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Editors' Choice
Nature Books for Kids

Essay
The Passionate Flock
If you own binoculars and a guidebook, you’re part of an illustrious, centuries-old tradition. Still, real birding is much more than life lists and passive entertainment, argues the author of this engrossing book about America’s most popular pastime.

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
By Scott Weidensaul, Harcourt, 358 pages, $25  

Who are we, we birdwatchers and birders? We Audubon types, wanderers with a purpose through forests and swamps?

Well, for one thing, we are bona fide specimens of Americana. Ken Burns could have re-created our past in a documentary television series, as he celebrated General Robert E. Lee, Ty Cobb, and Louis Armstrong. Although Burns hasn’t gotten around to birders yet, Scott Weidensaul takes us on in his new book, and on the whole we are a pretty interesting lot. Not as nice as we should be, perhaps, but then neither was Ty Cobb.

How many are we today? Weidensaul quotes one survey that puts the number of Americans who watch birds at 46 million, another at 67.8 million, inflated numbers he describes as “almost certainly bogus, given that such surveys count as a birder anyone who tosses sunflower seeds for the juncos.” And he goes on: “If you look at just those who can identify more than twenty species of birds, however—itself a pretty generous definition of birder—that figure drops to just 6 million, and those able to ID one hundred species number a few hundred thousand at best.”

Though figures are blurry, the trend still suggests that looking at birds is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the country. As Weidensaul, who knows plenty about both history and nature (his last book was Return to Wild America), informs us in Of a Feather, Native Americans wove moral tales and creation myths featuring crows, ravens, and eagles. In the early days of European settlement, birds became guideposts to the seasons or forecasters of the weather and personal destiny. We learn that swallows flying close to the ground presaged rain, and the call of a screech-owl outside a window heralded approaching death.

The first quarter (which may be a disproportionate share) of Weidensaul’s book recounts the oft-told biographical details of the giants who laid the basis of our continent’s natural history—Mark Catesby, William Bartram, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon. Neophyte birders will note with satisfaction that Wilson, “the founder of American ornithology,” sent his early drawings to Bartram with the following request: “Be pleased to mark on the drawings, with a pencil, the names of each kind, as, except for three or four, I do not know them.”

Less well known is the enormous contribution that officers in the Army Medical Corps made to our knowledge of western birds during the 1800s. Weidensaul describes them as “highly educated men with scientific training and a bent for natural history, traveling on the army’s nickel to places that were too remote (and frequently too dangerous) for civilians to reach.”

A cavalry officer named Charles Bendire once avoided a band of Apaches with the egg of a rare hawk tucked in his mouth. “His jaws ached for days thereafter,” Weidensaul writes, “and when he ‘blew’ the egg, removing the contents to prepare it for his [collection], he found it slightly incubated—in part by his own body heat.”

Some of those grizzled veterans of the West disparaged the new interest in watching birds rather than shooting them. In the late 1800s Elliott Coues, an army doctor notorious for his savage tongue, dismissed birders—particularly the women who formed Audubon’s burgeoning movement, as “opera-glass fiends.” Yet, oddly, Coues was also an outspoken defender of women’s rights and collaborated with several women ornithologists, Florence Merriam Bailey among them. Bailey’s 1889 book, Birds Through an Opera Glass, encouraged readers to study birds with the aid of those early, subpar optics, and the tome is called by Weidensaul “the first popular field guide.”

In the early decades of the 20th century, a growing respect for birds as interesting and beautiful creatures prompted Americans to look for and identify them using increasingly sophisticated binoculars. Through his revolutionary field guides, Roger Tory Peterson provided a reader-friendly introduction to ornithology, and millions of Americans rode the post-World War II automobile culture along inviting new superhighways to remote, bird-thronged forests and shorelines. Our clan’s preoccupation with birds, once derided as eccentric by those not similarly caught, suddenly seemed “cool.”

For me, the book’s most rewarding section comes last. Here are the modern masters of the art of birding, including Joe Taylor, Rich Stallcup, David Allen Sibley, and my fellow field editor at Audubon, Kenn Kaufman. Weidensaul shares the latter’s lack of enthusiasm for the widespread emphasis on simply counting birds. Kaufman, he writes, in producing a field guide accessible to beginners (and following it with a Spanish edition), “kept his eye on what he’d realized was important—bringing new people into birding, as a portal not to competition but to appreciation.”

That’s the key to Weidensaul’s text: Good fun in the field, as we sharpen both our understanding of birds and our drive to preserve the places where they live.

“Now bird study is poised to enter what could be a fresh and, I hope, golden age,” he writes. “My hope for the future is a fusion of the science of birds with the love of chasing them, the best of the ornithologist and the lister, with a vehement commitment to avian well-being binding these approaches together.” What would better define us as birders or the mission we pursue?

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Editors’ Choice

Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
By Rebecca Solnit
University of California Press, 416 pages, $24.95

Few writers describe a landscape more vividly than Rebecca Solnit. Here she is on the haunting allure of the American West: “On a hot day, water is sucked straight out of your skin, and you can feel how fast dying of thirst could be; but this aridity is what makes the air so clear, what opens up those fifty-mile views. What feeds the soul starves the skin.” Solnit, an acclaimed social critic and journalist (she won the National Book Award in 2003), is an intellectual synthesizer of the highest order. Storming the Gates is a superb collection of literary essays that touch on everything from the lasting toxic imprint of Nevada’s nuclear bombing test sites to the continuing relevance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In other must-read essays, Solnit strips away the mythologies of sacred cows (such as cowboys and their lore) that were invented by 19th-century dime-store novels and later reinforced by the touring Wild West shows founded by Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, which reenacted their largely fictional exploits. Even gardeners, an unassuming and harmless lot, catch Solnit’s probing eye: “We love nature as a child loves a parent, but gardeners love their gardens as parents love their children, with a preoccupied, hectoring, imposing love, not unlike that of museum curators, editors, and animal tamers.” In this age of blogs and insta-commentary, it’s good to know that the incisive literary essay is still very much alive and kicking, especially in the hands of a master like Solnit.—Keith Kloor
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The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals
By Peter Heller
Free Press, 288 pages, $25

Dreadlocks-wearing vegans, rugged mountain men, professional gamblers, and a marine biologist make up some of the 43-member volunteer crew of the Farley Mowat, an eco-pirate ship belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a maritime equivalent of Earth First, another radical environmental group. Though the charismatic members hail from all walks of life, they share one sentiment: They are willing to risk their lives to save the world’s great whales. Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson, who also helped launch Greenpeace, is often criticized for disabling whaling ships by force; he rams what he considers illegal fishing vessels and, to date, claims to have sunk 10 whaling ships—acts he calls “nonviolent.” (So far no one has been injured.) In The Whale Warriors, magazine journalist Peter Heller joins the Farley crew on its December 2005 voyage to stop Japanese “research” vessel Nisshin Maru from catching endangered whales in the deep Antarctic. Heller captures the rolling, 35-foot seas and the diverse crew’s humor. There’s even a suspenseful, near crash with the Nisshin on Christmas Day. “I’m not sure why, but our close encounter had not scared me,” writes Heller. “I had spent half my life kayaking whitewater rivers, and the power of the ocean whipped to such a frenzy filled me not with fear but with a profound and grateful awe.” Whether you agree with Sea Shepherd’s tactics or not, The Whale Warriors is a rollicking adventure with political commentary on the plight of whales sprinkled throughout. It’s hard not to be gripped by a book that contains breathless passages of imminent danger, such as when Watson, readying his ship like a torpedo, announces: “Tell the crew, collision in two minutes.”—Shawn Query
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