“My Garden Neighbors,” L.A. Reed, book review

My Garden Neighbors book cover

The cover of “My Garden Neighbors” features a drawing by the author. Courtesy archive.org.

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birder’s interest piqued by book a century old.”

2015 Update: A new online search shows the author’s full name is Lucas Albert Reed. He wrote mainly on religious subjects. Many copies of this book are available online for sale. Read a digitized version, complete with drawings by the author, at https://archive.org/details/mygardenneighbor00reed.

By Barb Gorges

My Garden Neighbors, True Stories of Nature’s Children by L. A. Reed, B.S., M.S., with illustrations by the author, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1911, copyright 1905 by L.A. Reed.

A couple months ago, Edna Hudson called me to see about donating bird books. I found a home for them at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (www.rmbo.org), which will either put them in its library or sell them at a fundraising auction in April.

But one book, the subject of this review, caught my eye and I will either mail it or a check to Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory later. Edna said she bought it for resale at her shop long ago, but had no other information.

My Garden Neighbors, by L.A Reed, is apparently written for children. One of the last pages is in smaller type and is addressed to teachers, giving them study ideas and informing them outdoor study aids body as well as mind.

Then there’s the cover’s patina of hard use. Another clue was stuck between the pages, a certificate for junior membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Young People’s Society of Missionary Volunteers, dated 1929, for William Archer, Boulder, Colo.

A search of the online used book seller, Alibris, shows two copies in much better shape available for $16 and $37, but no background information available.

With skepticism, I Googled the publisher’s name. What I found is no doubt familiar to some of my friends because Review and Herald has been the publishing house of the Seventh-Day Adventists since the 1850s. They still publish children’s nature literature.

Too close to deadline, I can’t find out more about the author, whom I suspect is a man. For one, it would have been highly unusual in 1905 for a woman to have a Master of Science degree. Plus, even though the stories in each chapter are told in the third person, they are told from the point of view of “the man.”

Book page

The author has little respect for bird-eating cats. Courtesy archive.org.

And while the animals are referred to in that quaintly polite, somewhat anthropomorphic style characteristic of the age, there’s no softening of the reality of nature.

For instance, Mr. Sparrow, after suffering the loss of a leg by slingshot, nearly loses his mate to another male before adapting.

Reed draws parallels to the way animals handle life and the way people could learn from them, but by no means is he as sentimental as other writers for children of the same era. In fact, when the man’s adopted stray cat begins “going to the bad,” killing several birds a day, the man chloroforms it without a sugar-coated euphemism.

In this modern age of effective kitty litter, the man may have been able to keep his cat indoors. However, on other topics he shares a modern birder’s viewpoint. For instance, house sparrows (he calls them English sparrows) are not to be encouraged since they are an invasive species that competes with the natives.

After the twelve chapters of stories about birds, spiders, and other garden neighbors, Reed provides “An Invitation to the Birds.” His admonition against loose cats, red squirrels and house sparrows, and his prescription of tangles of bushes and shrubs, watering places, nesting places and various grains to feed is hardly different from that of modern experts, although, finding hemp seed at the feed store today may be difficult.

Book illustration

Some illustrations are color plates, like this meadowlark. Courtesy archive.org.

Also at the end of the book are individual species descriptions, including range. This is where I thought I might learn what part of the country Reed gardened. First, I had to translate some of the old-fashioned names. I think “The Snowflake” should be revived for the snow bunting.

Reed mentions some other former names such as Summer Yellowbird (yellow warbler), Myrtlebird (yellow-rumped warbler), Cherry Bird (cedar waxwing), Thistlebird (American goldfinch), Chewink (eastern towhee), Firebird (Baltimore oriole), Blue Canary (indigo bunting) and Yellow-Hammer (northern flicker, yellow-shafted race).

Did you know that Lewis and Clark first collected for science what was originally known as the “Louisiana Tanager”, named for the Louisiana Purchase? Now we call it the western tanager.

Reed lists a couple other western species, but I don’t think he did more than travel through the west because he lists the red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, yellow-breasted chat, and chipping sparrow as eastern-only species. I’m pretty sure they’ve been breeding in Wyoming and the west more than 100 years.

On the other hand, Reed lists the blue jay as being found in North America in general and we know it is a species still expanding its range into the west, though there are other blue-colored jays already here.

More than the change of bird names and distribution in the last hundred years, what is notably different in Reed’s book from our modern lives is the amount of time “the man” has for nature observation. It is explained, “The man’s health had failed, and the doctors had advised him to live more out of doors. That is how he came to have a garden.”

Perhaps we too should take the doctors’ advice and learn to take time to observe such events as construction of a spider’s web—from start to finish. It may be healthful as well as instructive.

A bird by any other name still looks the same

AOU logoPublished Sept. 18, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A bird by any other name still looks the same.”

2014 Update: The American Ornithologists’ Union continues to change bird species’ classifications, and consequently their names and or families, based on new science.

By Barb Gorges

It’s a bird book author’s nightmare and a marketer’s dream. It’s the American Ornithologists’ Union’s third supplement to their 1998 checklist of official bird names and taxonomic order as recently published in The Auk (and available online at www.Birding.com).

All bird publications, including the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD I finished making last year, are seriously out of date.

Most of the AOU’s new changes don’t affect us in Wyoming, but this time there are some doozies.

The AOU has three goals when making changes to its official checklist. It wants each bird’s scientific name to reflect its relationship to closely related birds. It wants to comply with standardized common names for birds around the world. And it wants to list all birds in ornithological order, based on evolutionary development.

Because people in different locations have had different names for the same plants and animals—not to mention different languages, about 150 years ago scientists started using Latin, the historical universal language of scholars, to give them each unique names.

The Latin, or scientific, names are also part of the taxonomic system developed by Linnaeus to categorize living things. Each scientific name starts with the genus, which is shared with a plant or animal’s closest relatives. The second part is the species name, the plant or animal’s individual name.

On the other hand, common names for birds were originally whatever people observing them wanted to call them. There was some confusion as to which small yellow bird the name “yellow canary” referred to.

Evidently ornithologists gave up on the idea of all of us learning the Latin names because now organizations like the AOU are working hard to standardize common bird names—even from continent to continent. That is why our robins are listed by the AOU as “American Robin” because lurking out there are “European Robin” and “Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin.”

Ornithologists try to find the oldest common name and since ornithological study is comparatively young here in North America, we frequently have to give up our own bird names, such as sparrow hawk, pigeon hawk and chicken hawk for names based on older European terms: “American Kestrel,” “Merlin” and “Peregrine Falcon.”

So now the bird almost every English speaker anywhere would call a pigeon, and for which the AOU’s former common name was “Rock Dove,” will now be known as “Rock Pigeon.” I guess we commoners were right all along. “Rock” just distinguishes it from other pigeon species.

Three-toed woodpeckers, also found in Wyoming, used to be split into two subspecies, but those subspecies have been elevated to genus level. So now we’ll have the American three-toed woodpecker and across the Atlantic they will have the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker.

Genetic studies drive most AOU changes. Comparing DNA is more precise than examining the expression of genes, such as a bird’s internal structure and external looks, as was done previously.

Since new information comes to light constantly, conclusions often have to change. So in this supplement the AOU has also done additional shuffling, but luckily, most associated common names have stayed the same.

Finally, ornithologists worldwide have decided loons, long the first group of birds listed in North American field guides arranged in ornithological order, are no longer the most primitive. Geese, ducks, swans, quail and grouse will now come before loons.

I wonder how field guide authors feel about this—especially David Allen Sibley, who just came out this spring with his first eastern and western field guides. As usual, we’ll just have to remember all the previous names of each bird and look them up in the index.

So now “90 of Wyoming’s Most Noticeable Birds,” as listed on the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD-ROM, are no longer in correct ornithological order either.

But the CD will need revision before its next printing anyway since the Wyoming Department of Education has rewritten its educational standards for which I wrote bird-related activity ideas.

[Flachcard CD availability—check with Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org, or contact me at bgorges2@gmail.com.

AOU dictates new bird names and relationships

AOU logoPublished Aug. 8, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New order, new names and new species of birds dictated by AOU.”

2014 Update: The American Ornithologists’ Union continues to make changes.

By Barb Gorges

The American Ornithologists’ Union has come out with the 10th supplement to the seventh edition (1998) of the Check-list of North American Birds which means you can start penciling in changes in your current field guide or buy a new edition next year.

It can also mean that, like one subscriber to the Wyobirds e-list, you may be able to add two species to your life list without even looking out the window.

In the AOU’s first days in 1883, birds were classified by appearance and habit. With study, a fine distinction could be made between similar birds that together never produced fertile young–separate species–and similar birds that were variations within a species.

Similar species were grouped into a genus and similar genera were grouped into a family. It all made sense to birdwatchers in the field.

Then, as we became more globally aware, we tried to align the common and scientific names of birds with their counterparts overseas, thus, our “sparrow hawk” became the “American Kestrel” some years ago.

Now DNA testing has come into common use, and ornithologists are making discoveries and adjustments regularly to reflect the evolutionary relationship of species to each other.

The latest changes are documented in The Auk, the AOU’s journal, and they are meaningless to the casual birder who may have, like me, not learned the scientific bird names in Latin.

However, the American Birding Association has done somewhat of a translation that shows a lot of the changes are a shuffling of species between different genera and a shuffling of the order of species and genera. For instance, green-tailed and spotted towhees will still be in the genus “Pipilo,” but other towhees will be in “Melozone.”

The AOU goes through cycles of splitting and lumping species. This time the whip-poor-will has been split. This isn’t a big deal for us in Wyoming since we don’t get them here (we have poorwills), but if you saw one in the southwest and one in the eastern U.S., you can now amend your life list and have “Eastern Whip-poor-will” and “Mexican Whip-poor-will” instead.

The winter wren got both global and continental splits. Now there will be the Eurasian Wren and in North America there will be the Pacific Wren and the Winter Wren.

Luckily, “Birds of Wyoming,” by Doug Faulkner, refers to the now former subspecies by nearly the same name as the Pacific wren so we won’t be too confused. In Peterson’s field guides it is noted that west of the Rockies winter wrens sound different than in the east, which is part of the AOU’s justification for the split, as well as DNA differences.

This latest catalog of changes is all of the AOU’s decisions only between January 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010. I’m sure more will continue to come.

What is the point to being picky about bird names? For ornithologists, it’s scientifically precise labels in English and Latin. For the ABA listers, it’s an accurate count of species on their life list.

But for us backyard birdwatchers, it’s being able to communicate with each other, and with the scientists who want our observations for citizen science projects.

So my advice is to make it your priority to keep track of common names and the species getting split and lumped. Learning genera and families is secondary.

After awhile, when you talk to someone new about birds you’ll be able to tell how old their field guide is by what common bird names they use. That means in addition to learning the new names, you can’t forget any of the old names!