All Posts

Cuckoo Cheating by NatureCuckoo: Cheating by Nature
by Nick Davies

From Bloomsbury:

The familiar call of the common cuckoo, ‘cuck-oo,’ has been a harbinger of spring ever since our ancestors walked out of Africa many thousands of years ago. However, for naturalist and scientist Nick Davies, the call is an invitation to solve an enduring puzzle: how does the cuckoo get away with laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and tricking them into raising young cuckoos rather than their own offspring?

Early observers who noticed a little warbler feeding a monstrously large cuckoo chick concluded the cuckoo’s lack of parental care was the result of faulty design by the Creator, and that the hosts chose to help the poor cuckoo. These quaint views of bad design and benevolence were banished after Charles Darwin proposed that the cuckoo tricks the hosts in an evolutionary battle, where hosts evolve better defenses against cuckoos and cuckoos, in turn, evolve better trickery to outwit the hosts.

For the last three decades, Davies has employed observation and field experiments to unravel the details of this evolutionary ‘arms race’ between cuckoos and their hosts. Like a detective, Davies and his colleagues studied adult cuckoo behavior, cuckoo egg markings, and cuckoo chick begging calls to discover exactly how cuckoos trick their hosts. For birding and evolution aficionados, Cuckoo is a lyrical and scientifically satisfying exploration of one of nature’s most astonishing and beautiful adaptations.

 

While I’m sure that pretty much everyone is aware of the cuckoo’s habit of nest parasitism, I’m sure there’s much more to the story. I must admit that I don’t know all that much about these birds, but am looking forward to reading this book to rectify that.

 

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature
by Nick Davies
Hardcover; 320 pages
Bloomsbury; April 7, 2015
ISBN: 978-1620409527
$27.00

I love the paintings of John James Audubon. I’ve long thrilled to see his works in various books, and have even been fortunate enough to gaze upon a selection of plates from the first editions. But never did it occur to me that his original watercolors could still exist. That is, until about three years ago, when the New-York Historical Society announced an exhibition of Audubon’s original works. It turns out that the society purchased the paintings from Audubon’s widow. The exhibit, Audubon’s Aviary, would display all of the paintings in the society’s possession. But it would do so over three years, with roughly a third of them exhibited at a time for just a few months during each of those years. 2015 marks the third, and final, exhibit.

I desperately wanted to see them. I wasn’t able to make the exhibits in 2013 or 2014, but finally got a chance this year. Being in a room surrounded by 130 of Audubon’s original watercolor paintings was awe-inspiring. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was inches away, separated only by thin glass, from paintings produced by Audubon’s own hand. It was unreal.

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

Audubon's Aviary exhibit at New-York Historical Society

From reading the book produced about this exhibit – Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America (a review will be coming soon) – I discovered that many of Audubon’s paintings are actually collages. He would sometimes cut out a figure and adhere it to another painting. His Green Heron is a good example of this. Except, you can’t tell it from any print. You can see evidence of it in Audubon’s Aviary, as the images in that book are taken directly from the original paintings, but even then it’s not very clear unless you know what you’re looking for. But it’s glaringly obvious when looking at the original. The adult Green Heron was painted separately and then attached to this sheet, with the overlapping leaf cut out in such a way that the bird could be slid beneath it. It looks great as a print, but really pops in person.

Detail from Audubon's Green Heron

I’m sure there are many other details that you can discern from viewing these paintings in person, especially if you have any training in art. But to me, the best thing was the overall, subjective experience. Being surrounded by, and that close to, such greatness was overwhelming.

If you want to experience it for yourself you need to hurry, as this exhibit closes on May 10, 2015. After that, we’ll have to wait at least 10 years before being able to see these paintings again (according to the exhibit’s flyer, anyway). For more information see http://audubon.nyhistory.org/

The MerlinThe Merlin
by Richard Sale

From Snowfinch Publishing:

The Merlin is a fascinating small falcon, standing outside the usual grouping of the ‘True Falcons’, and with a range that is confined to northern climes, an exclusive preference that is shared by only one other, the much larger Gyrfalcon.

This is the first comprehensive book on the species, covering its complete circumpolar range. The book starts with a general comments on the evolution of the True Falcons and thoughts on their grouping, then covers the general characteristics of the Merlin, the species’ habitat, its diet, breeding (territory, displays, pair formation, nest sites, eggs, chick growth, nest predation and breeding success), migration and wintering, survival, the Merlin’s friend and foes, and estimations of the world population. It also includes data gathered with a unit flown on a male Merlin.

Previous books by the author include the award-winning Gyrfalcon (co-produced with Russian expert Eugene Potapov), the Snowy Owl (also with Eugene Potapov), the first field guide to birds and mammals of the Arctic, A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, and The Arctic: The Complete Story which covered all aspects of the area.

 

An in-depth, photograph-rich look at this small falcon.

 

The Merlin
by Richard Sale
Hardcover; 304 pages
Snowfinch Publishing; March, 2015
ISBN: 9780957173217
$65.00

You Nest Here With MeYou Nest Here With Me
by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

From Boyds Mills Press:

With rhyming text, this soothing bedtime book is an ode to baby birds everywhere and sleepy children home safe in their own beds. As a mother describes to her child how many species of birds nest, from pigeons on concrete ledges to owls in oak tree boles to swallows above barn doors. The soothing refrain of “you nest here with me” eases her little one and readers alike to slumber. Combining their poetic writing and their love of birding, mother and daughter Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple have written what is sure to become a bedtime classic.

 

My five-year-old really enjoyed this book. It also has an afterword that gives additional information on the included birds.

 

You Nest Here With Me
by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Hardcover; 40 pages
Boyds Mills Press; March 3, 2015
ISBN: 978-1590789230
$16.95

Here are bird book reviews from around the web from February (because I forgot to do it then) and March.

The Great Horned Owl: An In-depth Study, by Scott RashidThe Great Horned Owl: An In-depth Study
by Scott Rashid

From Schiffer Publishing:

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl found throughout most of North America. Adult owls are between eighteen to 24 inches from head to tail and can have a wing span of more than four feet. Their long ear tufts and cryptic coloration enables them to remain well hidden during the day, often out of sight of sharp-eyed diurnal raptors and eagle-eyed birders. Through more than 130 photographs and illustrations, take an in-depth look into the life of this very impressive and formidable bird. Explore the owls food habits, nesting sites, how they raise their young, and the rehabilitation of injured owls. The one-of-a-kind photographs and comprehensive descriptions make this a must-have treasure to be enjoyed by all ages. It is sure to become the go-to reference on the Great Horned Owl.

 

You’ve got to respect a bird like the Great Horned. This book looks like a great study on these awesome birds.

 

The Great Horned Owl: An In-depth Study
by Scott Rashid
Hardcover; 112 pages
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.; March 9, 2015
ISBN: 978-0764347665
$34.99

H is for HawkH is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

From Grove Press:

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

 

I recently saw this book on the bestsellers shelf in an airport newsstand. That has to be the first time I’ve seen a bird book there! But with all the great press about this book, I’m not surprised. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

 

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Hardcover; 288 pages
Grove Press; March 3, 2015
ISBN: 978-0802123411
$26.00

by Donald and Lillian Stokes

A field guide for new birders.

Read the full review »

It’s still early in the year (although, somehow, almost a quarter of it is now over!), but several great-looking bird books have been announced for 2015. Here are a few to look forward to.

My review of Birds and Animals of the Serengeti / Masai Mara / Kenya’s Rift Valley is now up on Nature Travel Network.

Birds of the Masai Mara, Birds of the Serengeti, Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Animals of the Masai Mara, Animals of the Serengeti