Feb 27, 2020

Birdology

by Sy Montgomery

Another great book. I think I'm spoiling myself! The subtitle kind of tells it all with this one: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur. The "living dinosaur" is a cassowary, surprisingly difficult to find. The author traveled to areas of Australia where cassowaries were known to lurk, but barely caught a glimpse of one before returning home. Relates what she learned from the locals about them, which isn't a lot- the giant birds are very elusive and actually dangerous, which makes them difficult to study so they're still fairly unknown. The other chapters are more personal- she tells about her own flock of chickens- their intelligence, keen observation and social conniving. And the surprising differences between her flock and the chickens a tenant brought to her property- which in the end she attributes to flock "culture" handed down by the original group of hens. Next Montgomery visits a woman who cares for orphaned hummingbirds, then gets up close with birds of prey with a falconer, hangs out with some pigeon fanciers (who race the birds), meets Griffon a parrot who is part of a language study (started with Alex), and visits a city that has been inundated by a huge number of crows- to the delight of some residents and the consternation of others. There's a lot of intriguing stuff about each of the bird species detailed here- the fierce, riveting intensity of hawks, the amazing stamina and physical ability of pigeons, the incredible delicacy and keen aggressiveness of minute hummingbirds. The wry humor and sharp intelligence of parrots- a famous one who dances to music is prominently featured here. And the strong social bonds and ingenuity of crows.

This book enriches a lot of others I've read not so long ago on the same species: Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests by Arnette Heidcamp, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Once Upon a Flock by Lauren Scheuer, Pigeons by Andrew Blechman, The Parrot Who Owns Me by Joanna Burger and  Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg; Bird Brain by Nathan Emery. I have no basis of comparison for the cassowaries- which made it all the more intriguing, to read about them! Definitely would like to add a copy of this to my permanent shelf someday.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5             260 pages, 2010

more opinions: the Stay At Home Bookworm- anyone else?

Feb 18, 2020

Saving Jemimah

Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay
by Julie Zickefoose

A beautiful, tender and eye-opening book. Author and bird rehabilitator Julie Zickefoose tells how she raised a wild blue jay, named Jemimah. It was found as a young chick on the ground under a despoiled nest. Zickefoose had a lot of experience raising other young birds, but not any corvids before this. Lively, intelligent and very social, the jay demanded a lot from her and her family. The bird's care, feeding, habits, learning, socialization and eventual release are all detailed. Not without some difficulties- at one point the jay is ill and needs quick treatment (hard to manage as Jemimah was already flying free outdoors at that point, although still visiting the house regularly). Later on Jemimah breaks some feathers, seriously hindering her flying ability and Zickefoose wonders if she'll ever survive to her second year, so handicapped. Some investigation reveals that the feathers were probably weakened by an illness the jay had as a chick, and might even be the reason it was originally ousted from its nest. Against the odds Jemimah survives with a wild flock she's taken up with, and the author is overjoyed to see her again over a year later. In the time between, she tells of a few other jays that were rescued and rehabilitated (some successfully, some not), her methods for photographing birds that visit her yard, identifying markers she uses to tell jays apart, and what she learns by meticulously going back through hundreds of photographs- sometimes able to recognize a certain bird again, and piece together some data about its circumstances. During the time she raised Jemimah, the author also debunked some commonly held practices in caring for young blue jays. It's all fascinating, very heartwarming and makes me very keen to see a flash of blue among the trees again (jays visit my yard sometimes, but never stay long).

Borrowed from the public library.

Edit add: I found some videos online of Jemimah.

Rating: 4/5               254 pages, 2019

Feb 15, 2020

A Thousand Miles of Mustangin'

by Ben K. Green

This is one of the books I got at Powell's. It's not quite as lively and funny as Horse Tradin', but I still found it plenty interesting. The author needed work during the winter so he travelled south -horseback of course- to Big Bend country in Texas, across the border into Mexico, and later on to Arizona. All to try and catch wild horses he'd heard of but nobody seemed sure they were even in the area. Used his smarts to find the mustangs, several different methods to catch them, with the help of some Mexicans in one area, and members of the Yaqui tribe in another, usually individuals who just wandered into his camp and offered to help (for a bit of pay, of course). In some cases he chased down and roped the wild horses, in another instance a local set snares for them, and in a third place Yaqui runners (mostly young girls on foot it turns out) would follow the horses for days until the worn-out animals gladly integrated themselves into Green's herd when gently driven towards them. The story rounds out by telling how he moved his growing herd of horses back towards home, dealt with Mexican bandits along the way who tried to extort money out of him, and then ranchers who didn't necessarily like him crossing their land. Gradually taming and breaking to ride some of the wild horses as they travelled, traded off a few along the way, and sold the main bunch to a man he knew who supplied them to the government. All through the story, the dependability and skill of his main horse Beauty really stands out. And more than anything, I was intrigued to read of some cures that he came across when in remote areas of the desert- in one case a Mexican treated a horse of snakebite using yucca (called dagger plant in the story), and in another instance an old woman used flour and yeast to grow mold- penicillin!- to treat an infected wound in Green's hand (where a mare had bit him). (Interestingly, there's another account of someone using yucca to cure a dog of snakebite on this page of a 1920's Dog Fancier publication). Oh, there's also a few encounters with cougars- he called them 'panther cats'. Green would kill a young burro to distract the cougars from his horses, which incensed some of the Mexicans with him, who valued the burros just as much as horses, if not more. He actually lost a few helpers over their disagreement on this point.

Rating: 3/5                   145 pages, 1972

Feb 13, 2020

Last Chance Mustang

by Mitchell Bornstein

Subtitled The Story of One Horse, One Horseman, and One Final Shot at Redemption. This guy is a lawyer, but his passion on the side is working with problem horses. He takes on a project to train an adopted mustang that seemed impossibly violent and unpredictable- the horse attacked other animals and people, destroyed property, fought viciously any attempts at being handled, and constantly injured himself on fences trying to escape. He'd been caught off the range after living years of his life a free wild stallion, and was gelded at the age of twelve- which did very little to change his behavior by the way. The owner asked Bornstein to work with him as a last resort. So this book is about how the author worked through issues with the intractable horse, step by step teaching him that this one person, at least, did not mean him harm, and working to get him to accept halter and lead, bridle and eventually even a saddle. The details about methods used to approach and train the horse- readjusting its thinking from flight-or-fight to understanding and then acceptance- was fascinating and the reason I kept reading. The rest of the book- not so much. I got tired of the repetitive, flowery clich├ęs and how the author explained himself over and over again. While the atrocities of how wild mustangs were treated by government management programs is useful and interesting information, I felt there was too much of it in this book. It did give me more detail than what I've gleaned from books like The Horse Lover or Nobody's Horses, but to the point that I started skimming a lot- rather felt those sections interrupted the story instead of enhancing it. And while I don't mind a bit of anthropomorphism- I do believe that animals have emotions- I felt this author took it too far, and I often questioned what he imagined the animals were thinking. (He also made a lot of assumptions about abuse the horse must have suffered in its past). While I enjoyed the main story, and admire the patience and perseverance this man had to work with a horse nobody else could handle, overall I was left with a feeling of unease akin to the end of reading A Dog Called Perth (but not for the same reasons).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            300 pages, 2015

Feb 12, 2020

The Snow Child

by Eowyn Ivey

Suprised at how much I liked this novel, which is kind of like a modern fairy tale, haunting and grittily real at the same time. Tender and harsh, it is the story of an older couple who make a new start homesteading in Alaska. They have long been childless, and one day playfully make a small figure out of snow. The next morning the snow has been scattered, the scarf and mitten they'd placed on it missing, and a single set of footsteps leading away. Then a thin, strange girl starts to show up near their cabin- flighty and shy yet fierce and wild. She apparently lives alone in the woods. Concerned for her well-being, the couple tries to draw her into their lives, while their friendly neighbors are frankly skeptical of her existence, wondering if the middle-aged wife has symptoms of cabin fever. Years pass with the girl coming and going when the first snow falls, disappearing all summer. Until finally one day the neighbors' son, a young man who's been helping out at the homestead, spies her in the forest and realizes there is some truth to the crazy tales. The story isn't just about this wild mystery child, it's also about their struggle to live in the remote wilderness, the toll it takes on the couple's relationship, and what turns to bring them together again. How they come to depend on the neighbors, and help each other out when times are hard. How the wild animals circle in the dark trees, admired for their beauty or hunted for their pelts and meat, but always with their own secret lives just offstage. It's an intriguing story that I enjoyed very much, in spite of some frustration that there's no clear answer at the end, with a broad streak of sadness through it all.

Rating: 4/5         391 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Page 247
Savidge Reads
You've GOTTA Read This!
Things Mean a Lot
Don't Be Afraid of the Dork

Feb 9, 2020

Spineless

the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
by Juli Berwald

I finished this one several days ago, but didn't have time to sit and write. It's one of those amazing books that I read slowly on purpose, in order to drag it out longer. Every chapter it seemed, was filled with stuff that astonished me. I didn't realize how little I knew about jellyfish before! The author is, quite simply, a woman who became enthralled with jellyfish. She read about them, watched documentaries, traveled to visit scientists who studied them and fishermen who caught them. She kept some in a special tank in her living room, and several times ate jellyfish- once cooking it herself. She took her family on detours during vacations to visit beaches where jellyfish had been sighted. And more. The details are mind-boggling. Jellyfish have a very complex and curious life cycle- and one species at least, is known to reverse the process. The way they physically move through the water is intriguing- so different from how we do that it's hard to understand. They can be incredibly fragile- literally dissolving away once in open air- and yet jellyfish blooms- when certain populations suddenly reach staggering numbers- can dramatically change local oceanic ecosystems, causing fish numbers to crash. Then there's the jellyfish toxins- their sting can be mildly irritating, or deadly. Jellyfish stinging cells move faster than anything- even the mantis shrimp, whose strike is so fast it literally makes the water boil. I'm boggled. I was also blown away by the verve the author had to follow her growing passion- she had a job in a different field, an everyday family life with kids- yet sought out people and events revolving around jellyfish, even sitting down at conferences about them. There's a lot in here not only about the physiology and mystery of jellyfish (so much we still don't know), but also what jellyfish indicate about ocean conditions, which throws light on what we are doing to the ecosystem. It's a book I'm very glad to have read, which has fired my mind with so many questions and curiosity for more.

My father gave this book to me.

Rating: 4/5               336 pages, 2017