Flock of bird book reviews

Flock of bird books arrives this spring: Peterson, Heinrich, Kroodsma, Gilbert and Tallamy

Published April 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flock of bird books arrives this spring.”

By Barb Gorges

            Spring is when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt likes to send out bird books to review—completely forgetting that as spring migration gets going, birders have less time to read. Maybe we’ll have more time to read this year. Luckily, birding in Wyoming, without Audubon field trips, is a solitary experience perfect for ensuring huge social distances.

            I’ve suggested that we all get social sharing our bird sightings on the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society group Facebook page and through the Wyobirds Google Group. By posting sightings on eBird.org, everyone can “Explore” each other’s Laramie County bird sightings.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson (and contributions from others), 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 505 pages, $29.99.

This latest edition of the classic field guides follows the 2008 edition, the first to combine Peterson’s eastern and western guides in one book. And now the birds of Hawaii have been added.

            Peterson died in 1996 so additional paintings, range map editing, etc. are the work of stellar artists and ornithologists. Bird names are updated, now showing the four species of scrub-jays, except that I heard last month it was decided to drop the “scrub” from their names.

            But, to be a birder, one must regularly invest in the most up-to-date field guide.

White Feathers, The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, Bernd Heinrich, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pages, $27.

            If anyone can make eight springs of excruciatingly detailed observations interesting, Bernd Heinrich can. He wanted to know what purpose is served by tree swallows adding white feathers to their nests.

            Every spring, hour after hour, he observed the comings and goings of pairs using his nest box and noted when they brought in white feathers to line (insulate?) and cover (hiding eggs from predators?) the nest inside the box.

            Or, the white feathers might only advertise that a nesting cavity is taken. 

Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Your Guide to Listening, Donald Kroodsma, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 198 pages, $27.

            Here’s where you can find out what a tree swallow sounds like when it starts singing an hour before sunrise.

            In fact, you can skip this book and learn a lot by going to the associated free website, www.BirdsongForTheCurious.com. There are multiple songs each of most songbird species, as well as ideas for collecting your own data.

            The book has chapters explaining topics such as: “Why and How Birds Sing,” How a Bird Gets Its Song” and “How Songs Change over Space and Time.”

Unflappable, Suzie Gilbert, 2020, https://www.suziegilbert.com/.

            I read the first chapter for free online and I think it will be a very entertaining novel. Here’s the synopsis: “Wildlife rehabber Luna and Bald Eagle Mars are on a 2,300-mile road trip with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and authorities hot on their heels. What could possibly go wrong?”

Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy, 2019, Timber Press, 255 pages, $29.95.      

            Tallamy first wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 where, as a professor who studies insects and ecology, he explains that it is important for all of us to plant native plants to benefit native wildlife.

            Thirteen years later, Tallamy can cite a lot more research making his point: native plants support native insects which support other native wildlife (and support us). For instance, almost all songbird species, even if they are seed eaters the rest of the year, need to feed their young prodigious amounts of caterpillars plus other insects.

            These caterpillars of native butterflies and moths can’t eat just any old plant. They must chew on the leaves of the plants they evolved with—other leaves are inedible. Good news: rarely does the associated plant allow itself to be decimated.

            Native bees, except for some generalists, also have a nearly one on one relationship with the native nectar and pollen-producing plants they’ve evolved with. You may see bees working flowers of introduced plants, but chances are they are the introduced European honeybees.

            What’s a concerned backyard naturalist to do? Become part of Tallamy’s army of gardeners converting yards and wasted spaces of America into Homegrown National Park, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/. A link there will take you to the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder which lists our local natives based on our zipcodes.

            It’s not necessary to vanquish every introduced plant, but we must add more natives. The best way is by replacing turf. Here in Cheyenne, the Board of Public Utilities is encouraging us to save water by replacing water-thirsty bluegrass with water-smart plantings. Plants native to our arid region (12-15 inches of precipitation annually) fit the bill perfectly—and they aid our native pollinators at the same time.

            In next Sunday’s Cheyenne Garden Gossip column, I will discuss exactly how to do that here.

Watching one bird at a time

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“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”

 

By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.

2016-5OneWIldBirdHMH

“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.

 

            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See www.nestwatch.org. The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

“Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood”

Fastest Things on Wings

“Fastest Things on Wings” by Terry Masear

Published Aug. 30, 2015, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hummingbird rescue reveals beauty and mystery”

Book review: “Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 306 pages, indexed, $25 hardcover.

By Barb Gorges

Terry Masear has a soft spot for hummingbirds, yet has survived the hard realities of rescuing and rehabbing them for 10 years.

Her new book is destined to wet your eyes now and then, as well as open them to the beauty and mystery of hummingbird life. She talks about her work in this interview by email. You can also listen to her NPR interview at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/07/28/hummingbird-rescue-masear.

First, we should note in Cheyenne, hummingbirds typically visit only during migration, nesting at higher elevations.

Q. How is your 2015 season going? How about your success rate? Any favorite stories from this year?

A. Southern California hummingbird rehabilitators admit over 500 injured and orphaned birds into rescue centers annually. I release between seventy and eighty percent of my intakes. Due to promotional events for the book, I could not participate in hands-on rehabilitation this year, but I answered 2,000 calls, saved 200 birds over the phone, and sent another two hundred to rehab centers in the Los Angeles area. I helped rescue a pair of Allen’s nestlings that got entangled in a bizarre drama between their mother and her frustrated hybrid daughter (named Rosie by webcam viewers) from last year. This fascinating event, along with footage of several webcam nests and fledges this year, can be seen on Bella Hummingbird clips posted on YouTube.

Q. Have you noticed the drought affecting your hummingbird work?

A. The drought is leading to more mite-infested nests. But we have been able to save and keep most of these nestlings in their natural environment by having finders dust the nests and chicks with diatomaceous earth, which in no way deters the mothers from continuing to feed their young.

Q. What makes bird rescue in Hollywood different from other places?

A. Los Angeles has a larger and more diverse hummingbird population than any city in the world. Females often nest in backyards and near houses, which leads to encounters with humans and makes rescue more necessary. We see seven species–Allen’s, Anna’s, black-chinned, rufous, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and calliope— in rescue. Rehabbers also believe the Allen’s and rufous have hybridized in Southern California as we are noticing extensive rust coloration in many young males.

Q. What makes hummingbird rescue different from other bird rescue?

A. Hummingbird babies are extremely high-maintenance. They have to be hand fed every 30 minutes for 15 hours a day until they fledge and can be feeder trained. So a lot of bird rescue centers refuse to take them, which is why private rehabbers stay busy.

Q. What are the biggest hazards for hummingbirds in L.A.?

A. Tree trimmers and weekend gardeners are by far the greatest threats to young hummingbirds. So we are trying to educate the city and private citizens to refrain from trimming trees in the spring when birds are nesting. Also, a lot of well-meaning finders pick up grounded fledglings and carry them home, which takes the young birds away from their mothers who are still feeding them. Other dangers to hummingbirds include windows, domestic cats, termite tenting, and weather hazards like heavy wind and torrential rain.

Q. All things considered, do you think hummingbird feeders are good for hummingbirds?

A. As long as people keep them clean, sugar feeders benefit hummingbird populations and, along with introduced vegetation, have allowed species like the Anna’s and rufous to expand their ranges considerably.

Q. Which is more difficult, dealing with emotionally distraught callers that have found an injured or abandoned hummingbird, or dealing with the birds?

A. Of course, serious injuries present challenges for the rehabber and some losses will haunt you. But ask any rehabber on the front lines what the most difficult part of their work is and they will say dealing with the public. The majority of callers are compassionate and caring, but a certain percentage does not have the wildlife’s best interests in mind. Some callers don’t want to make any effort and will let helpless nestlings die if rehabbers don’t show up immediately. Others insist on keeping young birds as pets. When we explain why they cannot do this, legally or in good conscience, some get abusive. These conversations strain the patience of even the most forgiving rehabber, especially during peak season when the pressure is on.

Q. Record keeping is required for your permit, but are you also keeping notes that helped you write this book—all the anecdotes about particular birds and their personalities and challenges?

A. As far as overall intakes and releases, my records are pretty precise, so I referred to those when writing “Fastest Things on Wings.” And through these records I can recall certain birds because of their unique histories. Other remarkable characters, like Pepper, Gabriel, Iris, and Blacktop, are easy to remember because their stories are so extraordinary.

Q. A PhD in English doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a riveting story, as you have. What writing experience did you have before writing this book?

A. I taught research writing at UCLA for years and wrote a textbook for ESL students. Five years ago, ironically, I wrote a nonfiction book about a unique and mysterious experience my husband and I had with our cats. While I was trying to sell that manuscript, editors kept asking about hummingbird rehab, which led to this book.

Q. Were you out on book tours this spring and summer, and if so, who held down the fort?

A.

I have been doing book signings and interviews all summer, which is why I could not do rehab. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for six months, so I’ve been deeply involved in the rescue business. And as exhausting as it is, I miss the powerfully rewarding experience of rehab and can’t wait to get back to it.