Holiday Books 2006


(This 818th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 3, 2006.)


It is time once again to call attention to natural history books for holiday giving. Here are some I found especially attractive:


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Julie Zickefoose, Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods (Houghton Mifflin). A collection of attractive essays about life on an Ohio farm by one of our finest bird artists.  The quality of her writing and personality comes across in this passage about a neighbor shooting a phoebe because it soiled his porch: "I guess I have a skewed outlook on phoebes, because it would never occur to me to consider the inevitable mess beneath their nests an annoyance, much less a death sentence. It goes part and parcel with the joy of having phoebes around. But then, I once climbed into my landlord's garage rafters and hung an old umbrella upside down under a barn swallow nest, to save his truck from their fallout and spare them any possible consequences of his annoyance. Barn swallows, like phoebes, are worth it. Watch swallows skim low over the lawn in the sidelight of a summer evening; watch a phoebe whirl out to snap up a passing crane fly, then fetch up on a dead branch, and then imagine the scene without their spark."


Roger Tory Peterson, All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures, edited by Bill Thompson III (Houghton Mifflin). Julie's husband, Bill, is editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, a popular journal for which Peterson wrote regular columns between 1984 and his death in 1996. Known best as a bird artist, Peterson showed in these columns his outstanding ability to communicate information about natural history.


Special note: On December 6, 2006 at 7 p.m. Bill will reflect on Dr. Peterson's birding legacy at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, preceded by a reception from 5-6:30. For more information contact Institute Director Jim Berry at 716-665-2473 or


I add a caveat and a comment here. I spent a delightful day birding with Julie and Bill several years ago and my special affection for them may come across here. But charming books like theirs provide a perfect answer for those kind readers who occasionally urge me to collect and publish some of my own columns. My essays are pedestrian efforts compared with those of Zickefoose and Peterson. (Even so, mine are collected in the Buffalo News archives and on my Nature Watch website.)


Lang Elliott, The Songs of Wild Birds (Houghton Mifflin). Lang Elliott has displaced Paul Kellogg as our foremost collector of bird songs. His recordings associated with the Stokes field guides are the best available; I use them regularly at home and in the field. In this new book he has gathered and comments on fifty bird songs he has found especially interesting. Although the book's approach may seem elementary, this presentation has something for everyone from beginner to expert. For example, I learned from it how to identify night-time thrush migration flight calls.


Fiona A. Reid, Mammals of North America, 4th edition (Houghton Mifflin). I don't usually comment on updates of field guides in the Peterson series, but Ms. Reid's book represents a complete revision of the earlier Burt and Grossenheider editions. Two indications of the change: there are twice as many pages in this book than in the previous edition; and Ms. Reid's text and illustrations are completely new. This is a valuable guide by a highly accomplished staff member of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.


James T. Costa, The Other Insect Societies (Harvard University Press). E. O. Wilson calls the honeybees, the army and leafcutter ants and the mound-building termites the superstars of insect social behavior. In this demanding but interesting book, Costa explores the other arthropod orders for social behavior. A few of his chapter titles suggest the range of areas and activities he explores: "Earwig Mothers", "Hopper Herds and Cricket Families", "Samurai Aphids" and Thrip "Communes and Family Fortresses". A good present for the serious scientist.


Paul D. Blanc, How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace (University of California Press). Despite its off-putting topic, I found myself captured by this author's storytelling. There are some bad products out there, but thank goodness for public health workers like Dr. Blanc.-- Gerry Rising