A brightly original book sure to please any nature lover.

THE BIRD WAY

A NEW LOOK AT HOW BIRDS TALK, WORK, PLAY, PARENT, AND THINK

The author of The Genius of Birds returns with an exploration of “surprising and sometimes alarming behavior” of everyday avian activity.

Science journalist Ackerman showcases various aspects of typical bird activity—communicating, working, playing, parenting—that have been “dismissed as anomalies or set aside as abiding mysteries.” In reexamining these behaviors, scientists have been able to identify “remarkable strategies and intelligence underlying these activities, abilities we once considered uniquely our own,” including deception, kidnapping, infanticide, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, and culture. Extreme behavior reveals insights and new perspectives on birds’ adaptation abilities and flexibility of mind. Ackerman is a smooth writer; her presentation of ideas is deft, and her anecdotes are consistently engaging. She demonstrates that birds’ novel or seemingly eccentric behaviors are often clever strategies rooted in evolutionary wisdom as well as complex cognition in different contexts, such as decision-making, finding patterns, and planning for the future. It is becoming increasingly evident that bird vocalization postures express emotions, convey intent, and signal a range of social purposes—e.g., sharing information, negotiating boundaries, influencing behavior. And some bird species “are not just memorizing complex signals but rather applying a generalized grammatical ordering rule to decode messages.” Ackerman demonstrates bird science as an evolving discipline that is consistently fascinating, and she offers brilliant discussions of the use of smell, long overlooked but indeed deployed for navigation; courtship signals; predator avoidance, and, not surprisingly, locating food. There is a captivating section on birds working in concert with ants in foraging as well as an examination of the mean tricks of parasitic chicks and particularly aggressive species. Cowbirds, for example, often show “mafia-like tactics,” and they are “so good [at what they do] that they appear to be contributing to the demise of dozens of already troubled North American songbird species on the brink of extinction from habitat degradation.”

A brightly original book sure to please any nature lover.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2301-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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