by Eric Reuter
Winter is a great time for catching up on reading; here are a few books and other reading materials that might be worth CAS members’ time. All three books listed below are available from the Daniel Boone Regional Library – by Eric Reuter
Years ago, a Common Raven on the Channel Islands (off the coast of California) discovered and opened a zippered pocket in our long-used backpack, a pocket whose existence we’d never suspected. It was a powerful lesson in not underestimating bird intelligence and creativity. In The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman summarizes decades of global research into avian cognition with both rigor and humor. After reading this absolutely fascinating book, you’ll be inspired to observe birds with new attention to detail and wonder at their abilities. As the New York Times wrote, “Often, you feel her wonderment, faintly recognizing another, strange intelligence covertly operating in a world we presume to be ours.”
We’ll be reading this book for the February “book discussion” meeting, which will be hosted by the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia on Sunday, February 11th from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Please get your hands on a copy (DBRL has it in physical, ebook, and downloadable audiobook formats) and join us for what should be an interesting discussion.
While Ackerman’s book takes a global survey of bird intelligence over decades of research, in this book Bernd Heinrich goes to the other extreme by offering intimate, detailed portraits of specific bird behaviors carefully observed over days, months, and years of personal study. More a journal of discovery than a purely scientific text, his attention to detail and occasionally unorthodox methods inspired me to pay more careful attention to the details of even everyday birds and their unique and interesting habits. Written in short, independent chapters, this is a great bedtime-reading book that will spark your curiosity in a number of ways.
This will be part fascinating, part controversial, for most readers. Over the last decade, various writers, researchers, and conservationists have begun asking tough questions about the meaning of “nature” in the modern world. Although we once assumed that there was a pre-human (or pre-modern-development) “baseline” of unspoiled nature, which was being inexorably altered by industrial human activity, a new idea is taking shape that emphasizes both the long-term integration of humans into the ecosystem and the inevitability of change and extinction in the natural world. For example, when I worked for the National Park Service over a decade ago, a core land-management belief held that “nature” could be restored by removing human influence, but this neglected more current understandings of the deep influence both Native American and European land management had on forming and maintaining what we think of as “natural” ecosystems. Moreover, attempting to remove human influences from the landscape often had unintended and problematic consequences. In this book, biologist Chris D. Thomas offers provocative arguments regarding such questions as the role and value of invasive species (why are honeybees different than bush honeysuckle?), whether extinction is inherently bad (does the loss of a rare species represent beneficial opportunities for others?), and the proper focus of conservation (should we be working to preserve a false “natural” baseline?). Many readers will find something to disagree with here, but the book raises important questions that all conservationists and environmentalists should consider, and at the very least have thoughtful answers to.
Another theme discussed in Inheritors of the Earth is how humans are affecting the evolutionary process in other species. A recent study published in Science considered changes in the relative bill length of Great Tits in the U.K. and the Netherlands, showing that (in the study’s words) “U.K. birds not only have longer bills, but these longer bills are associated with increased fitness. These changes likely reflect an increase in domestic garden bird feeders over the past several decades.” In other words, the known British love for birds could actually be shaping rapid evolution processes. Although the original study is mostly behind a paywall, the Washington Post published a good overview.
This study, which I found through a link on MoBirds, adds to the already considerable scientific literature raising concerns about the effects of conventional agrichemicals on songbird health. The abstract concludes that “These results suggest that wild songbirds consuming the equivalent of just four imidacloprid-treated canola seeds or eight chlorpyrifos granules per day over 3 days could suffer impaired condition, migration delays and improper migratory direction, which could lead to increased risk of mortality or lost breeding opportunity.”
It’s easy to consider bird sounds as mostly vocalizations, though we may be familiar with a handful of non-vocal sounds. Consider the whistle of a Mourning Dove’s wings or the deep thrumming of a low flight of swans. Yet a new study considers ways in which such non-vocal sounds can actually represent communication (the mating display of woodcocks might fit into this category). As an excellent writeup in The Economist notes, “…ornithologists have proved time and again that birds’ songs, squawks and shrieks are used for sending signals to their kin, their rivals and sometimes even their predators. In contrast, their more percussive sounds have received almost no attention at all. A study published in Current Biology by Trevor Murray at the Australian National University, in Canberra, however, suggests that is a mistake. At least one bird creates a specific, audible warning with the flapping of its wings.” The original study can be found here, although mostly behind a paywall.