An informative exploration of the subtleties of bird songs, which experienced birders will appreciate, and a helpful guide...

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LISTENING TO A CONTINENT SING

BIRDSONG BY BICYCLE FROM THE ATLANTIC TO THE PACIFIC

A celebrated ornithologist chronicles his 10-week, cross-country cycling/birding trip with his 24-year-old son.

Most nights, Kroodsma (Emeritus, Ornithology/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds, 2009, etc.) and David camped out, rising before dawn to record the bird chorus that greeted them each morning. The author, then 56, describes them as pioneers, and their focus was bird songs and calls, which provide “a window into their minds.” Although his 35-year scientific career had focused on songbirds, this trip was a first. “No one before [had] experienced the continent,” as they would. Traveling from Yorktown, Virginia, to Newport, Oregon, father and son enjoyed the peaceful countryside, took pleasure in meeting friendly local people and fellow cyclers along the way, and inspected the historic Civil War battle sites they passed through on their 10-state journey. Despite the strains and sprains of the unaccustomed physical exertion—particularly for the author—they averaged 100 miles or more each day, and they toughened up physically as they went along. Kroodsma evokes the profound pleasure of rising before dawn to listen to the morning songs of the birds and ending the day with their evening choruses. As the pair travel through different parts of the country, the author explains the subtle differences between songbirds of the same species. His special scientific interest is how these relate to the ways in which different species master their special repertoire—e.g. songs passed on genetically, learned from their fathers, or picked up from neighboring birds. Kroodsma’s verbal descriptions of the bird songs and their calls accompany the text, but they are also available as online recordings.

An informative exploration of the subtleties of bird songs, which experienced birders will appreciate, and a helpful guide for newbies but likely of less interest to general readers.

Pub Date: June 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-691-16681-0

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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