Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Much of the pleasure we take from birds is tied to the science that envelops these amazing creatures. Science explains flight and song and navigation. It also explains feathers, the one thing that defines birds most specifically.
Feathers are essential to our perception of birds. But with or without birds, feathers have a most interesting life of their own. Author Thor Hansen has given us the story of feathers in a fascinating book entitled “Feathers: the Evolution of a Natural Miracle.”
My list begins with the first feathers. They were worn by a creature from the Mesozoic era, a reptile-cum-bird that left us only rare impressions of its singular creation. Archaeopteryx is its name. It appeared like magic when a piece of slate was split in an English quarry.
One of the quarrymen smuggled this fossil home, incidentally using it as payment to a doctor for treatment of a lung condition, a doctor with an interest in fossils. That was in 1861. It was, as author Hanson says, “the first full specimen of … an ancient animal with the skeleton of a reptile and the feathers of a bird.” It went on to become one of the most famous and most studied fossils ever.
This ancient animal’s Latin name is more than descriptive. It’s beautiful and poetic, uncommon things for scientific names: Archaeopteryx – “ancient wing written in stone.”
Hanson explores and explains as he examines a deep pile of feathers.
Why do birds lose feathers in a process called molt? Why pay the high-energy price for a new set of what you already have? For the same reason you replace tires or windshield wipers on your car, Hanson says: things wear out. Molting also is the most reliable way birds have to keep lice somewhat under control.
Feathers keep birds warm. They also help keep birds cool. Hanson placed a dead flicker in the sun. In a few minutes the outside temperature of the bird was 102 degrees Fahrenheit. A thermometer slipped beneath the feathers registered only 87 degrees.
Throughout the book Hanson weaves history and myth into explanation and knowledge, a recipe for a most readable effort.
Hanson is a conservation biologist who has worked in Africa and Central America. His first book, “The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda,” won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. The book has been published by Basic Books. It is hard bound with a handsome jacket, 336 pages, a few illustrations, and an index. Price is $25.99.
Feathers from a phalarope, a species of shorebird.
When I began birding I fully agreed with Roger Tory Peterson's description of fall-plumaged warblers as confusing. Spring warblers, too, not to mention flycatchers, gulls, terns, sparrows, sometimes confused me, yes, and female ducks. Eventually, I straightened most of it out.
There are lots of other creatures one can watch when birding. I’ve learned the names of some wild flowers, trees, small mammals, frogs, toads, turtles, and butterflies. Identification here is pretty straightforward.
Then we come to dragonflies and damselflies, fascinating all, and a challenge. Princeton University Press has published a beautiful, well-designed guide that would make the ID task if not easy then certainly less difficult. It is companion to a western-species guide published in 2009. The new guide is the first complete identification examination of eastern species.
Author Dennis Paulson covers 336 species of these insects in the book. Patience, close observation, and the ability to see all shades of color are what you need to tell one from another. Those, and this ID guide.
A friend in Duluth began adding dragonflies to his field observations a few years ago. I thought that a good idea. Then I learned that many distinguishing features on these creatures depend on color perception. Being able to separate reds from browns is essential.
I’m among the 10 percent of men of northern European descent who do not see well colors containing reds and greens. I have trouble with reds, greens, browns, some tans, and most pinks. That is not an all-inclusive list.
So, as much as I’d like to go out with the new Princeton guide in hand, not even its fine photography, excellent text, and helpful range maps can make it work for me. (I have read the natural history at the beginning of the book, however, and will now look at dragonflies and damselflies with more knowledge and respect than before, even if names evade me.)
"Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East" is a beauty, essential if dragonflies and damselflies are of special interest. It is similar to birding field guides in organization and content. It begins with a natural history of dragonfiies and damselfiies worth a read to become acquainted with often-seen but little-known creatures. There follows information on anatomy, colors, names, finding, migration, mating, eggs, photography, collecting, and conservation threats and more. The writing is clear and concise, the photography excellent. It's a worthy addition to a natural history library.
Soft cover, 538 pages, photographs, drawings, index, glossary, $29.95.
You see book reviews here now and again. Publishers send me books. They send books to the desk of my boss, downtown, and those often come to me. I usually review books that I find worthy of praise, books that you might find interesting, regardless of what I think, but also books I think should immediately be remaindered.
I often review books from Princeton University Press. They pretty much unfailingly publish good books, books that meet a need, books that are well done. I have 20 Princeton books on my shelves at the moment, and I’ve often given their titles away.
Two recent Princeton books, both are field guides, differed in several ways. I wondered why, so I called the executive editor of field guides and natural history at Princeton University Press. His name is Robert Kirk.
Kirk answered my questions, told some stories, and visited with me about this and that. It was a thoroughly delightful conversation.
It takes a long time to produce a birding field guide. Years and years. A decade or more. That Crossley ID Guide you might or might not have on your bird-book shelf? It took Richard Crossley four years to bring that together, Kirk told me. Ten-thousand photographic images on 544 pages.
A piece of work, and, relatively speaking, four years was pretty quick. It was published in 2011.
Kirk looks for niches for his books. He wants books of particular excellence, books that will fill a gap. He finds authors, artists, and photographers. He determines the press run for each book, and when a previous edition will be updated and re-issued. Princeton book editions following the first edition always contain new or revised material, he told me.
Kirk decides if one artist should do all of the paintings or photos, as in the Crossley case, or if a team will do the work. Either could involve thousands of images. Kirk has a field guide in progress where one person is producing all of the art. It is projected to take 10 years to bring the book to press. “It might take 11 years,” he said, as an afterthought.
“This is a very expensive art program, the art one for that book,” he said. “We do it because we want consistency from plate to plate, a seamless presentation. That’s expensive.”
Princeton has about 120 books on its biochemistry list (which includes birds.) The web address for the subject list is http://press.princeton.edu/complist/subjects.html#birds.
How unlikely – a romantic book illustrating and discussing North American bird nests and eggs. The book was born in 1876 when Genevieve Jones was forbidden from marrying the man she loved. She began mending her a broken heart with nest and egg drawings styled after the monumental work of John James Audubon. It was a project soon interrupted by her death, finished by family and friends. Ninety copies were printed, 45 originals remain known. Now, “America’s Other Audubon” published by Princeton Architectural Press, restores for wide enjoyment this lovely work. With the story told in new text by Joy M. Kiser, this coffee-table-sized work (11x13 inches) indeed does for nests and eggs what Audubon did for the birds themselves. Hardcover, $45.
Title: WSJ.com - Knowing a Hawk From a Handsaw
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