. But they were killed and flensed all the same. Until kerosene made whale oil redundant and thin strips of rubberized spring steel replaced baleen in umbrellas and corsets. Demuth marks 1908 as the year a baleen harvester couldn’t sell his once highly demanded stock, which had also been used also in the making of whips, caps, hats, suspenders, canes, fishing rods, diving rods, tongue scrapers, pen holders, paper folders and cutters (“bone knives”), shoe horns….

But step back for an instant. By the 1880s, whalers knew their prey had become elusive, but they credited that to the intelligence of the whales themselves. That was true, to an extent. The whales did learn to avoid the killing machines, which took young and old, nursing mothers and children, and to move further north. But the reason there were fewer whales was much simpler than the canniness of the prey: it was because the industry was killing thousands of them every year. Humans will delude themselves in all sorts of ways to avoid their culpability.

After it became unprofitable to kill bowheads, the walruses were next. When they were tapped out, the foxes. Demuth chronicles the flows of energy in Beringia, where fifty miles separate the Eurasian landmass from the North American. In ice ages past, with the water locked up, this has been a continuous highway of species from microorganism to plant to mammal. Reindeer on one side and caribou on the other are still the same species, but then so are the humans.

This is a well-written book whose sentences flow like the ocean currents. The extractive economy of the market and the plan of the state capitalists of the USSR were disasters for the the region. They introduced starvation, disease, and alcoholism to the indigenous peoples. (The Soviets, meanwhile, whaled until the late 1970s, lying all the while about the extent of their harvests.)

The corset-wearer and the button-wearer (buttons from walrus tusks), like the sugar-eater in the era of slavery, and like the Amazon-orderer today, know — or pretend to know — nothing of where the thing they desire comes from. What it really costs communities and individuals, habitats and environments. What its toll is on the future.

The Corporate Killers

Over and over again, industry has attacked science to further the profitability of… killing. The paradigm is Big Tobacco: cover up your own evidence and fund obfuscation and denial. The oil and gas oligarchy has followed that playbook: they knew about global warming decades ago; they knew pumping carbon into the atmosphere would heat the planet; but they carried on, suppressing their own scientists’ reports, funding doubt and lies, giving birth to thousands of social media crazies who don’t even have to be paid to spread the Petroleum Institute of America’s disinformation, ignorance, and calumny.

But as Gary Fuller shows in The Invisible Killer, this is all old hat for the corporate killers. The leaded gas industry pulled the same trick. Knowing it was poisonous — even the ancient Romans knew it was bad news — DuPont (Joe Biden’s feudal lords), Standard Oil (one of whose successors is Exxon…), and General Motors founded the Ethel Corporation and then proceed to lie, deny, and savage critics who said pumping lead into the environment was a deadly idea. Note that these producers of tetraethyl lead (TEL) as a gasoline additive made damn sure to keep the word “lead” out of their corporate name and PR. They knew, but they proceeded to poison the planet anyway, shortening lives, destroying cognitive ability.

Fuller introduced me to Thomas Midgley (1889-1944), the chemist and inventor who not only gave us lead additive but also the CFC known as Freon, the ozone-destroying gas once used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Somebody else could easily have been responsible for either of these deadly inventions, but what a ruinous double-header for one man! He’s been described as the person who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any single organism in earth history.” He seems to have strangled himself to death in the home-made system of pulleys he used after he was stricken with polio.

Acid rain? Ditto. When Norwegians pointed to British smokestacks as the source of sulfur from burning coal that was destroying Scandinavian forests and waterbodies, the industry obfuscated, discredited, belittled, delayed. Here the flip side was that the British power industry was then nationalized, so it was government doing the lying and attacking. Typically, it’s industry and government working together incestuously until — unless — the government is wrested from its corporate-capture.

Fuller’s book is also discussed in this New York Review article, along with a couple of other books and reports on the topic of air pollution, a problem we DID NOT actually fix in the 1970s.. Our lives are still being shortened by air pollution. And industry is still blocking clean up, still making money at the expense of premature human deaths, still assaulting the planet.


Some good news! Isabella Tree’s Wilding: Returning Nature To Our Farm has been published. This is a revelatory story of a family’s abandonment to natural processes of their losing-proposition farm in the clay-laden Weald, some 44 miles southeast of London.

Tree is a very fine writer. It’s worth reading this just for the great way she tells it, mixing history, memoir, and natural history, along with strong opinions. She’s the latest in a line of writers who have revealed that England’s lyrical “green & pleasant land” trademark is a charade, a hoax, a mask covering over an astonishing diminishment of natural heritage, habitat, and biodiversity. Since the Second World War, the UK has become one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world.” (See also Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm.) Hedgerows vanquished, chemicals poured, sheep fetishized, a necrophilic orderliness established hither and yon — all have led to the stripping away of the very nature that spoke through Shakespeare, Clare, Keats — hell, even people’s grandparents — as the quintessence of Britishness.

Turning their marginal agricultural land into an experiment on re-wilding, Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have seen an explosion of life-forms, including rare birds, bats, and butterflies, as well as dung beetles, fungi, orchids, and a host of others creatures. Knepp Castle estate is now on all the twitchers’ lists — but of course it’s only an island in the wastelands.

But, but, but… what about food? Tree covers the topic extensively, since a generation in the UK has been taught to value productive farming above all else. Yet the world produces so much grain and pulse (think soy beans in the burning Amazon) that they are pumped into animal feed, ethanol, and ever more tricksy-marketed junk-food instead of directly into people’s mouths as actual food. (Famine and malnutrition are political results.) Also, Knepp’s balance sheet is helped immeasurably by selling pasture-raised beef — meat that’s much better health-wise compared to the sick-cow stuff sold most places. They aren’t out of the food chain completely. But her argument that land that’s marginal for farming is better not farmed is a strong one indeed. It’s even better for the neighboring farms.

Key to Knepp’s transformation has been the introduction of long-horned cattle, deer, Exmore ponies, and pigs, stand-ins, essentially, for the extinct megafauna that once browsed, churned, and fertilized landscapes. The idea that megafauna made and unmade meadows and forests, to a much greater extent than has been traditionally thought, is a controversial one (for some). The UK has a myth of closed canopy forest covering it after recovery from the glaciers. (We share this myth in the U.S., too, with tales of the forest running uninterrupted from the Atlantic to the Mississippi upon the arrival of Europeans.) But animals have been geo-engineering long before there was such a word. Consider the beavers, herds of grazers, large herbivores.

The Knepp couple were inspired by Frans Vera, whose project in Holland, Oostvaardersplassen, has rewilded a portion of some of the most human-intensive land in the world. Vera: “We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants. Species may be surviving at the very limits of their range, clinging on in conditions that that don’t really suit them. Open up the box, allow natural processes to develop, give species a wider range to express themselves, and you get a very different picture.”

Controversy at the Dutch experiment has been sparked by the “animal rights” activists, who protest against culls and starvation, a natural process of population balance. At Knepp, meanwhile, they aren’t allowed to leave large animal corpses to decay, and foster more life via scavengers, decomposers, etc. Nor can they have large predators — keystone species in habitats, as the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone have shown.

Tree: “Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no predetermined targets to meet, no species or number to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking. It particularly unsettles scientists who like to test hypotheses, run computer models, tick boxes and set goals. Rewilding — giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself — is largely a leap of faith. It involves surrendering all preconceptions, and simply sitting back and observing what happens.”

This… is difficult to do. Burrell inherited Knepp. The land was and remains bound up in EU and UK regulations (farmers are some of the most cosseted and straight-jacketed people in the western world). Neighbors were outraged when B & T left farming and let “weeds” and “wasteland” — the horror, the horror — grow, although many seem to have calmed down since. Some “animal lovers” forced them to kill one of their pigs because she tried to protect her young from their off-leash dogs, which of course weren’t supposed to be off-leash to begin with. (Entitled “dog people” are emerging as some of the worst enemies of the wild, in prioritizing their domesticated pets over all else. They’re joining the feral cat-lovers, who are already solidly against nature with their fetish for this deadly invasive species.)

The literal bottom line: you will be fascinated, inspired, and perhaps even empowered by this book.

Paulson on the Odonata

Dennis Paulson’s new Dragonflies and Damselflies: A Natural History‘s is a great introduction to odonating.

Paulson has written the standard field guides to American/Canadian odes as well as dozens of journal papers on odonates. The pictures in his field guides are too small; that’s these guide’ principal fault. But consider: there are 461 species to be covered in the US and Canada. There is strong sexual dimorphism in odonates, meaning at least two images for each species. Some damselfly species have four or five color forms. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is 519 pages long, not including glossary and index. Gotta be some hard calls for the author and publisher in this field of field guide publishing.

This new book, however, is coffee table format. It’s aimed for a popular readership. While there is a Further Resources appendix, I note the absence of a real bibliography. There’s a lot of scientific literature out there; touching base with it would have been a good thing, especially with our unparallelled ability to pull up scientific literature on the ‘net (if not full text than at least the abstract).

Chapters on natural history alternate with two-page spreads on individual species from around the world. At the time of publication, there were 6,299 described odonate species. That number is sure to change. Nearly two hundred of these were first described between 2015-2017. Only a small sample are included here, obviously, representing the great range and diversity of this order of insects.

News to me: the Common Winter Damsel (Sympecma fusca), found in southern and central Europe east to central Asia, stays dormant through the winder. They grab hold of something and sit out the winter in dormancy. The two other species in this genus are the only overwintering adult Odonates we know of. Advantage: very early start to reproduction, before predatory migratory birds show up. Disadvantage: they suffer “moderately high mortality from rodent predation” in winter. A frosted-over damselfly is still fresh meat, after all.

On the Azores, the population of Citrine Forktails (Ischnura hastata) is all female. They’re the only ode that manifests parthenogenesis. With so many species, there are many strategies and adaptations and habitats. The basic plane is the same, but the differences are what fascinates.
The Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) rates an entry because it is one of the few species in the world that seems to be increasing its numbers, going against the general decline brought about by… us. I photographed this one in Brooklyn. They thrive in any kind of fresh water; many other species have rather more specific requirements: gravel bottoms, slow moving streams, fast moving streams, muddy bottoms, etc.

What else? Much else. Up to 60% of the weight of a dragonfly is muscle used to power their four wings. “Although they operate independently, the fore- and hindwings interact with one another. The hindwings suffer slightly increased drag owing to the turbulence created in front of them by the forewings, but the positive pressure generated by the hindwings actually decreases drag on the forewings.”

There are even some numbers on flight speed: average speed of a moderate sized dragonfly: 4.5 mph. The largest dragonflies, the darners, can hit bursts of 34mph!
Sweetflag Spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) female. Photographed in Alley Pond Park in Queens, on the same day as this
Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis). These are now the only Queens records for Lestes genus spreadwings at Odonata Central. iNaturalist has one more, seen in 2016, but nobody could get it down to species level. I have a similar problem with the third spreadwing I photographed in Ally Pond Park that day. Without the specimen in hand, identification can be impossible, but I’d rather see them flying than tucked into someone’s drawer. Brooklyn, by the way, has only one record of a spreadwing, but here too the picture is too obscure for species-level.


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