What You Can Do
National Audubon
Blog Archive

Entries in Book Review (13)

Sunday
Feb212016

book review: avian architecture by peter goodfellow

Master human architects skillfully design dwellings that optimally meet their clients’ needs and fit in well with their surroundings, both functionally and aesthetically. Equally so are the goals of birds as they construct their nests. Indeed, given the importance of the nest for successful reproduction and nurturing of the young, one wonders why other mammals have not cultivated this ability, through natural selection, to as high a degree as birds. Peter Goodfellow in Avian Architecture ponders these questions and further delves into the entire realm of avian engineering, from overall design plans to intricate construction techniques.

The book is well organized. Each chapter begins with an overview of a specific type of nest with key structural characteristics and building methods, and prominent representative families. Next, the architectural characteristics of each nest type are delineated as ‘blueprint drawings,’ crisp blue and gray drawings highlighting the component materials and their interrelationships in design, shape, structural support and strength. With photographs, in the ‘materials and features’ section, Goodfellow continues on to discuss unique aspects such as camouflage, distinctive adaptations to habitat and incorporation of available material. The 'building techniques’ pages expound upon remarkable skills such as the stitching and weaving of some passerines. ‘Case studies’ conclude each section; he discusses an individual species’ nest type in depth, including notes on courtship and mating, monitoring of eggs and care of young.

The author outlines eleven nest categories: scrape nests; holes and tunnels; platform nests; aquatic nests; cup-shaped nests; domed nests; mud nests; hanging, woven and stitched nests; mound nests; colonies and group nests; and courts and bowers. To the uninitiated, this may seem detailed, but Goodfellow’s presentation of each type is so lucidly well-composed, explained and diagramed that the read feels assured of a comprehensive understanding of each discrete nest type. Also, the author brings in examples of birds from around the globe, greatly expanding beyond the nest types we commonly encounter.

I will mention a few I found especially fascinating. The female Great Hornbill (a huge bird of India and the Far East) nests in the cavity of a dead tree and, once settled in, the female seals up the opening with mud to a narrow slip and there remains for months, completely dependent on the male for food. The Magpie Goose, a waterfowl, builds a reed platform nest by clutching reeds in her beak and folding them down about her, forming a base like the spokes of a wheel.

Red-eyed Vireo nestAs you continue through the book, you quickly discover that nests are not mere piles of debris, sticks, grasses, etc. Rather, just as most of us have learned that baskets are made by twining and binding strands around upright spokes, likewise birds carefully integrate weaving material about vertical supports. Aquatic nest builders depend upon standing reeds, rushes and sedges for structural bracing. Cup-shaped nest-builders often use the triple fork of a branch as a foundation. Woven nests (ex. Oriole) do not by happenstance have a plaited surface appearance. Rather, Goodfellow illustrates the intricate weaving methods, as the bird, with her beak, pushes a grass strip through, tucks in the short end, threads the long and through nearby fibers, pulls it out and around and makes loops, through which it pulls strands to create a secure binding. A Baltimore oriole nest comprises 20,000 such shuttle movements and takes four and one-half days to build.

Most of us are familiar with nests of twigs, grass, reeds, lichen, moss, and mud. Some mound builders, such as the Adele Penguin, use stones. Horned Coots (South America) pile up stones offshore to build a safe artificial island nest.

Some species build nests in groups or colonies. The tightly packed nests of swift colonies are a familiar example. But the Sociable Weaver constructs one large nest with multiple inlets like a gigantic apartment block.

The Bowerbird’s engineering efforts aim at ‘statement architecture designed solely to attract females.’ The construction activity itself is a type of courtship behavior. The attracted female, after mating, flies off to build a commonplace nest. The three types of bowers, stage, avenue and maypole, attest to their display purposes, and in the case of the Satin Bowerbird, go to the extreme of decorating the entryway with distinctly blue feathers and stones.

Although nest building has long been considered innate and instinctive, learning may also play a role. The Vogelkop Bowerbird male spends four to seven years practicing bower making before he breeds.

This is an engrossing book. The numerous types of bird nests are explicitly described by the succinct ‘blueprint’ illustrations, followed by step-by-step diagrams of construction techniques, case examples with photos, and further discussion of nest habitat and mating and incubation behavior.

I purchased the book from E. R. Hamilton, Bookseller Co., PO Box 15, Falls Village, Ct 06031-0015, on sale for $9.95. You could also try Amazon, or better yet, a local store like Bookmobile or Phoenix Books (for special order). 

Click here is a list of other RCAS book reviews: 

Wednesday
Mar042015

john gould's birds

John GouldA few weeks ago, while shuffling past the oversize book shelves at the Rutland Free Library, a tome, fronted with a painting of a sharp-eyed merlin, alighting on its nest, with her desperately gaping young, caught the corner of my eye. Boldly titled John Gould’s Birds, my curiosity was now piqued, and I had to take a closer look. After flipping through just a few pages, I knew that, despite being already burdened down by clunky boots, a down coat and several books for winter reading, this had to be added to my pack.

John Gould is known for his publications on the birds and animals of three continents, monographs on toucans, trogons and hummingbirds, illustrations for two ships’ voyages, and about 300 scientific articles.

He was born on September 14, 1804, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, a town noted for its healthy clime and restorative bathing opportunities, certainly a snug “nest” for someone with a bent for nature. A childhood family move to Surrey, an area rich in wildlife, provided a variety of meadows, woodlands, ponds and rivers for exploration. He collected nests and shot specimens. As I’ve learned from my previous reading (and related in my book reviews), this was considered at the time, not mischievous antics, but wholesome, and was common in the U.S. as well. The introductory chapter included a side comment that Great Britain passed its “Wild Birds Protection Act” in 1880. I couldn’t help wonder, why, despite our pompous declaration of rights, liberty and democracy, the Brits were decades ahead of us in taking a stand against slavery AND against mindless destruction of birds.

Gould’s father was a gardener, eventually attaining a position at the grounds of Windsor Castle, where the young Gould was placed under a Mr. Archer for further horticultural training. However, John found his interest turned toward taxidermy. In 1825, he set up business as a taxidermist in London where he became renowned for his skills. In 1827, he was appointed “Curator and Preserver” to the Zoological society of London. He preserved a great number of specimens for their museum’s constantly growing collection.

In 1830, Gould somehow acquired a collection of Himalayan bird skins which he stuffed and mounted. Perceiving their artistic qualities he visualized how well they would look in an illustrated book. The previous year Gould had married Elizabeth Coxell, an accomplished artist with talent that surpassed her pedagogical drawing duties as a governess. Thus, Elizabeth was engaged to draw the Himalayan birds.

Gould himself was not primarily responsible for the fine art work of the bird illustrations. The plates were based on rough drawings Gould made of the mounted model. These were pencil or charcoal sketches indicating the position of the birds on the page, plants to be used, and perhaps a few dabs of suggested color. Elizabeth (and later other artists) painstakingly produced the detailed lithographic plates and drawings. Another group of watercolorists did the final painting of the prints.

Gould found 298 subscribers for his Himalayan bird book, mainly gentlemen, earls, lords, dukes, institutions and natural historians. He continually obtained specimens through his Zoological Society contacts. Next came Birds of Great Britain, Birds of Europe and Birds of Australia, for which Elizabeth journeyed with him to the southern continent. However, because of her untimely death at age 37, Gould was obliged to find other illustrators to complete the Australian and future works. Edward Lear and Henry Richter were notable artists who illustrated over 1000 plates.

One naturally is inclined to compare Gould and Audubon. Not only had Gould purchased some Audubon prints in 1827, but the two men apparently knew each other. Audubon borrowed skins from Gould and acquired a (live) dog from him.

Personality-wise, they seem to have been near opposites. The text notes that Gould’s “business methods remained brusque and direct, and he never seemed to have acquired the finesse of a gentleman.” On the other hand, Audubon was a social charmer when seeking subscribers in London. With his “shoulder-length chestnut ringlets and fringed buckskin jacket” he became the archetypical beloved “American Woodsman.” A significant difference was that Audubon had received training as an artist in Paris at the atelier of the great French master Jacques-Louis David.

Their techniques and styles were different. Gould utilized taxidermists’ specimens situated in stereotypical positions. His model’s feathers were often faded. Audubon set up recently killed birds in positions secured by wires. His compositions could become quite complex and appear staged, to the point of being contorted and almost “frenzied” such that some scientists questions their accuracy. Audubon appeals to the spectacular and striking, Gould to the formal and lyrical. “There are, for example, Audubon’s pintail ducks whose necks crane upward eager to catch a moth, whereas Gould’s ducks are quietly waddling toward the water. Audubon’s great white heron strides forward with a fish in its bill; Gould’s pair of herons is perched side by side in a tree. Audubon’s great black gull dies bleeding its wing shattered by a storm, whereas Gould’s gull glides peacefully through the water.”

Another clearly evident difference is that virtually all of Gould’s birds are done in vignette format, while Audubon often uses the entire sheet for his painting. Gould’s colors tend toward earth tones – ochre, russets, burn orange, umber, olive green, stormy blues, while Audubon’s encompass a wider spectrum and are more vivid. It seemed to be that Gould’s illustrators’ employment of more subtle, less saturated palette enabled them to achieve finer detail. In this respect, the accompanying wildflowers and plants are as exquisitely rendered as the birds, and they could serve as a fine reference for botanists except for the point that, oddly, they are not identified. If they deserve such study and care in their depiction, one might think a comment would be made as to the possible necessity of the plant in the bird’s chosen habitat. For example, goldfinches flittering about teasel – do they extract tiny seeds from the pods?

Check this one out at the library. Oversize books are upstairs, main room, far west stack. Often, many are set up in display fashion. And, yes, any oversize book can be checked out and taken home. Just bring a big pack!

Sunday
Dec282014

book review: a natural history of tinmouth

In 1964, George T. LeBoutillier retired and, with his wife, went to live in Tinmouth. In A Natural History of Tinmouth, Vermont, he reflects upon his encounters with nature, both on his own property and over the wider Tinmouth region.

a Tinmouth farmHe lays the groundwork with a bit of history. Tinmouth was founded in 1761 as a center of the iron smelting industry. Residual slag pits can still be seen near Tinmouth Channel. Farming, of course, was always present, but he remarks that even at that time, in the 1960s, it was clearly evident that many farms had vanished.

A few pages of orientation elucidate the geography and geology. His hand-drawn map indicates the relationship of Tinmouth and Clark mountains, Tinmouth Pond and Channel, and The Purchase. The soil is generally neutral to alkaline as compared to the more acidic Green Mountains to the east. But the author points out that there are local variations based on the contribution of underlying rock (granite, limestone, or calcium).

This is followed by chapters on the flora, arthropods (including insects), reptiles and amphibians, mammals and birds. The book is not a field guide. Rather it is a compendium of LeBoutillier’s encounters with wildflowers, animals and birds as he actually experienced them. He does comment upon a few defining features, but prefers to draw the reader in with unique specimens he has comes across and unusual incidents likely to have been missed by those less attuned to their surroundings.

His overall philosophy on classification is exemplified by his declaring that, as an amateur, regarding spiders, he is content to get identification down to family or order; to go further would require catching, killing and dissection. Seeing a spider on the windowsill, he writes that “from its small size and the way it held its legs out at hits sides like a crab, I made a reasonable guess that it belongs to the group known as crab spiders….and decided to look no further as there are 200 species found in North American.” But his enlightenment was “Having found one yesterday, today I noticed four more.” Even more exciting was discovering an enormous wolf spider with 20-30 spiderlings on her back.

Viewing nature from ‘aloft’ so to speak, rather than down below, differentiating tiny details, he appreciates many generalities which are often overlooked in guidebooks, but would be useful to the novice. For example, he uses his own contour drawings to highlight distinctive anatomical features in swallowtail vs. skipper butterflies and also notes that fritillaries are distinguishable by their hairy forelegs (a point not sufficiently emphasized in the field guides I checked on).

Sedge Sprite, Nehalennia irene, at Tinmouth Channel WMAInsects are often dismissed by us as repellent irritants, but LeBoutillier begs a closer look. He corrects a common misunderstanding by stating that “Only a few insects are ‘bugs’ and they belong to the order Heteroptera,” and he goes on to “useful, if not wholly accurate generalities: Beetles have a line straight down their backs. Bugs have a triangle on their backs. Flies have only one pair of wings. Bees and wasps have two pairs of wings, and the connection between their thorax and abdomen is a thick tubular membrane. Resting, moths either spread their wings vertically or move them up and down. Dragonflies rest with wings horizontal; damselflies rest with wings vertical.”

For those venturing out in spring hoping to see more than their own arms swatting at “no-see-ums” he offers the general rule, that at least 50 degrees F is necessary for insect activity. Apparently ticks were a moot point “if ticks are present here, we have not yet encountered any.”

Things “stirred-up” while mowing: various butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, “a green larva that lands on my knee from somewhere,” flies beetles, chickadees, swallows, etc., are worth two pages of commentary. Akin to current concerns, already in 1983 he noted decreased bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks secondary to early mowing.

LeBoutillier also makes a point of watching, sitting still and observing. He spent time scrutinizing red-tailed bumblebees approach and depart a ground nest hole, as they maneuvered beneath an arched leaf entranceway. He spends hours watching wood frogs skittering on the surface of a long (was it combat or coupling?) diving or cackling. Frog croaks are not summarily dismissed, rather “the green frog fails hopelessly to achieve the sonority of the bull frog’s bass viol, but only the twang of a loose banjo string.” Of the gray tree frog: “a short trilling call…when two or three call antiphonally, in slightly different pitches, it is pleasant sound indeed.”

White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianusGray foxes, rabbits, mink, weasels, river otters, coyotes, bobcats and deer all traverse his property, and of these he makes keen observations and cogent conclusions. Mink sauntering by, even when searching for prey, have a more docile demeanor than the ferocious visage of the caged mink he has seen. The dexterity of apple-picking raccoons amazes him.

Since winter-watching of animals is aided by one’s ability to decipher tracks, he offers a few tips to explain print patters: Raccoons and bears are plantigrade, walking on the sole of their foot with the heel touching the ground, whereas cats, dogs and deer are digitigrade, walking only on their toes, and thus are faster and more graceful. Walking birds, like crows, decisively put one foot ahead of the other, thus their prints are in a straight line, whereas birds that hop from place to place have footprints in pairs.

Birds are the last major chapter. Watching his feeders over time, he concludes that chickadees have an established hierarchy and behavioral etiquette. He “records” sparrow songs by depicting them as notes on a musical staff on paper. Using this he was able to trace individual sparrows who returned from year to year. He noticed that rough grouse would ascend off their nest with very turbulent strong wing beats which stirred up a flurry of dried leaves, to fall back and conceal the eggs.

The last thirty pages are selected journal entries.

I was struck by the author’s wealth of perceptions and impressions of his environment. LeBoutillier had his eyes wide open. But he wasn’t just passively watching it scroll past before him. He also went out with questions, and looking for answers leads him to see more incisively.

Without his expressly saying so, I think his ultimate message, is first to strive to be well-acquainted with your surroundings. Knowing at least the basics of geology and geography will help you understand and appreciate the inhabitants of your environment. Being familiar with the fundamentals, you will be receptive to variations, and that will enhance your knowledge and understanding. Be “mindful” of the world around you. Lastly adopt a “look it up now” resolution. An ongoing journal would be exemplary, but it is helpful to just jot down what you saw, where, time of day, description or even crude drawings. Having something documented serves as a quick reference to jog your memory. You will be motivated to resolve questions by looking something up. And with your notes, future sightings will be more reliably compared to the past.

This book is no longer in publication. I checked with “The Bookmobile” in downtown Rutland and they said they could probably locate used copies. A Natural History of Tinmouth, Vermont is also available at the Rutland Free Library.

Saturday
Dec212013

book review: bird sense by tim birkhead

In this concise guide, Tim Birkhead’s goal is not only to explain the biology, anatomy and physiology of bird sensation, but also to enable us to perceive what it feels like to be a bird – to be snuffling the humid undergrowth like a kiwi, or to sniff rain falling 100 km away like a flamingo.

The author gives a lucid description of bird senses, allotting a chapter to each: seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense and emotions, and traces the observational and experimental history that led to the current understanding. He relates clever, insightful means of testing hypotheses and debunking or confirming folk anecdotes. An important point is that our conclusions of how birds sense are constrained by the limitations and biases of our own human senses. Notable in this respect, was the discovery of birds’ ability to detect ultraviolet light.

In some cases, as for the eye, the avian sense organ is anatomically distinct from that of humans. Birds of prey, with their extraordinary vision, have two foveae (where the image is sharpest) whereas humans have one. Birds have a nictitating membrane under the eyelid, which cleans and protects the eye. They also have an unusual structure, the pecten, which projects into the posterior chamber and contains a mass of blood vessels able to provide oxygen and other nutrients to the eye. As opposed to the human eye, which has a richly vascularized retina, the bird’s eye is largely bereft of blood vessels, other than those of the pecten.

Birkhead sidesteps for a moment, to remind us that the brain, of course, is the ultimate mediator of all sensation: long, fine, neuronal axons link the sense receptors to the brain. However, the brain is not just a passive control center. For example, the center of the avian brain that controls acquisition and production of song in male birds shrinks at the end of the breeding season and grows again the next spring.

a Sanderling probes for foodUntil recently, birds were not thought to have senses for touch, taste and smell. The development of higher power microscopes and finer dissection techniques revealed that birds have touch receptors within pits in their beaks. Using these sensitive bill tips, birds like sandpipers, woodcock and snipe detect prey such as worms or mollusks either by touching them directly or detecting their vibrations, or by noticing pressure changes in sand or mud.

Complex studies have also elucidated the sense of taste in birds. Taste buds were found to be located at the back of the tongue and throat and in the palate. Birds are able to respond to the same four categories as humans: sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Research has shown that hummingbirds can detect differences in the amount of sugar in nectar, fruit-eating birds can differentiate ripe and unripe fruit, and sandpipers can taste the presence of worms in sand.

At the end of the chapter on taste, the author takes an odd, almost reverse track in discussing the five New Guinea birds that are toxic to humans and he goes on to query the relation of plumage color to palatability.

If a book on bird physiology can possibly have a climax, Birkhead pulls it off in the chapter on smell. He begins by dethroning our beloved John James Audubon, at least on his merits as a scientific logician. Audubon believed vultures had no sense of smell, as they were unable to detect carcasses he had hidden in secluded spots, like a dead tree cavity. His conclusions even received plaudits in the scientific journals of the time. Later it was determined that vultures only respond to fresh carcasses, whereas Audubon had supplied only rotting carrion.

Contrariwise, it was Betsy Bang, a Hopkins trained medical illustrator, but only an amateur ornithologist, who did the fine dissections delineating the labyrinthine maze of bird nasal cavities. She also measured, with a ruler, the olfactory bulb size of many birds and developed an index of size corresponding to olfaction’s relative importance, the kiwi coming out on top. However, in subsequent decades, this straightforward reasoning did not always hold true. Recent, the advent of 3D reconstruction by means of high resolution scanning and tomography has shown the volume of the olfactory bulb to be a much better measure of olfactory sensibility.

Topping off this chapter on taste is a bombastic statement only a pretentious birder would declare: “Apart from the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the ongoing Napoleonic War, the most significant event of 1813 was Europe’s discovery of the kiwi." Indeed, having very poor eyesight, the kiwi is very dependent on foraging by snuffling into the ground for earthworms.

As humans have no innate magnetic sense, scientists were at ground zero when contemplating this capability in birds. Actually, they were in negative territory, since it is only recently that it has even been speculated that birds possess this special property. Some of the first studies were done by Steve Emlen implementing his Emlen funnel: "It consists of a blotting paper funnel about 10 cm in diameter, with an ink pad at the bottom, and a domed wire mesh top, through which birds can see the sky. As the bird hops, the ink on its feet leaves a trace on the blotting paper which provides an index both of the direction and intensity of the migration." (A drawing of this apparatus would have enhanced the reader’s visualization.) In further searching for the Holy Grail of a “magnetic compass,” robins were put in a cage surrounded by huge electromagnetic coils. Shifting of the magnetic fields altered the direction of the robins’ hopping.

Alas, there is no “magnetic organ” as such. “Magnetic sensations are different, because unlike light and sound, they can pass through tissue: this means it is possible for a bird to detect magnetic fields via chemical reactions inside individual cells and through its entire body.” Ingenuous studies have substantiated a visually induced chemical reaction as the mechanism of magnetic field detection. On a grander scale, we have seen how the new geolocators and satellite trackers have been utilized to study bird migration and navigation.

Lastly, emotions – still largely a conjecture and somewhat of a romantic frontier of investigation – perhaps mocked by many, but any devout birder will tell you that the behavior she/she has seen suggests otherwise.

Although each chapter has an introductory page with a few drawings and diagrams, more would have provided further clarification. Birkhead’s writing is clear and flows at an even pace. Anatomy and biology come alive and are not fact-ridden and textbook like. At only 209 pages, it will provide pleasant and enlightening reading for a few dark winter evenings.

Click here to check out some of the other books we've review.

Wednesday
Oct022013

book review: butterfly people

Silver-bordered FritillaryThe benefits of casual browsing struck again when I espied Butterfly People at the Rutland Free Library. A rainbow of multicolored butterflies covered a book set atop the ‘new selections’ case. Like nectar, it drew me in. A quick thumb through revealed many plates of butterflies and moths illustrated with artists’ skillful drawings, saturated with deep oranges, yellows and blues. They evoked a collision of sensuous beauty with scientific detail – wing venation to internal organ systems. Such enticement is the jewel in William Leach’s historic chronicle of nineteenth century America’s infatuation with butterflies.

The Victorian world is often acclaimed as the ‘heyday’ of natural history. Similar to what I related regarding early gatherers of bird eggs in my review of Oology and Ralph’s Talking Eggs, butterfly collection had become a frenzied mania. To capture hundreds of butterflies during a day’s outing was routine. As with bird eggs, butterflies were a marketable commodity, with advertisers searching for distinct species. Henry Edwards amassed 250,000 specimens.

The adventurous and harrowed lives of many ‘butterfly people’ are outlined by Leach, highlighting the curious ways they became enamored of butterflies. One of the chief collectors, Wm. Henry Edwards was a West Virginian coal mining kingpin. Many had another primary day job: Herman Stecker was a stone mason. Very few arose from a professional science background because they were the first ones writing the biological science of butterflies, dissecting and describing morphology, analyzing and comparing species.

American LadyTwo of the main contentions were species distinction and taxonomy. Sexual dimorphism of males and females, and sometimes significant changes in the mature winged adult throughout its lifespan, were the source of much confusion and heated debate. Arguments also arose over taxonomic nomenclatures – should it be Linnaean, alluding to antigenic relations, or should just a common vernacular name be attached? Stecker named one moth “Eudaemonia jehovah.” At this even his religious friends thought he had breached conventional standards of decency. Another source of dispute and rancor (Darwin having lately arrived on the scene) was whether each species was a perfected end in itself or represented evolutionary adaptations over eons. In fact, sixty fossil butterflies were discovered during this time.

An interesting parallel between today and these 19th century butterfly people, popped out to me. Today many birders saunter out and post their notable findings on eBird or similar websites and listservs for professionals such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and etc. to encounter, accumulate, consolidate and arrive at hypotheses on species survival or decline, distribution, etc. Similarly the Victorian ‘butterfly people’ often fell into two groups. The collectors did the field work, catching as much as possible and shipping their harvest off to those like Wm. Henry Edwards who spent most of his hours at his desk in his library, examining specimens and writing the first catalog listings of butterflies and moths.

This is a fascinating story, well written, except that I often had trouble keeping straight Wm. Henry Edwards and Henry Edwards, two separate collectors who were close colleagues. It makes one long for earlier decades when there was such a widespread enthusiasm to get outside and experience and learn more about the natural world. Even further, one hopes mankind harbors a deeper reverence for nature beyond the monetary economies of the ‘collecting bug.’

Be sure to check the RCAS Flickr page for more photos of some of the beautiful butterflies that can be seen in Vermont.