Holiday Books: 2013


(This 1184th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 1, 2013.)


It is a pleasure each year at this time to recommend to readers a number of fine natural history and science publications. This year's books are well worth considering for holiday gifts to nature lovers.


By far my favorite read this year has been Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Penguin). Motivated by his pre-school daughter's world bursting with animal images – in books, among her toys, on wallpaper, even on her pajamas – at a time when possibly half of our animal species are threatened with extinction; Mooallem set out, sometimes with his daughter in tow, to learn more about human interactions with endangered animals.


He writes about polar bears, a rare butterfly – the Lange's metalmark – and the whooping crane. Along the way he ties in his observations of the people involved with these animals with much about conservation history. For example, if you think you know the story of the origin of the teddy bear, Mooallem will disabuse you. Everyone concerned about conservation should read and think seriously about the issues raised in this beautifully written book.


"Jefferson and others determined that having too much land was a disincentive for Indians to become 'civilized.'" That quote from Colin Calloway's Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History characterizes the insincere motivations behind many of these negotiations, but the author makes clear that some of the 400 treaties still in effect were struck by astute Indians. "And after the treaties were made, they protested against abuses, lobbied hard to have treaties honored or overturned, and, finally, fought for their rights in the 'courts of their conqueror.'" This is a sad aspect of our history well told.


In Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know David Simberloff provides a deeply informed basis for our interactions with invaders that range in size from the microscopic chestnut blight pathogens infesting our eastern forests to the giant Burmese pythons of Florida swamps. The author's anecdotes enliven this potentially dry subject and I can imagine no better introduction to this important topic.


Several years ago I rode my scooter along the Hudson River from as near its source as I could get, all the way to New York City. I wished at the time that I could have taken the trip by canoe and Mike Freeman has now taken me on that trip by proxy in Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson. If only I could have joined him in his real world.


My favorite chapter of Bill Thompson's excellent Bird Homes and Habitats, a book that has much to offer homeowners interested in fostering nature, is titled "The Birdy Backyard All-Stars." It gives 15 examples of people who have redesigned their surroundings.


Two biographies are worth considering. Ted Anderson's The Life of David Lack is about the author of Darwin's Finches and The Life of the Robin, two famous contributions to evolutionary ecology. And Dan Christensen details the life of the discoverer of electro-magnetism in Hans Christian Orsted: Reading Nature's Mind.


Here are four books each of which deserves a full column of its own. I hope to do them more justice over time. Of special local importance is Patricia Eckel's Botanical Heritage of Islands at the Brink of Niagara Falls. A thoroughgoing introduction to the world of insects is Bugs Rule! by Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak. Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still have produced a beautifully illustrated The World's Rarest Birds. And Jens Petersen's The Kingdom of Fungi is an encyclopedic survey of these little known and even less understood life forms.


I add here a recommendation especially for those of you who seek birds in foreign lands. The first volume of the Handbook of Birds of the World was published in 1992. Since then 12 more volumes have completed the initial project, with 277 ornithological authors, artists and photographers having produced over 13,000 pages and more than 1000 color plates. This massive project has now been transferred to the internet where birders can access it on line and ornithologists can constantly update the information. The web-based version also allows the inclusion of videos and voice recordings. Give a birding friend a subscription to this outstanding reference through the handbook website.-- Gerry Rising