Books for the 2007 Holiday Season


(This 871st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 2, 2007.)


The number of important books related to natural history and science seems to increase every year. Here are my suggestions for holiday giving:


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The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State by James P. Gibbs, et al. (Oxford). Anyone who is interested in the natural history of this region should own this book. There is much information about habitat, conservation, locating "herps", and even folklore. Still better are the species accounts including those of the 16 salamanders, 11 frogs and toads, 11 turtles and 14 lizards and snakes found here in western New York.


Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stutchbury (Walker). Professor Stutchbury is a faculty member at nearby York University in Toronto. In this excellent survey she analyses the many serious threats to our North American songbirds, including pesticides, the destruction of vital habitat, coffee plantations, city lights and structures, cowbird parasitism, and global warming.


Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell (Oxford). I was concerned when the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was established and even more concerned when the first director was a strong supporter of questionable nostrums. The Center has, however, more recently supported careful research and research analyses. The results are damning. If you are tempted to try any treatment not prescribed by your doctor, you should read this book. One of Bausell's warnings is worth repeating: "Going online to find out what does and does not work is the equivalent of consulting a Ouija board."


Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography by Douglas Carlson (Texas). All birders owe RTP, as Peterson is widely known, a debt of gratitude. But so too does everyone else. Peterson field guides changed the face of natural history study, supporting a huge increase in participants until now so-called wildlife-associated recreation far outnumbers both hunting and fishing. Carlson provides a thorough and highly readable biography of this complex man.


Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi (Chicago). Life indeed. Although most are microscopic, the trillions of species that inhabit the ground we walk on is astonishing. No book could describe them all; this one identifies larger groups: in the case of microbes we get only kingdoms, but for more complex animals, phyla, classes and even families. A very useful survey.


Birder's Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk by Jeffrey V. Wells (Princeton). Jeff Wells spent much of the time preparing this book at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Here he has compiled information about 100 of our most threatened species. Each is illustrated and has a range map followed by sections about status and distribution, ecology, threats, and conservation action and needs. Some we expect: California condor, whooping crane and Bicknell's thrush; but others we don't: American black duck, short-billed dowitcher, American woodcock, bay-breasted and Canada warblers, and rusty blackbird. A fine and needed reference.


Oology, Ralph's Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell by Carrol L. Henderson (Texas). In the 1940s, I knew many oologists -- collectors of birds' eggs. (One was Dudley DeGroot, later head coach of the Washington Redskins.) International treaties have virtually eliminated the practice. By extrapolating from the story of an Iowa farmer's collection, Henderson provides much of the history of this activity. Among the 1904 egg prices Henderson cites: $3 for a wood duck, but only 35˘ for a gannett.


A Dictionary of Astronomy, 2nd edition, Ian Ridpath, editor (Oxford) Astronomy from "A" for angstrom to "ZZ Ceti star" briefly but clearly explained. Over 4200 entries include past and planned space missions, biographies of important astronomers and international observatories.


The Telescope: Its History, Technology, and Future by Geoff Andersen (Princeton). A thorough,   up-to-date and largely non-technical account spanning four centuries and including information for amateurs who want to establish their own observatory or even make their own telescope.


Inside Your Calculator: From Simple Programs to Significant Insights by Gerald Rising (Wiley). My own book about the mathematics that supports those remarkable ten digit calculator computations, like cosine 27° = .8910065242. I wrote this book for those who retain an interest in math from school or college. Believe it or not, there are such people.-- Gerry Rising