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Editors' Choice
Nature Books for Kids
Art of the Wild

Deafening Silence
Don’t check your ears. The skies are really quieter with the big drop in songbirds, even if the news isn’t making the front pages.
By Frank Graham Jr.

Silence of the Songbirds
By Bridget Stutchbury
Walker & Company, 272 pages, $24.95

More than once lately, an elderly birder has complained to me about what he considered a personal affront imposed by the passing years. “I don’t hear birds the way I used to,” he reports. “I guess I’ll have to look into one of those hearing aids.”

Save your money, Pops. The silence isn’t in your head, it’s in the woods. Although there is a widespread feeling among conservationists that all’s not well with our avian fellow travelers, the biological community as a whole has been cautious about confirming a general decline in neotropical migrant bird populations. The dynamics of those volatile little animals, spreading their time between temperate and tropical regions and on extremely hazardous flights across the immense areas linking them, are extraordinarily complex. Now Bridget Stutchbury, an ornithologist at York University in Toronto, has doughtily pulled together some of the evidence and a discussion of root causes for an impending intercontinental collapse.

Her book, Silence of the Songbirds, focuses on the warblers, thrushes, and other migrants that make up the neotropical group. Years of observation recorded by the federally sponsored Breeding Bird Survey in the United States are beginning to uncover many disturbing trends. Other surveys (including Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count) are coming to similar conclusions: More than two dozen familiar species are documented to be in serious decline, including the wood thrush, Kentucky warbler, eastern kingbird, and bobolink. Others aren’t showing much bounce either.

“By some estimates, we may have already lost almost half the songbirds that filled the skies only forty years ago,” she notes. “The threats are almost too many to count: destruction of wintering habitat, pesticides, cowbirds and other predators, light pollution, and poor breeding habitat are among the problems birds face.”

The author likens the annual migration to a storm, occurring mainly in darkness and unnoticed by almost everyone in its path. But it is a storm evolved over thousands of years, with hundreds of millions of animated fluffy creatures aloft over what was once a series of familiar landscapes. The dark shorelines and woodlands are gone now, replaced by a dazzling succession of lighted cities and suburbs, bursts of brightness that confuse the migrants and lead them off course. Buildings, radio towers, and other mysterious shapes rise into the migrants’ airspace, leading to frequent collisions. Traditional resting and feeding places lie buried under farmland or concrete.

Stutchbury is especially adept at stitching together the normally obscure ecological details into a chronicle of inevitable disaster. The destruction of forests—boreal, temperate, and tropical, all critical to migrants—results in a pattern of fragmentation. Those woodland scraps, increasingly smaller and often isolated from good habitat, suffer shortages of the resources birds need for survival. There is less diversity of food, and less security. And lack of diversity breeds new problems. Birds, which once fed on the local fruits and seeds, no longer arrive in numbers to scatter the seeds, thus lowering the forest’s capacity to regenerate itself.

Flying in from the north in winter, migrants find the most secure habitats taken by resident tropical birds or older, more experienced members of their own kind. Younger, weaker individuals are forced onto the scrubby fringes, which provide inadequate nourishment.

Even if a bird survives on its wintering grounds, in springtime it may carry northward the effects of its own recent deprivation. Researchers have seen that survivors of the scrubby lands require more time to fatten themselves for the arduous migration to the Canadian woods. They are among the last to arrive on the breeding grounds, and again the best places are filled. Females, getting a late start in nesting, suffer higher predation on their eggs and young.

Page after page here recounts surprising details taken from the lives of birds pursuing their destinies within the grand yet heartbreaking drama of 21st-century migration. Biologists, for instance, once believed the veery wintered safely over a large, secluded area of the western Amazon, basing their assessment on reports of veeries seen or collected in the forest there. It eventually became apparent that those veeries were simply migrating through, on the way to their true wintering grounds in southern Brazil—a more limited region with a dense human population and a degraded habitat.

“Whether or not particular species are in harm’s way depends entirely on the details of their natural history, including what they eat, where they live, and how they compete for the essentials of life,” Stutchbury writes. Biologists used to believe that songbirds confined to forest edges in the north fare poorly compared to others living in the interior. New studies show this is not always the case. It may have a lot to do with the nature of local predators. She finds that crows, snakes, raccoons, and chipmunks—all bird eaters—“have dramatically different abilities to move across the landscape, forage at different times of the day and night, use different cues for finding nests; they also have different tendencies to be attracted to agricultural settings.”

The author hits hard at some of the less publicized sources of songbird decline: lighted skyscrapers and towers, modern techniques of growing coffee, brood parasitism by cowbirds, and appalling levels of predation by domestic and feral cats. (Even well-fed tabbies kill millions of birds annually in North America.) But of the root problem underlying all the others—the cancerlike and apparently irreversible population increase of human beings and their spread into even the most remote bird habitats—she has much less to say. Despite the best efforts of avian biologists to keep our forests vibrant with birdsong, Rachel Carson’s nightmare of a silent spring looks, to this reader anyway, closer than it did even half a century ago.
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Editors’ Choice

Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West
By Michael Punke
Smithsonian Books, 304 pages, $25.95

Michael Punke’s meticulously researched Last Stand chronicles the transformation of the Great Plains from untouched wilderness in the mid-19th century to a land, less than 30 years later, where the future of wildlife hung in the balance. Punke, a Montana native and a former Washington lawyer, clearly describes the forces that brought the buffalo to the brink of extinction, the individuals who fought to save the species, and how these events helped give rise to America’s first wave of conservation. At the heart of this story is George Bird Grinnell—an easterner seduced by the West—who became a central figure in the late-19th-century movement. “Grinnell was a scientist and a journalist, a hunter and a conservationist,” Punke writes. “In his remarkable life, Grinnell would live the adventures of the Old West even as he helped to shape the New.” Grinnell was influenced as a child by his tutor, Lucy Audubon, who taught him “small lessons in the beauty of a red crossbill and large ones in a life committed to the welfare of others,” says Punke. Later on as an adult, exhilarating trips spent hunting and exploring his beloved West cemented Grinnell’s love for nature. Finally, as editor of Forest and Stream magazine, as founder of the first Audubon Society, and as an influential member of the Boone and Crockett Club, Grinnell doggedly campaigned for the national park and game protection laws that ultimately helped secure the buffalo’s survival. Punke concludes: “The great lesson of George Bird Grinnell is that one person can make a difference, indeed all the difference.  It’s why wild buffalo walk the earth today. It’s why there’s still hope.”—Andrea Anderson
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Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island
By Mark Jerome Walters
Island Press, 272 pages, $24.95

When Mark Jerome Walters visited the Big Island of Hawaii in 1996, 14 ‘alalā existed in the wild. In Seeking the Sacred Raven, he chronicles the decline of the onyx-feathered bird from its days of abundance to its near extinction, largely from habitat loss and predation. Cherished by early Hawaiians as a guide to the afterlife, the ‘alalā (closer to the raven family than to the crow family) wasn’t simply a bird—it was a spiritual connection to the earth and an integral part of Hawaiian culture. But land-hungry European settlers arriving in the 1700s thought differently, and by the mid-20th century the population was nosediving. Gleaning the pieces of his story from letters, meetings, and personal accounts, Walters, a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of South Florida, unravels the complexities of captive breeding and other sincere but futile conservation efforts. He also highlights the parts played by government organizations, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nonprofit groups, like the Sierra Club, and individuals, all of which clash over strategy. “Hawaii was a gorgeous land, beset by ugly politics, especially when it came to conservation,” writes Walters, painting vivid portraits of the ‘alalā’s boldest defenders. Cynthia Salley, whose property housed several remaining ‘alalā, appears as a stalwart rancher with a “leave them alone” approach to conservation. Her battles with intrusive biologists, who she fears will disturb the nests, suggest that maybe scientists don’t always know what’s best for a waning population after all. As Walters observes, “So many people have struggled in so many imperfect ways for the sake of a raven.” The political setbacks are unnerving as the ‘alalā slips into oblivion, but they offer a jarring reminder that when a species is dying, it’s no time for bureaucratic fighting.—Julie Leibach
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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring
By Richard Preston
Random House, 320 pages, $25.95

In his best-selling page-turner, The Hot Zone, Richard Preston put readers inside a biohazard suit searching for the source of the Ebola virus. Now Preston joins redwood-climbing scientists and amateur tall-tree hunters searching for the world’s tallest trees in the scraps of ancient forest left along the foggy coast of northern California. In a ballet of movable ropes that can be “almost like weightless floating,” Preston climbs with researchers as they ascend hundreds of feet above the forest floor. “As they neared the upper surface of the redwood canopy, they saw that sunlight was shining through a Gothic lacework of branches, illuminating masses of plants,” he writes. The intricate and almost entirely unknown ecosystems of aerial ferns, black bloody heart lichen, and wandering salamanders form “a lost glade in the sky.” This book doesn’t have the organic flow or narrative drive typical of Preston’s writing in The Hot Zone or The New Yorker. It is more like a quilt. Still, each square is beautifully done, and patched together they form a haunting story.—Ted O’Callahan
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Art of the Wild

For more than 30 years naturalist and photographer William Burt has prowled North America’s wetlands, finding beauty in unexpected places. In Marshes: The Disappearing Edens (Yale University Press, 192 pages, $35), 90 stunning color photographs attest to his decades of discovery. Birds—“the hidden treasure that first lured”—figure prominently, including elusive red-eyed black rails peering out from Maryland grasses, fuzzy-topped American bittern chicks in North Dakota, and a cotton-candy–colored spoonbill in Florida’s Everglades. Throughout, Burt’s evocative and informative writing complements the book’s gallery of beautiful marshes. Though he grieves for wetlands lost to development and invasive species, Burt’s words and images also celebrate what remains. Click here to see more hidden treasures from the marsh.—Andrea Anderson
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Hidden Treasures
More photos of majestic marshes—and some of the birds that live in them.

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