A pleasure for the budding naturalist in the family—or fans of Gerald Durrell and other animals.




Charming forays into the world of natural history and the ways of animal behavior.

“Much of zoology is little more than educated guesswork,” writes Cooke (A Little Bit of Sloth, 2013), a London-based filmmaker and former student of biologist Richard Dawkins. Thus, even in the recent past, well-meaning people could aver that eels spontaneously generate out of mud and hyenas change sexes at will, and we imagine today that animals lack consciousness or emotion. All of this, writes the author, traces back to our “habit of viewing the animal kingdom through our own, rather narrow, existence.” Is the sloth lazy? Through that narrow lens, yes, but the sloth moves at a speed that evolution has suggested is most appropriate to it. Does the beaver gnaw off its testicles and hurl them at would-be attackers, stunning them so that it can escape? We laugh at the thought; however, as Cooke’s lighthearted but scientifically rigorous exploration reveals, there is a biological basis for the myth, and it is instructive as to the nature of the “cognitive toolbox” the beaver employs. The cognitive and biological toolboxes of the animal kingdom are overstuffed and full of surprises—e.g., one reason we find vultures to be unpleasant is that they practice urohidrosis, “a scientific euphemism for crapping on your legs to keep cool.” That’s the kind of behavior that can get a bird a dodgy reputation, but the resulting ammoniac tang bespeaks a solution to a problem that definitely needed one. Along the way, Cooke touches on theories about bird migration (Aristotle conjectured that some species might transmute into others and thus disappear seasonally), the habit of some animals of dipping into fermented fruit for a little recreation, and our misguided efforts at species-driven animal conservation rather than the preservation of whole habitats.

A pleasure for the budding naturalist in the family—or fans of Gerald Durrell and other animals.

Pub Date: April 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-465-09464-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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