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

May 5, 2017

In the Herd

A Photographic Journey with the Chincoteague Ponies and Assateague Horses
by Jayne M. Silberman

This gorgeous book about the wild ponies that live on Assateague Island fills in all the gaps I felt with the earlier read. It tells in more detail how the ponies live on the island, their social structure and daily activities. The author, an excellent photographer, followed the ponies into more remote areas of the island and shows them in private moments- napping on the sand, grooming each other- as well as more active images of them running through the surf, stallions fighting, and of course the famous pony penning day. There are more details about that, too- which answered a few questions I had. Mostly I loved looking at the pictures. They are simply beautiful. While the focus in on the horses, there are also some pictures of other wildlife that shares the island habitat, plant life and scenery. Some images are just about texture- pony hair blowing in the wind. It's a real celebration of the beauty of a wild place.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       162 pages, 2012

May 4, 2017

Chincoteague Ponies

Untold Tails
by Lois Szymanski and Pam Emge

This book caught my eye browsing at the public library a few weeks ago, and I finally got around to enjoying it. It's about the Chincoteague ponies, mostly spotlighting individual ponies and the stories behind their names. Some small incidents or characteristic behaviors that are related give it a bit more storytelling, but really after the brief introduction about where the ponies came from, how they survive on the island and how their population numbers are managed, it's mostly just photographs (and paintings) showing the ponies and pointing out their names and heritage. Very nice to look through.

Side note: for the first time ever I understand why cowbirds leave their eggs in others' nests. The birds followed herds of cattle or migratory bison, feeding on insects stirred up by their hooves. They did not stay in one place long enough to brood the eggs, so somehow evolved the behavior of leaving their eggs for other birds to raise.

Borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      144 pages, 2012

Fish Decks

Seafarers of the North Atlantic
by William McCloskey

This book is about fishermen. Not casual sportsmen but those who ply the ocean for their daily living. It's also partly about the economics of the industry, the history of various regions and how fisheries are managed. Mostly a close, personal look at the men who catch fish for consumers, and what their daily labor is like. It sounds like throughout history, the lot of fishermen has been a hard one, although modern machinery and conveniences have improved a lot of things, they also have a detrimental side...

McCloskey himself really enjoys being on the ocean. He was able to write such detailed, personal depictions of fishermen because he volunteered to go along, pitching his weight with the crew and working alongside them. Thus learning something of the various skills involved (often refrained from, or denied, doing particular tasks aboard that required certain dexterity and practice to avoid spoiling the catch) and earning the respect of the men, who would share stories and explain things to him. He shows the hardships they endure and the freedom they enjoy, and also a bit of local culture, some of which remains unchanged through centuries (in one region the men looked askance at him for eating the skin of his potatoes at meals!)

The areas he visited included New Bedford, Gloucester, the Newfoundland Grand Banks, the coast of Labrador, Chesapeake Bay and Norway. In each region he spent time both among permanent residents of fishing communities (often very isolated) and also transient folk, who were only there during the main season. He went aboard big ocean trawlers that fished in international waters and smaller boats that stayed closer to shore. He helped place seine nets, longlines and dredging equipment. He went tonging for oysters and even accompanied some men on a sealing hunt- one of the few places where the locals met him with deep suspicion- their livelihood seriously threatened by "save the seals" environmentalists who protest the clubbing of seals as being cruel. But McCloskey shows how efficient their methods were, and also the long-reaching impact when sealing was outlawed in many areas- the resulting population boom of seals then impacted fishermen- starving seals tangled their nets far more often than the fish they wanted to catch. There are other parts of the book that show how regulations made by lawmakers often don't work out the way they're supposed to, how fishing methods can be vilified, how the issues of overfishing pressure on the oceans isn't as simple as it seems...

And probably a lot of this has changed in the decades since the book was written. It felt insightful to read it, though. The author writes well, describing places and people vividly, often breaking a laugh from my reading demeanor. Some parts about the fishing rights and international treaties and how catches are measured and so on can be a bit dry, but overall a good read.

Rating: 3/5           307 pages, 1900

Apr 23, 2017

A Zoo in My Luggage

by Gerald Durrell

This short but very entertaining book is about Durrell's return trip to the Cameroons (in Africa), eight years after his first visit. On this occasion he was collecting animals for his own zoo, which didn't have a location yet! The final brief chapters describe the difficulties of getting the animals safely home to England, and finding a site on which to build his zoo (the city didn't want it at first).

Half the book is little stories about the wild animals, much is also about the Fon, a local dignitary Durrell met on his first trip, who greeted his return with enthusiasm- just as much for the nights spent drinking and dancing as for the economic windfall Durrell brought to his country, with his offer to buy as many wild animals as the local people could catch. The character sketches are delightful. Once again the phonetic presentation of the local pidgin dialect can be cringe-worthy, but I had encountered this before and knew what to expect...

Of course my favorite is reading about the animals. The cute bushbabies and infant squirrels, alarming snakes, elusive rare birds. A baboon that caused endless trouble, in particular amusing herself by ambushing visitors and tackling their legs. Two mongooses of very different types and temperaments. A squirrel that has green fur and a red tail- I have read his description of this squirrel before, but never yet able to figure out what species it is or find a picture. Hilarious chapter about his attempts to film wildlife in realistic settings doing normal things- with regular failure: the owl deliberately turns its back on the camera every time, a diminutive antelope only wants to bolt or freeze, a calm episode of filming some rodents gets interrupted by a snake. A doormouse who having tasted the easy life in captivity, refused to leave when it was set free (it had suffered an accident which did no lasting harm but made it unfit for display in Durrell's opinion).

That's the last of my Durrell collection, until I find more of his books.

Rating: 3/5        185 pages, 1960

Apr 16, 2017

Encounters with Animals

by Gerald Durrell

More intriguing stories about experiences with wildlife, by one of my favorite authors. According to the foreward, these brief tales were originally presented as a series of radio talks, and so many people requested a copy of the script that Durrell decided to write them down in a book. Loosely grouped: stories about animals' courtship behavior, rearing and protecting their young, and amusing ways in which their actions remind us of humans. They're kind of scattered- ranging from time in his childhood spent watching insects (most notably a battle between different species of ants), keeping a marmoset as a pet which would crawl into bed with various members of the family in succession every morning (it had trouble staying warm enough) or time spent observing hippos in a river during a collecting trip for a zoo. My favorite was the description of a mother jacana and her brood -a bird in South America that walks across lily pads on the water- trying to evade a single young caiman that lurked in their pond. Also a chapter about the return trip Durrell made on ship bringing animals home- where the captain constantly disparaged the creatures until Durrell claimed he could prove that any invention by man had been used by animals for far longer. Of course Durrell won the bet by describing radar used by bats, electricity produced by electric eels and rays, paralysis (example of drugs?) caused by a spider bite to her prey, and an aqualung created by a spider that lives under water. Funniest part was that Durrell found out later that the captain afterwards would retell these same stories to other passengers to impress them! Behavior of many other animals described: tigers, birds of paradise, praying mantids, spiders, weaver birds, tree porcupine, Père David's deer, an orphaned kangaroo, dwarf mongoose (one I had to look up- he only referred to it by the local name kusimanse), a baby anteater, and a particular whip scorpion which became a beloved pet until he accidentally lost it at sea.

A lot of it felt awfully familiar- I think I've read some of these stories in other books of his, but didn't have the time to page back through them and find out for sure. Enjoyable, regardless.

Rating: 3/5         187 pages, 1958

more opinions: BookNAround

Apr 9, 2017

found!

Maybe you've noticed, I haven't been reading as many books lately. Busy with gardening and transitions in my aquariums and other stuff. What reading I am doing is mostly dipping in and out of magazines- hobby related- so there's that.

I have a happy book moment to tell, though. A month or two ago I wanted to read a book off my TBR shelf about a woman who studied sharks. She was mentioned in this other shark book I'd read. I distinctly remembered getting it at a library sale, and what it looked like. Couldn't find it anywhere on my shelves or the stack on the floor (not organized, but it's not huge, either). Baffled, I searched two or three times. I even looked on my swap shelf downstairs, just in case. And checked my swap site lists online- thinking maybe I'd tried it, given up, put it out for swap and forgotten about it. Nope. I checked my library catalog- still listed as being in my collection, unread.

Finally gave up looking for it.

I just happened to find it today by accident, at the bottom of my backpack (which I don't use very often). I must have stuck it in there as an alternative read for a trip, never opened the book, and forgot it was there when I unpacked later. I'm so glad it's not actually lost or given away! Laughed out loud to hold it in my hands again. Now let's see if it's any good.

Apr 4, 2017

An Entirely Synthetic Fish

How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World
by Anders Halverson

It's about rainbow trout. How they became so popular among fishermen, how hatcheries evolved to populate the streams and rivers, driven by the revenue brought in by sportsmen who then demanded certain provisions. This is back in the sixties and earlier. Entire watersheds were poisoned to remove "undesirable" fish and restock with rainbow trout. That part was awful to read. A lot of this is about management politics and departmental bickering over policies- sadly no real studies into the situation of fish in the rivers was done until it was too late. By then genetic testing and numbers revealed that most fish had rainbow trout ancestry to some degree- so lots of native fishes aren't in their original form anymore but the offspring of hybrids. In a complete about-face, fish and game departments started removing rainbow trout from the rivers they had once worked so hard to stock- when they realized that native fish and some ecosystems were threatened to disappear (fish and frogs don't mix- some frogs in lakes that had never seen fish until they were artificially stocked almost went extinct). The parts about genetics, fish behavior, wild vs hatchery-raised and even disease outbreaks (whirling disease) were interesting. The parts about how exactly why rainbow trout came to be so esteemed over other "trash" fish, and how certain groups of sportsmen tried to control access to fishing areas- seeing themselves as aristocrats in a way- not so much.

I'm not sure how to rate this book. It's one of those I didn't really read all the way through- skimming large sections that were just dull and reading with more attention the parts that caught my interest. I probably skipped a third of the book. As I knew going into it, the book is more about the history of organizations and people who dealt with the fish than it is about fishes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned           257 pages, 2010

Mar 27, 2017

Aquaria Fish

Management and Care of the Aquarium and Its Inhabitants
by Frank Lee Tappan

I read this book online. Happened across it when I was searching out treatment for a disease symptom in my fish. The entire text is a google document. I read the section that applied to my situation, then curious about the source of the text since it sounded a bit antiquated, scrolled back to the beginning. It's a short but very thorough treatise on how to care for fish- mainly paradise fish and goldfish. I was immediately interested because I have recently become curious about the paradise fish- reputedly the first tropical fish kept in captivity in the early 1900's. This book details exactly how it was done.

With water drawn from rivers and lakes, using plain glass globes (even back then experienced aquarists deplored these small containers) or aquariums that had frames made of iron or tin. The book describes how to situate an aquarium, how to catch live food for the fishes, how to handle breeding of goldfish and paradise fish, how to manage the temperature (heating water over a fire when needed!) and limited means by which to treat disease. Most of the book details the care of paradise fish. I was impressed that all the basics are the same- take care of the water and the health of the fish will follow. Don't overfeed or overcrowd them. Emphasis on having enough surface area so the fish are not deprived of oxygen. Of course some things were deplorable- water changes once every six months! but other techniques remarkably have changed very little in the past hundred years, as I just found out.

The book also describes how to raise fry, and it sounds just as painstaking back then. With attention to first foods, separating the young when they differ in size, and so forth. It has plans for a greenhouse and tells how to raise fish in outside ponds. The author recommended using frog tadpoles as scavengers to help keep the tank floors clean, and various snails as well (some of which I am familiar with). Also mentions use of live plants, and several other species of fish which were kept in aquariums back then- including bullhead catfish, american perch, a common killifish, shiners, and the famous nine-spined stickleback. Five distinct types of fancy goldfish are shown.

I was really surprised at how much of the information in this book was pertinent. Particularly about keeping fishes in good health, avoiding disturbances to brooding parents or young fry, and the benefits of live foods. The illustrations are few, but marvelous. If I ever found a physical copy of the book to add to my library, I'd consider it a treasure.
Rating: 4/5        97 pages, 1911