Archive for Houghton Mifflin
Any list of the miraculous bird books of the 1980s has to include Hawks in Flight. Is there anyone who in 1988 wasn’t as shocked as delighted at Pete Dunne’s introduction of “magic” and “faith” and “discipline of mind” into birding?
Yes, 1988. The book is approaching its second quarter century, and the same unexcelled team of authors — Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton — have come forth with a new edition.
Wondering how it measures up? Read Brian Sullivan’s review at The ABA Blog, and join the discussion!
My review of Julie Zickefoose’s new book is up at The ABA Blog.
What it comes down to is that I like the book–and find the new approach to the human-nature relationship troubling.
See what you think1
… with a brief, informal review of the new Kaufman guide.
Definitely worth packing on your next visit to Grand Manan!
It wasn’t long before we moved to southeast Arizona for good—at last. Alison and I were coming down Miller Canyon after a quick pre-breakfast walk, and we ran into a group of binocular-wearing colleagues headed up. The usual greeting: “Seen anything?” The group’s apparent leader responded with the disyllabic question: “Sulfurs?”
Alison hesitated, puzzled, then pointed to the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher squeaking its loud matins from the tree right above our heads. “Sulfurs?” was the bemused response.
They weren’t talking about birds.
Birders and lepers have a lot in common. Indeed, most of the latter started out as the former before discovering the pleasures of late rising and warm climates. As a result, the culture of butterflying, in North America at least, has closely mimicked the development of birding, with the signal exception of the big year: though well established in birding circles, the attempt to record as many species in a single annual cycle had never been attempted by a lepidopterist.
Until, that is, Robert Michael Pyle’s scaly-winged run in 2008.
Pyle—not to be confused with Hawaii’s ornithologist—is a highly respected butterflyer, an eloquent and influential conservationist, and a fine writer, and I was prepared to love Mariposa Highway, the account of his 2008 North American butterfly big year. Unexpectedly, however, the book (all 400+ pages of it!) never really catches fire, its gentle prose and unhurried rhythm descending—I hate to say it—into the monotonous after the first 100 pages or so.
Like most critics, I usually find it easier to identify the causes of failure than the sources of success; that’s what reviewers are for, right? It was harder this time, though, given Pyle’s long record of wonderful publications. Soon enough I found myself concentrating more on the book’s failure to excite than on the events it recounts. What happened?
It wasn’t just the occasional editorial lapse, as when the well-known state park in southeast Arizona is called “Pacheco” rather than “Picacho Peak” or when Tom Beatty of hummingbird fame is called “Bentley.” Instead, I think Mariposa’s failure to excite lies in its single-mindedness, in the static nature of its subject, and in a certain narrative solipsism. Let me explain:
Peterson and Fisher’s Wild America, which Pyle takes as his express model here, was the account of a birders’ big year—and much, much more. There was little the two friends did not stop to think about, feathered or not, natural or cultural: they spent April 19 in Concord and Lexington, they made a pilgrimage to the abandoned cabin of a Sonora Desert hermit, they ended the book with an appendix on the history of the fur seal trade. Mariposa, in contrast, gives the impression of being about butterfly twitching and very little else. I haven’t counted, but my sense is that far more words and far more pages are filled with the lister’s veni, vidi, vici in Pyle’s work than in its great predecessor; this means that a reader who is not quite as enthusiastic a lepidopterist as the author may succumb before finishing the book.
There’s something about butterflies themselves, too, that makes it much harder to keep the non-specialist reader’s attention. Put simply, they don’t really give a listing writer much to say: they may be beautiful, they may be rare, but beyond hilltopping, sucking manure, and copulating, they just don’t do much. This challenge is visible in its extreme in Pyle’s accounts of finding (and listing) butterfly eggs for his big year; I admire the author’s observational skills, but it would take a finer writer even than Pyle to generate much narrative tension out of such a find.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Pyle’s big year was conducted largely on his own. Not even when he is butterflying with others does the hopeful reader find much in the way of interpersonal interest. Pyle is as dutiful as he is obviously sincere in thanking those who helped him, but I can’t say that at the end I had any sense at all of having got to know the secondary “characters” in his story. Not even Pyle’s wife, whose illness is a moving theme running through the book, ever really takes narrative shape here. Contrast this with the complicated relationship so charmingly drawn by the authors of Wild America, or with the priceless character sketches that punctuate the account of another solo big year, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway. In Mariposa, we learn nearly as little about the author as we do about his friends; Pyle resembles Kenny Rogers, he went to Yale, that seems to be enough.
Butterfly devotees will read this book differently and probably with greater pleasure. The rest of us may come away disappointed that Mariposa doesn’t do a better job of spinning a more interesting story around the author’s year on the butterfly road.
This charmingly written and handsomely illustrated book purports to be for the “backyard birder”–but I doubt very much that any reader will be a “backyard birder” once she’s done. Bill Thompson does a great job here of communicating many of the basic facts about attracting and identifying the birds of suburb and farm, but even better, he reveals to the uninitiated the excitement and enjoyment to be had from going further, learning more, doing more with birds.
As the title suggests, the book has two main sections, the first a guide to creating the conditions that will make your immediate environment appealing to as many birds as possible. Feeders help, of course, and Thompson offers a thorough review of the types of food and food receptacles most likely to attract birds; but the book makes the point repeatedly and clearly that nothing makes a landscape as attractive as native plants, which can create a habitat, complete with brush piles, irresistible to the most appealing of the birds we all hope to draw to our yards.
Following a useful question-and-answer chapter, the second part of the book deals in greater detail with attracting, housing, and identifying 125 of those yard visitors. The photos, many of them stretching nearly margin to gutter, are spectacularly beautiful, and almost all well chosen; some readers may wonder, though, why there is no image of a female Purple Martin, or why an eastern, heavily spotted Downy Woodpecker is compared to a western, black-winged Hairy. One of the two photos of Yellow-rumped Warbler could profitably have been an Audubon’s, rather than devoting both to Myrtle.
It’s the responsibility of a reviewer to second-guess an author, of course, and I enjoyed leafing through the 125 “common backyard birds” to see where I might have made a different choice–not necessarily better in every case, but different. I think Turkey Vulture is a bit of a stretch, particularly given the omission of Red-tailed Hawk; Merlin, included here, is much less common as a feeder visitor in most parts of the country than is American Kestrel, barely mentioned in the text. Another little raptor, Northern Shrike, is surely more common at feeders nowadays than Loggerhead–yet the latter is given full treatment and the former not mentioned.
Band-tailed Pigeon certainly belongs in this selection, but a note should have been added that it visits backyards and feeders chiefly on the coast; this is a shy bird of high-elevation wilderness in most of its interior range. A similar note could have been given for Western Scrub-Jay, a reluctant feeder visitor inland but a voracious gobbler of seed and suet in California.
Greater Roadrunners are welcome guests in many southwestern yards, but I wish the text mentioned the dangers of feeding them meat and dog food: young birds are said to require bones and skin and feathers and scales to grow properly, which their parents can harvest just fine at the thistle feeder.
There’s no reason not to mention Western Screech-Owl along with its eastern counterpart; I’ve had far better luck luring westerns to my boxes than I ever have with easterns. Speaking again as an adoptive Arizonan, I am surprised to find the uncommonish and local Golden-fronted Woodpecker given a full page and the abundant, noisy, and relatively widespread Gila Woodpecker unmentioned. Lazuli Bunting is another obvious omission, far more frequently seen at feeders and over far longer periods of the year than Painted Bunting.
Sparrows are the highlight of any winter feeder. I envy anyone who regularly has Field Sparrows visiting, and wonder how many American Tree Sparrows–a standby at feeders across the northern tier of states but not included among the choice 125–will be misidentified this coming season as Field or Chipping. It would have been instructive to describe and to illustrate more than just Slate-colored Junco; the other juncos are dismissed here as “mostly in the West,” hardly an informative comment for a birder wondering what those black-hooded, orange-backed birds are at the millet pile.
None of those small lapses is fatal; most readers will quickly move on anyway to more comprehensive field guides. And that more than anything else is the measure of the value of this book, one that is sure to inspire its readers and to help their birds.