Jun 25, 2017

The Thing with Feathers

the Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
by Noah Strycker

Another book about bird behavior, and this one was both fascinating and engaging. A field researcher with a focus on birds, Strycker's musings and hypothesis are based both on his personal observations and the work of other scientists (notes in the appendix are pretty thorough, adding to my list of want-to-reads). He delves into the lives of many species, including starlings, wrens, mockingbirds, penguins, hummingbirds, snowy owls, parrots, bower birds, albatrosses, pigeons, chickens and turkey vultures. The subjects covered in detail include birds' abilities with spatial memory, long-distance navigation, flocking behavior, social orders, habitat dispersion, courtship displays, self-recognition, musical acuity, aggression, pair-bonding and altruism.

I learned a surprising amount of new stuff. Lots of detail about why hummingbirds are so vicious to each other, and how huge flocks of starlings stay cohesive. I had never heard of the Boids program before, and viewing some demos of that was really cool. I didn't know that turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell- I though no birds did- but apparently the erroneous notion that they don't was originally based on another vulture species that lacks that sense. I didn't know that penguins fear the dark. Or that bower birds create optical illusions with their structures- while keeping in mind the viewpoint of the female who will judge them! Really intriguing stuff, with a lot of side notes and looks at relevant human behavior as well. Definitely going to look for more books by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          288 pages, 2014

Jun 24, 2017

Welcome to Subirdia

by John M. Marzluff

This book is about how bird populations change when forestland is converted into suburbs. Cities proper tend to have five ubiquitous bird species living in them, no matter where you are in the world: European starlings, Canada geese, house sparrows, rock pigeons and mallard ducks. But to the author's surprise, suburbs tend to have a much larger variety of bird species living in them than the original forest ever did. He conducted a lot of detailed studies to find out exactly which species were present where, how their territories shifted as developments were built, and what contributed to their success. The results show that a surprising number of birds can adapt to and tolerate living in man-made environments, others outright exploiting the human resources. Many more, with a little consideration from people, will do just fine.

You'd think I would really like this book. I found the premise of it really interesting, but for some reason it was dull reading. I couldn't pinpoint just why the writing style came across as stiff and dry to me, but after three times trying to get through a chapter and instead feeling bored, I gave up. It's going back to the library.

Abandoned               303 pages, 2014

Jun 23, 2017

Arctic Fox

Life at the Top of the World
by Garry Hamilton

This oversized, beautiful book is all about arctic foxes. Their evolution, distribution, history of encounters with mankind and most of all, how they manage to survive in one of the most hostile environments on earth. They are amazingly adaptable, switching modes from hunter to forager to scavenger depending on the opportunities for food. Well-known for shadowing polar bears for scraps, but some even even hunt seal pups on their own. They can thrive near human settlement- taking shelter in idle construction equipment and feeding at dumps - or in the farthest off-shore reaches of the polar ice, where there appears to be no other life around. Some stay in a closely-defined territory, others roam vast distances. They even have flexible family groups- any combination you can imagine, from a single pair with pups to communal living or even, in one case, a pair that split up (litters can be large in boom times), the male raising half the pups at one den and the female the rest of the young at another. I had no idea that arctic foxes use the same dens year after year, gradually expanding them. Some have over a hundred entrances, extend over more area than a football field, and are judged to be centuries old (reminds me of European badges in that sense). The book relates a lot about other wildlife the foxes interact with or depend on- geese and seabirds, seals, bears, caribou, hares and of course the lemmings. Also much about the landscape and how it changes.

You might think, like me, that the foxes are endearingly cute, but what I came away with most from this book is that they are incredibly tough. Appear to be completely impervious to the cold. The results of a study done by some scientists to test mammals' ability to endure cold still boggles my mind when I read the details. As a base for comparison, they tested a number of animals to see at what point they would begin to shiver, using extra energy to maintain body temperature. One of the hardiest tropical mammals, the coati, shivers at 68 degrees. Among arctic animals, lemmings reach this point at 53 degrees and polar bear cubs at 32 degrees. The arctic fox? It didn't shiver until the temperature was dropped to -94 degrees and even then only after a full hour of exposure! I am not kidding, that's what the book says. At an incredible low of -112 degrees the fox continued to endure, shivering continually, but still maintained its body temperature for a full hour. I think the scientists decided not to push it further. Amazing animals.

Great book. And the photographs by Norbert Rosing are fantastic. Borrowed this one from the public library

Rating: 4/5          231 pages, 2008

Jun 21, 2017

The Bluebird Effect

Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds
by Julie Zickefoose

A lifelong bird-watcher and rehabilitator, Zickefoose shares some of her intimate experiences with various feathered species. There are backyard birds she feeds and sees up close, and quite a few injured or orphaned songbirds she cared for: chickadees, starlings, Carolina wrens, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, titmice, phoebes, sparrows, cardinals, and of course bluebirds. There are heartwarming stories of healed, released birds- some of which seemed to revisit her yard and recognize her much later. There are stories that end sadly, as well. Two sobering tales of wild birds who were unreleasable yet seemed to bear captivity well, so she kept and cared for them into old age- a savannah sparrow for fourteen years, an orchard oriole for seventeen. There are observations of large, wilder birds- an injured turkey vulture found roadside, an osprey nest studied through a season, a ruffed grouse that would follow her on walks in the woods, wild hawks that prey on the very songbirds she feeds; least terns and piping plovers whose nesting sites she worked to protect. There are her eloquent longings for the hope of (anyone) ever sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker,  and her look at the conflicting views over hunting lisences issued for mourning doves and sandhill cranes. She also discusses how feeding birds in the winter months affects their populations. And last of all the most intimate is a chapter about her lifelong commitment to a pet chestnut-fronted macaw.

Through all the varied essays, the close and thoughtful observations come through with both skillful writings and a beautiful artist's touch. I love looking at her detailed sketches and paintings of birds just as much as reading her words. She knows birds so well, and is always seemingly ready to learn more, and share it with those of us who, like me, absorb from the sidelines.

Written before her compilation of the studies on infant bird development, this book contains some of the same material - I instantly recognized the paintings and a few passages - but with broader focus and more circumstantial details, about the people who brought her orphans, for example. It didn't feel like repeated material, but added richness.

Rating: 4/5       355 pages, 2012

Jun 20, 2017

The Moon and Sixpence

by W. Somerset Maugham

 * * * warning there are spoilers here * * *

It is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gauguin; in this novel the character of the artist is named Charles Strickland. It is told through the eyes of a bystander, a man who happens to meet Strickland's wife at a dinner party and later becomes curious about the man's character and becomes a close acquaintance. I wouldn't say friend, as he never liked the man, who had a blatant lack of regard for other people's feelings. In this story, Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and moves to France in order to pursue his art undistracted. The narrator encounters him again through the friendship of another artist- a simple, trusting man who admires Strickland's then-unrecognized genius. When Strickland, often destitute, falls seriously ill, this other artist takes him in; things happen and the poor man's marriage is destroyed. Strickland leaves- and our narrator (willingly) looses track of him for a while. Later he conveniently happens to meet other men who have had later acquaintance with the artist, and finds out that Strickland went to live in Tahiti, where he lived among the natives, seeking out a primitive idyll. He lived with a young woman who was his unofficial wife, and died in isolation and great suffering from leprosy. All the while, to the very last trying to paint and express some ideal vision from his soul.

While the book has a rather pessimistic view of human nature- at least, as far as the character of Strickland is concerned- it is so well-written I did enjoy it. Being told as a second-hand account, it has a lot of other characters and little side-stories. The writing style and descriptions of life in Paris, reminded me somewhat of George Orwell's work, Down and Out in London and Paris.

It did spur me to look up more about Gauguin, so I learned how many liberties this story actually takes. While a lot of it is roughly true to case, he didn't, for example, leave his wife in the way described. He did have quite a number of sales during his artistic career, had a dealer, didn't die in complete obscurity - nor of leprosy- and lived on a few south sea islands in succession, not just Tahiti. He had a different, young "wife" at each tropical locale- quite arguably the man was a pedophile. One of the scenes in the book which I found most moving, where he painted the entire walls of his house in a mural considered a masterpiece, and then his young wife burned it to the ground at his request after his death, was completely fabricated. I did wish more of the story covered his life in the tropics- that was such a short segment at the end of the novel.

The idea of a man driven to express something, having no desire for anything but to paint, and forsaking everything in his comfortable life to pick this up at age forty, facing the ridicule of those in polite society around him- well, there is something admirable in that. I know what it is like to be enthralled by the act of creation with your hands, even if the resulting product is not so great- to want to keep doing it just because you feel so alive when you do.

Does anyone know what the title refers to? I could not quite figure that out. I'm now curious to read a travelouge Gauguin himself wrote, about his time in Tahiti, called Noa Noa, and perhaps another fiction loosely based on his life by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Way to Paradise.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 4/5

Jun 17, 2017

What Are They Thinking?!

the Straight Facts about the Risk-Taking, Social-Networking, Still-Developing Teen Brain
by Aaron M. White and Scott Swartzwelder

I got this book because of a concerned email from the public school administration (two months ago) sent to make parents aware of the new film Thirteen Reasons Why which was probably going to be popular among curious teens, and why it was so alarming. I haven't read the book or seen the film (nor do I want to), but I've heard about it. I don't think my pre-teen has any interest in it either, but I'm sure she will be exposed to the ideas of peers who have, and it's always best to arm yourself with knowledge. I don't often read self-help or parenting type books, but I went to the library looking for something about how to talk with teenagers about suicide. (My daughter is not suicidal. But I'm sure she will hear other kids talking about it in regards to this film).

The book didn't really give me that, but it was very informative in a different way. It's about how the brains of adolescents are still developing, in ways that make them eager to show off and take risks, short-sighted when it comes to planning, often unable to control strong emotional reactions, easily stressed, and quick to learn new habits which can be lifelong. It goes into a lot of detail about the actual structure of the brain and how connections are being made and how certain behaviors, food intake, sleep patterns and substance use affects the brain during this developmental stage. Alcohol and drug use are particularly scary. In a nutshell, the book discusses: mental health issues, sugar and caffeine, eating disorders, sleep habits (our local school system starts high school latest of all, and now I know why), driving (how the brain learns and manages that multitasking skill, how easily it is distracted, exactly what aspects of teens driving are risky), influences of digital media on the brain, sexuality, exposure to violence and drugs.

That's a lot to take in. The authors are a biological psychologist and a neuropsychologist. They quote a lot of research and studies, but keep it brief and easy to understand. There is not a lot in the way of what-to-do when your kid acts a certain way, or how to talk with them about things- it's more about understanding how their still-developing mind affects their emotional reactions, thought processes, how they learn and make choices- so you get an idea of what's going on and are not taken unawares. It does point out a lot of warning signs: when to recognize your teen is just being a teen going through normal ups and downs, and when they are showing signs of something you need to address (ie a mental health disorder or substance abuse).

On a kind of side note, one little tidbit I found really interesting: in one state the brain goes through while in process of falling asleep, "some people experience hypnagogic hallucinations during this stage, seeing imaginary objects or people in the room." It is common in young children and diminishes with age. So when your kid is frightened at seeing a monster in the corner or thinking of ghosts in the closet- they may actually be experiencing a minor hallucination when on the verge of falling asleep! On another note, I was kind of surprised at how abruptly the chapter on drugs ended. It discussed a lot of substances in succinct detail- telling what they physically do to the brain, how addictive they are, and how dangerous. The part about cocaine didn't mention anything about actual damaging affects to the body. Which I was expecting, because it was included in all the other sections.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         288 pages, 2013

Jun 5, 2017

Baby Birds

An Artist Looks Into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I borrowed it from the library same day as Bird Brain, and have spent all this time reading it (with several renewals), very leisurely to absorb and enjoy as much as possible. The author is a very capable artist, who also happens to be licensed to rehabilitate wild birds. She spends a good amount of time raising orphaned songbirds, and thus had the handling skills to undertake this project.

She decided it would be interesting, and perhaps reveal new knowledge, to paint daily life-sized studies of young birds from hatching through fledging. She accomplished this with seventeen different species, presented in this book- and mentioned in the afterward that she was starting on another, so the project continues! Most of the birds were nesting on her own property, close enough to the house she could view them frequently, or in nesting boxes she monitors closely. Others were nesting near the homes of friends or colleagues, who obligingly took daily photographs for her to use. A few birds were orphans she raised, and in several cases she began studying a nest only to find it empty after a few days- the infant birds killed by parasites, or a predator, or the cold- but fortuitously she received orphans of the same species at about the same growth stage as when she'd left off with the first nest, so could continue the record.

The revelations of these delicate, detailed watercolor and gouache paintings is amazing. I never thought how differently the chicks of various species grow, and I never realized how fast their growth rate is. Some go from helpless, ugly naked hatchling to a bird able to hop and flap among the branches in just ten or twelve days. There are two main reasons for this: getting out of the nest makes the young birds far less vulnerable to predation, and with the quick growth rate, the parents can often raise two or three broods in a season- advantageous when not many make it to adulthood.

I learned so much from this book. Seeing how the babies grow was eye-opening: some develop the feet first, or the wings, depending on what particular skills they need. Some hatch with fluffy down, others completely naked and sprout real feathers sooner. Most are fed high-protein diet of insects by the parents, but some finches eat a purely vegetarian diet (which foils nest parasites whose babies can't live on that- cowbirds, cuckoos) and the mourning dove feeds its young babies crop milk. A few times the author helped the babies out by cleaning the nest when it had mites - they feed on the nestling's blood and it can kill them. But she found that one bird places spider egg cases in its nest- and when the spiders hatch, they eat the mites.

The birds she studied include: carolina wren, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, ruby-throated hummingbird, chimney swift, house sparrow, eastern phoebe, carolina chickadee, european starling, northern cardinal, prothonotary warbler, tufted titmouse, indigo bunting, mourning dove, house finch, house wren and yellow-billed cuckoo. Lovely to read of the daily observations, the growing awareness of the infant birds to their surroundings, the little incidents with raising orphans. There is so much- I can't in any way share all the details- you'd have to read the book! I remember some time ago reading another book that focused on nests of birds, by Joan Dunning, and now I want to borrow that one again so I can compare what I learned from the two.

Rating: 5/5        336 pages, 2016

May 16, 2017

Bird Brain

An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
by Nathan Emery

The term "bird brain" is a complete misnomer, according to this author. Many birds are highly intelligent, having thinking abilities on par with apes in some cases, and using skills and facultie beyond our own, in others. The book is divided into sections exploring how avian intelligence may have evolved, their abilities to navigate long distances and utilize spatial memory, their communication skills, social intelligence, tool use and tool-making, perception of self and more. A lot of the studies in the book were done with birds renowned for their smarts- parrots in some cases, rooks, jays and crows in most. Other studies used chickens and pigeons. The difference in learning things by mimicry rather than trial and error or deduction is pointed out. I was impressed with the aptitude that rooks have for solving problems- usually presented with a task to retrieve food by choosing a correct tool, making a tool or using cooperation. Most surprising (to me) was to find that when presented with the same problems to solve as the rooks, children under five usually failed the test, even up to twelve-year-olds didn't always solve it as quickly. So these birds really are smart. The ways in which scientists studies how well birds can plan for the future was really ingenious. And unlike other books I've read on animal intelligence, this one actually shows maps of the brain, comparing the connections between different brain regions (and their relative sizes) with how similar connections function in humans and other animals.

While the book impressed me with its fascinating information, I was disappointed in the presentation. The chosen photographs and executed illustrations are good quality, but the font type for the main body text is lightweight and a tad small, so it takes some focus; I often found myself physically tired of reading and put the book down to return to later. Also noticed many typos, which became really irritating the further I read. But in all, an impressive volume that overturns ideas of birds as being dim-witted or simple in nature.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 2016

May 8, 2017

A Lion Among Men

by Gregory Maguire

It's been a long time since I first read Wicked, I picked this one up for something different. It didn't work well for me. It's very- dull. Interesting to see the perspective of how Brr the Cowardly Lion grew up an abandoned lion cub in the wilderness (although that part is way too brief) and how his indecisiveness and misfortune at being in the wrong place at the wrong time earns him the label of a coward. Also there's a subtle examination of the difference between Animals (talking) and animals (mute) and human intelligence- this wasn't in-depth enough for me either. What philosophizing there was often went over my head or seemed to stray far from the point. The characters talk in circles. Far too much of the book consists of this interview between the Lion and Yackle, a elderly crone of a seer who admits to being a quack- it goes back and forth between the two of them telling their past histories, steeped in the politics of Oz as Maguire has imagined it, and the story never really goes anywhere. At least, I couldn't see where. Quit halfway. The details are admirable, the storytelling is too slow. I did like the part with the bears, that was amusing, and with the ghosts- that was interesting (and I usually don't like ghost stories). But the rest, really made my mind wander.

Abandoned      312 pages, 2008