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SPIX’S MACAW

THE RACE TO SAVE THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRD

Vital storytelling gives this cautionary tale a chance for wide readership.

Colorful, disturbing story of a bird on the brink.

In 1817, in the thorny and draughty woodlands of Brazil, a natural-historian in the employ of the King of Bavaria was on a collecting mission. Dr. Johan Baptist Ritter von Spix shot a magnificent long-tailed blue parrot, not realizing that “he had just taken the very first specimen of a bird that would one day symbolize how human greed and ignorance were wiping countless life forms from the record of creation.” From there, Friends of the Earth executive director Juniper keeps the story of the bird’s fate bubbling along smartly, describing how Spix’s Macaw (and the other three blue parrots: Hyacinth, Glaucous, and Lear’s) became an object of desire for Victorian aviculturists and maintained its allure right up to today, when a shadowy bird-collecting elite has helped drive it nearly to extinction. Being a member of the conservation community, Juniper brings significant passion to the topic of the rare-bird trade, which can be traced back to the fourth century b.c. Alexander the Great brought back parakeets from Afghanistan, Henry the VIII enjoyed an African Grey, prostitutes in ancient India “carried a parrot on their wrists in order to advertise their profession.” The plight of Spix’s Macaw sparked a remarkable effort to breed the birds in both wild and captive environments, but the results have been tentative at best, and squabbles between owners of captive birds and the organizations seeking to see the endangered creature survive in the wild have thrown a wrench in the works, prompting a forceful condemnation from the author. A meager population exists, though Juniper is far from sanguine about their future, given the grotesque effects of the illegal international market, whose lust for the rarest and choicest birds makes them the most likely to be driven extinct.

Vital storytelling gives this cautionary tale a chance for wide readership.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-7434-7550-X

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2003

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WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

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

A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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SILENT SPRING

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Usand its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorkerare being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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