A delightful book with broad appeal.

THE THING WITH FEATHERS

THE SURPRISING LIVES OF BIRDS AND WHAT THEY REVEAL ABOUT BEING HUMAN

Birding associate editor Strycker (Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, 2011) backs up his claim that “[b]ird behavior offers a mirror in which we can reflect on human behavior.”

The author pinpoints experiments beginning in the 1970s that examined the amazing memory of nutcrackers, which were able to survive cold winters at high elevations by stashing pine seeds in the ground. Surpassing the memory skills of most humans, “[i]n one fall season, a single nutcracker may store tens of thousands of pine seeds in as many as 5,000 different mini-caches, which he will retrieve in winter.” Strycker writes about how bird fanciers puzzled over this feat, since the birds left no obvious signs of how they did it. By a process of elimination, an ornithologist designed an experiment that demonstrated how the nutcrackers oriented to landmarks in the environment to build three-dimensional mental maps. Even more intriguing are magpies, which join the select company of humans and great apes, elephants, dolphins and orcas in recognizing their own images in mirrors. Seemingly, this is an indication of self-awareness and a capacity for qualities such as empathy. What, then, asks the author, can we say about pet dogs, which fail to self-recognize in mirrors yet do demonstrate empathy? Referencing the behavior of Antarctic penguins, which only jump into the ocean in groups to avoid the seals that feed on them but are calm in the presence of humans, Strycker weighs in on the nurture/nature debate and concludes that, for us and penguins, “emotion itself is innate, fear of particular things is regulated by experience.” The author speculates that the behavior of fairy-wrens, a species that sometimes assists feeding nonrelated birds, serves as an expression of altruism in nature, and he attributes the abilities of homing pigeons to the intelligent use of sensory clues.

A delightful book with broad appeal.

Pub Date: March 20, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59448-635-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

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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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