Summer Reading 2004

 

(This column was first published in the June 20, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)

 

Once again there are dozens of natural history books from which to choose for summer reading. I offer here a few of my current favorites from among those recently published.

 

Thomas Eisner is one of those rare people who combines extraordinary powers of observation with serious research capability and superb photographic and writing skills. All are evident in For Love of Insects (Harvard), his summary of a lifetime in entomology.

 

Each of this book's ten chapters would define a full research career for any university professor. I find it astonishing that this single individual - sometimes with his graduate students and his university colleague, chemist Jerrold Meinwald - has made major contributions to each of these areas. For example, Meinwald and Eisner have jointly completed over 200 research studies.

 

Here you learn about bombardier beetles that spray boiling hot liquids. About how moths escape carnivorous sundews. About millipede-emitted hydrogen cyanide that is many times the lethal dose for a mouse. About spiders consuming their own webs - "a nice way for them to salvage the protein they invest in silk production." About human cantharidin (Spanishfly) overstimulation poisoning from eating frogs' legs after the frogs have consumed blister beetles. About bolas spiders that swing a single thread with a drop of glue at the end to catch moths attracted to the sex pheromone replicas the spiders emit. And about many other arthropod oddities.

 

Eisner doesn't treat his subject lightly and you may, like me, skip some of the chemical details, but this book deserves an immediate place in any library among the classics of natural history.

 

Christopher Leahy's The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife (Princeton) is an encyclopedic collection of information about birds and bird observation. For me it supplements and updates John Terres' older Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Any such compilation is, of course, idiosyncratic but this one should still satisfy any birder.

 

Whitney Cranshaw's Garden Insects of North America (Princeton) is indeed, as its subtitle suggests, "The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs".

 

The problem with insect identification is the extraordinary number of these pesky critters. If you try the difficult task of following a key in a standard field guide, you seldom get farther than the insect's family, which usually includes thousands of species. This book takes a different approach. It separates insects with chapters on the damage they do, for example: leaf chewers, gall makers, trunk and branch borers. Still more important, it also lists the insects associated with various plants. With these sections to guide you, you can then zero in on your culprit among the over 1400 color photographs.

 

Cranshaw is also a pest management specialist and he offers good suggestions for insect control. At $29.95, this book represents one of the best buys I have ever found. Every gardener should have a copy.

 

All of those are big, heavy books, hardly suitable for reading on the beach or on the trail. Tasmanian Tiger: The Tragic Tale of How the World Lost Its Most Mysterious Predator by David Owen (Johns Hopkins) is a small volume that will easily fit in a beach bag or backpack.

 

I found this book most interesting. It not only tells another sorry story of animal extinction, but it incorporates much about Australian history and geography and even chapters on topics like the possibility of cloning this odd little coyote-sized marsupial and how continuing sightings are to be interpreted.

 

Finally, I suggest another small book, this one for beginning butterfly fanciers, Scott Shalaway's Butterflies in the Backyard (Stackpole). By restricting his species accounts to forty of the most common butterflies and moths, he provides a useful introduction to this field.-- Gerry Rising