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Search tags: Natural-History
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text 2018-06-05 02:36
Reading progress update: I've read 34 out of 368 pages.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History - Cynthia Barnett

It might be the power of suggestion (rain is a soothing, calming concept to me, even if it's a thunderstorm), but so far this book is both informative and relaxing.  I like the author's writing so far; there are hints of journalism, but so far, they're very brief and so far, we're sticking to the facts.  An excellent start.

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text 2018-05-28 11:08
Reading progress update: I've read 11 out of 368 pages.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History - Cynthia Barnett

"Amid the worst drought in California history, the enormous concrete storm gutters of Los Angeles still shunt an estimated 520,000 acre-feet of rainfall to the Pacific Ocean each year–enough to supply water to half a million families."

 

Just when I think I've got a handle on all the ways we shaft ourselves, something like this comes across my reading radar.  I've never thought about it before, but city storm water sewers, while serving a valuable service, also waste enormous amounts of water, by simply throwing it all away.  

 

Taking nothing from the space programs, but why can we find the money to put people in space, and on the moon, and send rovers to Mars, but we can't find the funds to build thoughtful, efficient, environmentally sustaining infrastructure?

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review 2018-04-16 11:28
Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects
Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects - Jack Ashby

A gorgeous publication, and it started off strong for me, as the first entry is the platypus.  But I have to admit to a whole lot of skimming; the writing is dry and the author uses the book to fly the flag for the Grant Museum of Zoology at every opportunity.  There's also a mind numbing number of entries involving worms.  Now, I like reading about worms if the writing is engaging - I've read an entire book about earthworms (5 stars!) - and the author's aim to fairly represent animals that make up a huge part of evolutionary history, is logical.  But there's only so much information one can take on-board about all the wormlike creatures in the history of the world before falling asleep.

 

It's a worthy book, but could have been more engagingly written.

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review 2018-03-19 17:29
Birding Without Borders / Noah Strycker
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker

In 2015, Noah Strycker set himself a lofty goal: to become the first person to see half the world’s birds in one year. For 365 days, with a backpack, binoculars, and a series of one-way tickets, he traveled across forty-one countries and all seven continents, eventually spotting 6,042 species—by far the biggest birding year on record.

This is no travelogue or glorified checklist. Noah ventures deep into a world of blood-sucking leeches, chronic sleep deprivation, airline snafus, breakdowns, mudslides, floods, war zones, ecologic devastation, conservation triumphs, common and iconic species, and scores of passionate bird lovers around the globe. By pursuing the freest creatures on the planet, Noah gains a unique perspective on the world they share with us—and offers a hopeful message that even as many birds face an uncertain future, more people than ever are working to protect them.

 

I enjoyed this memoir much more than I anticipated. Late last year, I read this author’s Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, which I enjoyed because I am a penguin fanatic. I have done a fair bit of travel in the pursuit of birds, so I picked up this volume with both hope and reservations.

I needn’t have worried. Strycker is a much better writer than many of the folks who pen birding memoirs and I enjoyed seeing places, people and birds that I know through his eyes. I think that was part of the enjoyment for me—getting to revisit some places, remember some birds and say, “Oh, I met that person!”

For those of you who aren’t obsessed with birds, a big year is a year devoted to seeing as many birds as possible in a certain area. There’s a certain competitiveness inherent in the practice which you can read about in The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (or try the movie of the same name, which I enjoyed). As I read TBY, I found myself snorting occasionally as I identified with many of the behaviours described. Strycker takes the Big Year concept a step further as he decides to take his Year global and try to see half of the bird species on Earth (5000 of an approximate 10,000). While having no desire to participate in such an activity myself, it was intriguing to see how Strycker proceeded with the endeavour.

What I appreciated the most about this account wasn’t the list of birds. Obviously birds figure prominently in the account, but it was the connections with people, the difficulties faced during travel, and the time spent putting things into perspective—those made the tale worthwhile in my opinion. There was self-reflection here, plus no over-the-top environmental preachiness.

I’m unsure how interesting non-birders would find such a book—if any of my non-birding friends choose to read it, perhaps you could let me know?

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review 2018-03-19 15:59
What a Fish Knows / Jonathan Balcombe
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins - Jonathan Balcombe

Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish—more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined—we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave. Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social, and even Machiavellian—in other words, much like us.


What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives—a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.


Highlighting breakthrough discoveries from fish enthusiasts and scientists around the world and pondering his own encounters with fishes, Balcombe examines the fascinating means by which fishes gain knowledge of the places they inhabit, from shallow tide pools to the deepest reaches of the ocean.

 

Fish get short shrift when we are thinking about animal behaviour. Consider the poor maligned gold fish, which is reputed to have an attention span of mere seconds. Incorrect, as it turns out—gold fish can learn tasks and retain that learning for months.

I’m not a diver. I can’t swim and water will always be a scary place for me, but I can see where this book would be very interesting to anyone who spends time in the underwater world. Fish are much more interesting that I gave them credit for. I’m a birder, after all, and so I’m a little biased (although I certainly know that the term “bird brain” is actually more of a compliment than an insult).

It’s difficult for us to imagine what a fish’s life is like—they live in a completely different medium than we do, have extra senses that we can’t fathom, and have unexpressive faces. I think that last point is the one that leads us to underestimate fishes—we value expressiveness over evidence, I think, because it’s something we’re good at.

If you are interested in matters of animal intelligence (and human judginess) I would recommend Franz de Waal’s excellent book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?.

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