May 30, 2018

The Living Bird

100 Years of Listening to Nature
by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This book is just beautiful. It is a collection of essays on bird-watching, new discoveries science has made about birds, facts about their lives, movements and behavior, descriptions of their beauty, concerns about their future and what we can do about it. Heartening are the accounts of birds whose populations made remarkable recoveries once measures were taken to protect them: bald eagles, snowy egrets, wood ducks, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans. I did not know the details about some that are currently in serious decline, especially ivory gulls and the florida grasshopper sparrow. I didn't realize that the spotted owl is being pushed out of its habitat by larger, more competitive barred owls. Some of the more intriguing facts I also learned: birds have a double-sided voicebox. So they can sing two notes simultaneously, so a bird can harmonize with itself. I never realized this before. I listen more closely now to the intricacies of their songs. Harris's hawks live in groups and hunt cooperatively, like a pack of wolves or a pride of lions! There's so much more in here.

The introduction is written by Barbara Kingsolver, about how she resisted the passion of her bird-watching parents as a teen, but came to love birds in her own way later on. Chapters about observing flamingos, visiting nesting colonies on remote islands, collecting the sounds of birds, and how studies of bird populations can alert us to serious problems in specific environments, are penned by John Fitzpatrick, Scott Weidensaul, Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Jared Diamond. There are also sections written by scientists in the field describing their work and their love of birds. And the photographs by Gerrit Vyn make this book something to pore over for days. They are absolutely stunning. I have never seen such precise, exquisite detail in bird photography before. The texture of the feathers is so clear, the details so sharp, I spent a lot of time just staring at the pictures.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5          208 pages, 2015

May 29, 2018

The Grey Parrot

by Wolfgang de Grahl

This is an extensive manual of sorts on keeping grey parrots as pets. The book has details about this particular species' dietary and husbandry needs, how to tame a new parrot and methods on training them to speak, behavioral issues, recognition and treatment of disease, and breeding attempts. Most interesting I found was reading the many personal accounts submitted by parrot fanciers to the publication. The individual descriptions make it clear that each parrot has a unique personality and their own likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to people they will trust. It was intriguing and amusing to read about their antics and speech patterns. Curiously, most birds appeared to learn phrases or song by repeating one or two words and gradually adding a new word until they could say the whole sentence. There was one parrot in particular who would repeat the entire sentence at first with just general intonations and rhythm, then gradually clarifying the phrasing and syllables until the words became distinct with practice. I also noted that some songs and phrases seemed really common to the time and culture: lots of parrots in this book would repeat "one, two three, hurrah!" and quite a few would say "now I'm coming with the stick!" or "I'm going to get the stick!" making you realize- sadly- that corporal punishment was part of the household. It was an interesting contrast, this older book, in comparison to newer publications I recently read about parrots in captivity. I don't keep birds myself so I am ignorant about what type of care parrots really need, but several other readers' reviews point out that the dietary and husbandry practices in here are bad advice, and should not be followed. So it stays on the shelf as a historic curiosity more than anything else.

Rating: 3/5             256 pages, 1987

May 20, 2018

The Parrot Who Owns Me

The Story of a Relationship
by Joanna Burger

Ornithologist writes about her gradually deepening relationship with her parrot. The story goes back and forth between how she acquired the bird (it originally belonged to a neighbor), how she slowly earned its trust and learned to live with its quirks and demands- the parrot very much ran that household- and her studies in the field, usually involving birds including terns, gulls and wild parrots, but sometimes other wildlife such as baboons. It was really interesting to see how after each trip for studies, she would come home with new understanding of her parrot's behavior. It became increasingly hard for her to leave him for any length of time, because he bonded to her strongly, considered her his mate, attacked her husband if he showed affection, and often disliked strangers intensely. I found all the little details about what life with a parrot can be like very intriguing to read about- they are so smart and stubborn! but am even more firmly convinced they do not make a good pet for the average person. The author also discusses the issues with parrots in the pet trade, environmental ills, and shares many personal anecdotes from her home life and her travels. I found it very enjoyable reading, although it was the kind of book I had to take slowly, the chapters were so full of things to think about.

Rating: 4/5          245 pages, 2001

More opinions:
Best Memoir

May 11, 2018

Of Parrots and People

by Mira Tweti

The subtitle of this book is The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species. I didn't find much funny in it. I was often wowed by descriptions of the mental abilities of these birds, far more often dismayed at descriptions of the terrible ways we have treated them, coveting ownership for their beauty, smarts and ability to speak. Tweti's chapters detail some really intriguing examples of their mental acuity, the deep attachment they often make to individual people and the crisis of unwanted birds flooding parrot rescue facilities, many of which eventually fold from lack of funds and way too many birds coming in. So many parrots dumped by their owners because the birds are too demanding, scream incessantly, make a mess. When cooped up in cages, bored or constantly ignored, they often exhibit self-mutilating behavior and suffer mentally and physically. Most of the book is about logistics on how things got this way: the parrot trade. How it became outlawed in many countries because the birds faced extinction, so now they are smuggled or bred in captivity instead. Parent birds in breeding facilities kept in atrocious conditions, and the babies are taken from them and transported to pet stores way too young. So many birds die in trapping and smuggling operations, for every one that makes it alive into a home as a pet. Confiscated birds that were smuggled fare little better- at least they are kept clean, but they often do not see the light of day for years while waiting an outcome. The author got an inside look into several rescue places, a breeding facility, and visited Mexico pretending to be a tourist interested in buying a parrot. Appalled at what she found. Later travelled to a zoo where some very rare parrots were being kept in hopes of producing a breeding population, and went to South America to visit the forests where parrots are being illegally trapped. Most uplifting were the final chapters, which tell of a private conservation group set up by one individual who wanted to save habitat for parrots in his country. All of this in way more detail than I had ever imagined, and much of it made me feel very sad. I am strongly impressed, after reading this book, that for most people parrots do not make good pets, they do not belong in cages, and to our shame, any intersection they have had with mankind has been to their detriment.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5             317 pages, 208

more opinions:
Both Eyes Book Blog

May 8, 2018

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This book is quite short but so thoughtful and I liked it very much. It's a detailed memoir of sorts, from a period of time when the author was bedridden with a serious illness in a convalescent home. A friend brought in a pot of violets and a small snail from the woods for her bedside table. She gradually became interested in watching the snail's daily habits- and had a larger terrarium set up with soil and woodland plants so the snail would have a more natural habitat. Eventually curious to learn more about the little mollusk, she requested books and articles from the library about them- and shares a lot of what she later learned. I kind of giggled when the snail started laying eggs- in spite of being a single member of its species- and ended up producing one hundred and eighteen offspring in that ten-gallon terrarium. (Much the same thing can happen with aquatic snails in an aquarium, as I well know). She gave some away, had the majority released in the woods, and kept one when moved back home as her health improved. The personal observations of her little snail are so charming, and the details she shares from natural history tomes quite intriguing. Her thoughts on the nature of illness and how it changed her life overall, makes the reader slow down and ponder too. A wonderful little book that I hope to add to my own collection someday.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5          187  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
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Bermudaonion's Weblog
The Black Sheep Dances

May 7, 2018

The Hedgehog's Dilemma

by Hugh Warwick

I don't know if I've ever read a book about hedgehogs before. They certainly sound like endearing, if slightly cranky, little creatures. The author obviously finds them very intriguing. His book tells about several studies he undertook to estimate hedgehog numbers on an island in the UK (to see if their predation of eggs was affecting bird populations) and another to find out if young hedgehogs cared for by people who found them ill or injured, had a good survival rate when returned to the wild. Interspersed are lots of personal accounts of encounters with hedgehogs, or people who care for them, rescue them, or even keep them as pets. It seems this is not a thing in Great Britian- but in America the numbers of people who kept pet hedgehogs was growing fast. After hearing in detail his visits to places where hedgehogs housed in large numbers for rehabilitation, I was rather curious what his impression of the pet hedgehogs would be. But it seems he only visited a hedgehog olympics event, and his description of that venue was rather disparaging I'd say. It didn't really give me an idea of what it's like to have a pet hedgehog, though he criticized this practice consistently. On a different note- one chapter of the book is about his trip to China in search of Hemiechinus hughi- or Hugh's hedgehog- a rare species that had only been seen once or twice. I certainly learned quite a bit about hedgehogs, although I kept picturing the T.H. White's Urchin rather than Beatrix Potter's Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (frequently referenced here). I didn't know that hedgehogs and badgers compete for the same food source, or that hedgehogs are considered pests by some. The plucky fearlessness of these wild animals when encountering people endears them to many, and they are helpful to gardens it sounds like. Makes me kind of wish we had native hedgehogs instead of skunks, possums and raccoons... And of course, now I'd like to read more about them, too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           279 pages, 2008

more opinions: A Striped Armchair