A powerful warning, very much in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

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SILENCE OF THE SONGBIRDS

HOW WE ARE LOSING THE WORLD’S SONGBIRDS AND WHAT WE CAN DO TO SAVE THEM

Ornithologists have noticed a significant decline in the numbers of migratory songbird species. Here’s an overview of the problem.

Stutchbury (Biology/York Univ., Toronto) begins with the tropical forests of Central and South America, and many islands in the Caribbean: second homes to our familiar birds. There they adopt a different lifestyle, fattening up for the flight back to their breeding grounds in springtime. But their southern homes are under severe pressure. Deforestation is a significant threat, as the once-solid ranks of trees come down to make way for cash crops. Prime habitat is being lost, and, along with it, food sources the songbirds depend on. Worse still, in many of the countries where they winter, birds are subjected to heavy doses of pesticides. Some birds are killed outright; others are simply so weakened that they cannot complete their migration north. Stutchbury offers positive suggestions, such as drinking shade-grown coffee, which minimizes deforestation, and buying organic food instead of pesticide-laced products. But there are other, less easily dodged problems. City lights and tall buildings are bird killers—many thousands of birds can crash into a TV tower or wind farm during the migration season. Domestic cats allowed to roam free are prolific bird killers, too—as are feral cats. Northern habitats are also under pressure—forest preservation not being the highest priority in North America. The result has been a steady and measurable decline in the populations of almost all the major migratory songbirds over the last several decades. Stutchbury emphasizes that birds are not the only threatened species: The loss of forest contributes to global warming, and the human population will inevitably suffer the consequences. She closes with a short list of countermeasures the average person can take to help save the birds.

A powerful warning, very much in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Pub Date: June 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1609-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2007

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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