The “On The Wire” sections of the January/February and March/April issues of BirdWatching Magazine featured reviews of six books, including one about Merlins, a look at birds’ ability to smell, and how they evolve and adapt.
How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals about Their Origin, Lives, and Diversity, By Douglas J. Futuyma, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover, 320 pages, $29.95.
When you watch birds for any length of time, you’re sure to have questions. Why are male cardinals bright red? Why do starlings gather in enormous flocks? Why are some species flightless?
Douglas J. Futuyma’s terrific new book answers these questions and many more through a detailed explanation of avian evolution. The author, a world authority on evolution and an avid birder, explores how the processes of evolution help produce the traits we observe in birds that help us to identify them. How Birds Evolve looks at how distinguishing features like plumage, song, feeding adaptations, and more came to be.
Readers learn how populations adapt to natural selection and how birds’ fascinating social behavior is influenced by evolution. Futuyma writes an accessible overview of bird evolution that lay readers, especially birders, will be able to understand. He ends the book by looking at the future of birds, particularly patterns of extinction and how birds can adapt to a changing climate. If you want to understand birds better, this is essential reading.
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, By Suzanne Simard, Knopf, 2021, hardcover, ebook, or audiobook, 368 pages, $28.95.
This book by a leading expert in forest ecology has been called “a masterwork of planetary significance.”
Suzanne Simard shares the eye-popping story of her life’s work: that the trees in forests are not solitary plants but are interconnected in amazing ways. “Plants use their neural-like physiology to perceive their environment,” she writes. “Their leaves, stems, and roots sense and comprehend their surroundings, then alter their physiology.”
Her book has profound implications for how we perceive forests — and the wildlife they harbor.
Birdography, By Mark Hopkins, Emerson Books, 2021, paperback, 110 pages, $16.99.
Massachusetts-based humorist Mark Hopkins is one of the few artists we’ve seen whose work poking fun at birds is actually funny. In this book, Hopkins presents nearly 100 cartoons that profess to “record some of the more compelling if not dubious” secrets of the world’s birds.
Many of the jokes play off birds’ names. We see a shearwater shearing the tops off of ocean waves. Later, a Painted Bunting works on its portrait on a painter’s canvas. Hopkins is donating the revenue from the book to nonprofit avian conservation groups. Learn more at birdographythebook.com.
The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent, By Danielle J. Whittaker, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022, hardcover, 296 pages, $27.95.
Danielle Whittaker heads the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University. As a young evolutionary biologist, she was irked by the puzzling lack of evidence for the widespread belief that birds have no sense of smell. That myth sparked her scientific journey to show how birds not only are able to smell, but how scent is integral to their behavior.
In this book, Whittaker describes the emerging research showing birds’ ability to produce complex chemical signals that influence everything from where they build nests to when they pick a fight and why they fly away. Her own pioneering studies on the Dark-eyed Junco suggest that birds’ signals are produced by symbiotic bacteria that manufacture scents in the oil they stroke on their feathers when preening. Besides juncos, the book covers birds from around the world, including auklets that smell like tangerines.
In her beautifully written book, Whittaker weaves scientific discovery with her own personal account as a young former English major who discovered her passion for birds.
Magical Merlins, By Bruce A. Haak (editor and chief contributor), Falco Sapiens Press, 2021, hardcover, 184 pages, $50 (numbered, leather-bound collector’s edition, $200).
This is the first book to address the natural history and population status of the three North American subspecies of the Merlin. The work of five authors, six painters, and 12 photographers, it contains 35 illustrations (paintings, maps, plates) and 66 color photos. And that’s just the nuts and bolts of the book. The content presents a thorough understanding of this incredible falcon species from experts. The paintings alone make this book a gem; if you have the means, spring for the collector’s edition.
More Birds Than Bullets: My Life with Birds, By Geoffrey McMullan, Pathfinder UK, 2020, paperback, 220 pages, $18.99.
For 22 years, author Geoffrey McMullan served in the British Army and was stationed from Kuwait and Iraq to the Falklands, Belize, Afghanistan, and Thailand. His service allowed him the chance to see the world’s birds, and he describes that unique experience in this book. We also learn of his personal travels to such far-flung sites as Seattle, Japan, and the Everglades, and McMullan shares personal details of why birds provided an escape from emotional trauma of his youth. A heartfelt, compelling memoir. Signed copies of the book with all color photos are available from the author’s website.