A study of birds, beasts, fish, and plants that have undone a paradisiacal New World.
Todd, a Montana-based writer, knows well that the true culprits are not rats, starlings, and “Hessian flies,” but the humans who knowingly or unwittingly introduced them into North American ecosystems. Lampreys, once blocked from entrance by the natural barrier of Niagara Falls, now swim in the western Great Lakes because humans built canals to bypass such impediments; nutrias and parakeets now fill the southern swamps and national skies because pet lovers were careless about their charges’ whereabouts; brown trout fill rivers and lakes because wildlife managers put them there. Even so, Todd profiles not thoughtless humans but such dangerously pesky critters as the pigeon, which came to dominate the American cityscape in the 20th century (as she notes, an 1883 article on bird life in New York’s Central Park “curses the flocks of noisy sparrows but doesn’t mention a single pigeon”); the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, which displaced native pollinators (and is now itself being displaced by hybrids); and the mosquito, which, Todd notes, augured the extinction of countless Hawaiian bird species, the victims of avian malaria and other diseases. This study amounts in the end to a skillfully written series of natural-history sketches, but little more. In the face of the ever-quickening destruction of native ecosystems through the introduction of alien species—rabbits in Australia, pine trees in South Africa, kudzu in the southeastern US—Todd is curiously dispassionate. Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America, now 40 years old, is in many ways more urgent, as are more recent books like Jason and Roy van Driesche’s Nature Out of Place and Harold Mooney and Richard Hobbs’s Invasive Species in a Changing World. All are far more useful, too, for readers concerned with environmental issues of the sort Todd touches on.
Overall, a readable but distinctly ancillary account.