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Reviews

Editors’ Choice
Art of the Wild
Film Review
Nature Books for Kids

Essay
A Wonder to Behold
A new book delves into the remarkable avian world.

The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live
By Colin Tudge. Crown Publishers, 432 pages, $30

I was primed to greet Colin Tudge’s new book, which is all about birds, with great expectations. His 2006 book, The Tree, I recalled as a supremely satisfying natural history read. (You have to embrace an author who opens by describing his subject as “a big plant with a stick up the middle,” and then goes on in diverting prose to conjure up a comprehensive world of leafy green things.) A good reason, for sure, to anticipate excellence.

Well, here is Tudge with The Bird, and he displays much of the same skill evident in The Tree. Most striking is his knack of taking dense scientific material, culled from a host of sources, and doling it out to the reader in a series of laid-back passages. Tudge reveals nearly everything the reader wants to know about “birdness.” Going beyond feathers and flying, he defines what it means to be a bird, and helpfully does so in part by contrasting birds with mammals. Birds lay eggs; most mammals bear live young. The manner and effectiveness of communication differs markedly between the two life-forms. Each generally functions with a differing apparatus for sex. But did you know that ducks and ostriches have penises? Birds and mammals, Tudge writes, are “the same, only different.”

There’s plenty of trivia. I was flummoxed by the news that pigeons can distinguish Monet’s paintings from Picasso’s. Tudge asks why European robins are so attracted to gardeners, and answers, “Because they think we are pigs. In the wild, robins are woodland birds and they follow wild boars as they dig with their snouts for roots and truffles.”

But there’s some heavy stuff here, too. Tudge delves into the threats to avian survival in the face of habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. And he traces the evolutionary history of birds, going back to a time when a blur of dinosaurs and their kin, known today only through shattered and eroded fossils, dominated the planet. Some researchers are convinced that birds are descended from dinosaurs; others seek to demonstrate that the difference between the two lineages is profound and that they cannot have had any connection. Tudge lays out both arguments, then throws in his own two cents’ worth: “For my part, I continue to like the idea that birds are dinosaurs, but I have discovered, as the decades have passed, that the ideas that I happen to like are not necessarily true.” Science, he reminds us, is “a human pursuit, and omniscience is not in our gift.”

Tudge scrupulously outlines how much science doesn’t yet know about birds and repeatedly insists on the intelligence and emotional lives of his subjects. He illustrates this through his chapters on their sex and family lives, and on the bird mind. “Many birds do seem remarkably stereotyped in what they do, but others very clearly are not. Crows and parrots and chickadees may never be intellectuals in the human sense, but they are clearly very aware, and above all have an acute social sense, which in the end counts most.”

Black-capped chickadees, for instance, employ a hierarchical social life—in groups during winter, going off in pairs in spring, with the mates corresponding to the “pecking order” in each group: Top males fancy the top female, and vice versa, all the way down the social strata. Many forest birds nest in isolation, but many seabirds nest in colonies, and usually all of the latter produce their young at the same time, giving any pair’s chick a better chance to survive a predator.

One doesn’t need advanced degrees to write a book about birds, Tudge argues. “You just have to take an interest and be alert,” he writes. “The point of this book is to nudge people who feel in a general way that birds in particular, and nature in general, are kind of interesting to the point where they start to feel the meaning of it all.”

If he’s targeting the mildly interested, there’s a problem. His longest chapter, 93 pages, describes the 31 orders into which scientists place birds. Nine black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout hardly give non-experts an idea of form and color among Tudge’s avian cast of characters. It’s testimony to his descriptive skills and chatty, allusive style that he partly overcomes the handicap.

“Birds are a wonder to behold,” Tudge makes plain. “The more we look at them, the more they tell us about ourselves and the way the world really is.”

EDITORS’ CHOICE

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope
By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
William Morrow, 273 pages, $25.99

“In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night.” With that thought, William Kamkwamba, a Malawian boy from a poor farming family, decides to harness the wind. “A windmill,” he writes, “meant more than just power, it was freedom.” Freedom from drought and famine, and from government dependency. His family would never go hungry again. He would have enough money to attend school and wouldn’t have to teach himself science using American-donated books. Kamkwamba’s tale inspires because this boy—14 when he builds his first windmill—creates something powerful in the face of nothingness (his six sisters sleep on grass mats) and overwhelming doubt (the villagers call him crazy). When his invention works, Kamkwamba becomes a hero, suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. Donors and support flood in. As a reader, you breathe a sigh of relief because Kamkwamba’s journey feels worth it. The wind empowered him to light his family’s home and illuminate for the rest of the world his country’s struggle.—Michele Wilson  
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The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
By Douglas Brinkley
HarperCollins, 940 pages, $34.99

“No matter what task Roosevelt undertook, he was like a boll weevil eating its way through a bale of cotton,” historian Douglas Brinkley writes in Wilderness Warrior, his epic and memorable account of Theodore Roosevelt as a naturalist, conservationist, big game hunter, and man for all seasons. Brinkley places our 26th president, whom he hails as a “conservation visionary,” in the pantheon of our greatest presidents, ranking his crusade to save the American wilderness as one of the most important accomplishments between Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I. With the stroke of his mighty pen, Roosevelt saved for “the people unborn,” as he phrased it, more than 234 million acres, about the equivalent of the Atlantic Coast states from Maine to Florida. Among the reserves he created was Florida’s Pelican Island, where the slaughter by plume hunters for ladies’ hats threatened species’ very survival and where Roosevelt embraced “the frenetic activity of pelicans, egrets, ibises, and roseate spoonbills” as a “biological hymnal.” Brinkley’s well-honed, often beautiful prose spans many themes. A central one is Roosevelt’s passion for birds throughout his life, from his boyhood as a precocious illustrator to his adulthood as a crackerjack birder. On top of that, Brinkley traces his role as “an ardent Audubonist” and key player in the formation of the National Audubon Society at the turn of last century. “With the exception of his family,” the author writes, “birds probably touched him more deeply than anything else in his life.”—David Seideman
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Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers & Other Unusual Relationships
By Marty Crump
The University of Chicago Press, 214 pages, $25

In this jaunty, jovial, somewhat anthropomorphizing romp, behavioral ecologist Marty Crump catalogs a range of interdependent species behaviors—from the semi-social to the purely ecological—that make up life on earth. Some of the relationships she details—like the pseudoscorpion that mates on the back of a South American giant harlequin beetle—may seem odd, but then again, she infers, it’s efficient to get all that loving done in transit. As she roams from one unusual natural history to the next, Crump whizzes past myriad reasons why certain bird species maintain fidelity, “divorce” their partners, or commit adultery; why some animals groom one another; and why different species employ “alloparental care”—or, as she puts it, babysitters. Even animal hygiene becomes fascinating: Wrasses, small brightly colored tropical fish, eat parasites in the mouths of eels and swim out unscathed. Crump’s zoology contains housecleaners, groomers, and even marital squabbles. If this all domesticates the natural world, it also makes the human one seem more contiguous with it. Crump leaves us feeling, in our human-yet-animal skin, just a tad stranger.—Tess Taylor
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Birds in Wood and Paint: American Miniature Bird Carvings and Their Carvers, 1900-1970
By Joseph H. Ellis
UPNE, 184 pages, $60

From working decoys to decorative sculpture, carvings of winged wildlife have figured prominently in the lives of bird hunters and bird lovers for more than a century. Woven between stunning images and meticulous descriptions of painted blue-winged teals, white-throated sparrows, and yellowlegs, collector Joseph Ellis tells the story of this creative, if not anatomically precise, art form. He focuses on the post-decoy days, when the whittled works shrank in size while broadening in their fan base, and highlights Elmer Crowell, who led the transition of this handicraft beyond its utilitarian roots. “These pieces can be at once aesthetic marvels of folk art,” writes Ellis, “and embodiments of the ornithologist’s or hunter’s appreciation of the wide and colorful diversity of bird species in the wild.” Birds in Wood and Paint differs from Ellis’s previous book on stock market forecasting; rather than describing financial models, the retired Goldman Sachs partner’s new volume imparts enduring value to avian ones.—Lynne Peeples

 

Art of the Wild

In a few saline marshes in Lincoln, Nebraska, lives are being lost with little protest. But then, when you’re talking about the Salt Creek tiger beetle, an insect the size of a sunflower seed, who really cares? Award-winning nature photographer (and Audubon contributor) Joel Sartore, for one. He lives in Lincoln and has witnessed the town’s growth at the expense of some 90 percent of the beetle’s habitat. With silvery, exophthalmic eyes, the tiny insect peers out from a blank page in Sartore’s latest book, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (National Geographic, 160 pages, $24), an elegant depiction of some of the nation’s most imperiled organisms. Yes, a few of the more iconic creatures are there, including the polar bear, whose dingy, matted fur evokes the massive animal’s struggle to hunt on sea ice that, because of global warming, is shrinking. So, too, is the California condor, hunched like an old man, its wrinkled, featherless face befitting one who has looked death in the eye but isn’t yet ready to succumb. But the less familiar beings are just as compelling, served both by their inherent beauty as well as the photographer’s clean aesthetic. Against a plain black or white background, species such as Iowa Pleistocene snails—ice age mollusks that live in limestone cracks—stand out in crisp relief. They may seem minute, but they’re as important as any charismatic megafauna or flora. Today 1,321 species in the United States and its waters are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and 250 are under consideration for listing. As contributing author Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in the forward, “We don’t know enough about life on Earth to say which species we can afford to live without.” Yet Sartore’s haunting images suggest an answer: none.—Julie Leibach

 

Film Review
Dirt! The Movie
Independent Lens, 60 minutes Airs nationally on PBS on April 20 at 10 p.m. (check local listings)

Toss the tea leaves; we can read our future in dirt—and the outlook is grimy. The problem is that we’ve been treating the dark stuff like it’s dead. A typical handful of soil, however, likely contains billions of microorganisms working in concert, helping to form a breathing “skin” around the earth that has sustained life for millions of years. Relying on testimonials from the Greenbelt Movement’s Wangari Mathaai, physicist-farmer Vandana Shiva, and a number of other scientists and activists, Dirt! reveals how our demand for natural resources has changed that supportive relationship. Among the destructive forces it details: mountaintop removal mining, in which peaks are blasted and leveled for coal; deforestation; and industrial agriculture. Without healthy dirt, it’s difficult to survive extreme weather, such as floods and drought. Moreover, a dwindling supply of fertile terrain results in famine and food riots, even war. It’s enough to make some viewers want to bury their heads in the sand. But Dirt! ends on an optimistic note, offering examples of creative ways people are attempting to fix this mess. Community supported agriculture, edible landscapes, and green jobs for rehabilitated prisoners are just a few of the promising approaches that are giving dirt its due.—Julie Leibach
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Video: Whittled Wonders
Bird carving collector Joseph Ellis reveals the origin of his passion. Plus, bonus photos of avian carvings and their creators.

Book Excerpt: Not Tonight, Honey
An intimate look at several species’ romancing tactics, from Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers and Other Unusual Relationships.