Monday, October 17, 2016

Crow Smarts

If someone calls you a bird brain they usually are not complimenting you. But they should be. Traditionally birds have been thought of as inferior intellectually. In fact their brains are large in proportion to the size of their bodies, generally considered to be a factor in intelligence. Experiments with birds like Alex, an African grey parrot, have shown that many birds do understand words they hear and to act on them. Some birds even understand abstract concepts. So it's no surprise to me to learn that crows are the world's brightest birds.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

In CROW SMARTS: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Birds, Pamela S. Turner follows New Caledonian crows and proves them to be geniuses. These birds understand the world around them and have to come up with ingenious solutions to problems. Clear and detailed photographs show the birds as they learn survival skills, use tools, and plan out their actions. Turner also discusses other tool-using and intelligent animals like the chimpanzees in Tanzania, ants, and dolphins. Tool use is especially critical to observe as anthropologists have long thought that it was the use of tools that differentiated humans from other animals. We now know that is not the determining factor. A chart outlines tool use by the numbers: out of 1,371,500 known animal species only New Caledonian crows and humans make hooked tools, for example.

Turner discusses evolution and its effect on brain size. We learn that a large brain is not necessary for survival and that brain size is limited in many animals by other factors. Brain tissue, for example, takes more energy than other body tissues.

Part of the "Scientists in the Field" series, another interesting feature of CROW SMARTS is that the scientist studying crows in New Caledonia actually wasn't there to study them. He was originally studying another bird species but became fascinated by the crows. Often our interests find us rather than the other way around! Turner ends the book with an "Ask the Author" section that answers questions about other crows and crow research.

This is an engaging look at a fascinating bird. Many of us see other species of crows regularly and can attest to their intelligence. And we've been fascinated by crow intelligence for thousands of years. Just look at Aesop's fable, "The Crow and the Pitcher" where the crow must solve a problem. And read CROW SMARTS. While written for children in middle grades, it provides a lot for any reader. And visit Turner's website to view video of crows using tools, funny crow video, a discussion guide, and more.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Goofy Guide to Penguins and The Real Poop on Pigeons

I'm looking at these two books together because they are a hoot! Pun intended. Graphic non-fiction is becoming very popular and appeals to new and reluctant readers. These graphic novels also allow for a more comic look at their subjects.

The Real Poop on Pigeons! by Kevin McCloskey takes a humorous
look at those birds that are sometimes called flying rats. When a man sitting in the park shoos the pigeons, a group of kids show up in pigeon costumes to clue him in on the "real poop." They fly faster than cars and provided the first airmail service. I never thought about the terms but mating is when two pigeons find each other and have babies (they mate for life) but if humans pick the mom and dad that is "breeding." Breeding has resulted in some really unusual looking pigeons. And the now-extinct Dodo was a type of pigeon! The cartoon illustrations
are done on pigeon blue Fabriano paper, the same paper Picasso used. Picasso loved pigeons so much that he named his daughter, Paloma (Spanish for pigeon). While the book is short (40 pages) and the reading is level one (pre-k to kindergarten) it is filled with interesting facts that will enlighten readers of any age. Parents and teachers can extend the book with a variety of resources provided online by Toon Books.

I admit that I don't take many pictures of pigeons and do even less at identifying species. This one is from Parque de los palomas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pigeons are closely related to the more endearing (to many) doves and are a common sight in many cities. They were introduced from Europe in the 1600s and, like many non-native species, quickly flourished and multiplied. Because of their ability to find their way home, even when released far away, they are used as carrier and homing birds. In both World Wars, they were used to carry messages across enemy lines. Archaeological evidence indicates they were domesticate at least 5,000 years ago.

The second book, A Goofy Guide to Penguins by Jean-Luc Coudray & Philippe Coudray is also a level one reader but focuses on those silly looking birds that live in the southern hemisphere. The only penguins in the book are from the South Pole and the "guide" is filled with more fun and jokes than actual true facts.  (“Why do penguins need a diving board? To break the ice!”) They are silly birds and a double page spread at the end clues readers in on the "100% genuine, real facts. So while readers won't learn as
much about penguins as they did about pigeons in McCloskey's book, penguin fans will love the comic illustrations and silliness.

The only photos I have taken are from places like BioSphere in Montreal. The only penguins I've seen in their natural habitat are fairy penguins from Australia. They are darling little birds! Highly adapted to water life, penguins don't fly. Their "wings" help them to swim, acting more like flippers.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Circle by Jeannie Baker is a beautiful book. The narration is so lyrical and poetic that reading it actually gave me chills. The collage illustrations are soft yet very detailed and realistic.

Few readers will immediately recognize the godwit, a member of the sandpiper family. These shorebirds can be hard to distinguish from other mottled, barred, or marbled brownish birds and there are several species among the group.

In Circle the species is the bar-tailed godwit, which breeds in Alaska and migrates around the world from Australia and New Zealand. While many shorebirds make extensive trips during migration, one  bar-tailed godwit was documented as having made the more than 7,000 mile trip non-stop. Tracked via satellite tags, this is the longest journey that has been officially documented. Amazing birds! In Rockport we primarily see marbled godwits, which breed in the center of North America and migrate to the coast for the winter, a much shorter journey.
Marbled Godwit

Baker opens the book with an illustration of a young handicapped boy (the wheelchair is next to the bed) wishing he could fly. A birding journal sits beside him. Watching from his wheelchair on the beach, he follows the godwits as they depart on their journey north. The locations are not identified but the birds struggle to find a safe place to rest when their habitat has disappeared. In an apparently Asian country they eat and eat until they are filled with the fat needed for their long journey to the Arctic north. The male godwit scrapes a shallow nest for his mate and eggs hatch. Danger lurks for the newborn chicks but one survives, grows up, and follows his parents back across the world. The circle continues. In the final page, the young boy no longer needs the wheelchair or crutches and dreams he is actually flying along with the godwits.

Although I overlooked it on my first reading, an author's note and map are appended. Therein, Baker explains the importance of wetlands for these and other waterbirds and the map identifies the areas and countries where the bar-tailed godwits go during migration. There is also a list of the other migrating creatures that careful readers can search for in the book. Circle is a great book for sharing with budding birders, especially those who live near the shores or wetlands. Pair it with Moonbird by Phillip Hoose for older readers, about a red knot that has flown enough miles to go to the moon and back.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Feathers For Peacock

Pourquoi stories (also called origin stories) are created to explain why things happen in the natural world. They are often legends passed down orally but, while they may have some grain of truth, are fantasy. Usually they start in the past ("Long ago, when the world was new...") and finish with the explanation as to why things are they way they now are. While many reflect the cultural beliefs of the group telling the story, some are modern writings or modern stories based on old stories. Some of the most well-known modern pourquoi stories are included in Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

There are a lot of pourquoi stories about birds, including several in my own book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. Feathers for Peacock  is an original pourquoi story by Jacqueline Jules that explains the how peacock got his gorgeous feathers.

We learn that originally birds had no colors, and in fact, had no feathers at all. Upset because the lack of feathers meant they were cold in winter, the birds appealed to the wise full moon. Realizing that the birds needed help, the full moon told them what to do. Unfortunately Peacock was buried deep in the leaves and did not hear the instructions. So while Flamingo turned bright pink, Duck got green and brown feathers, and Raven found shiny black feathers, Peacock missed out. Knowing that they could not leave him like that, all of the birds offered one of their feathers to Peacock. Peacock's body was suddenly a jumble of colors, but moon helped him arrange them into a "clear, colorful pattern." When Peacock spreads his feathers he is "showing everyone how beautiful kindness can be."

The colorful illustrations by Helen Cann highlight the story. Especially notable are the winter scenes  that almost glow with grayish-whites so that readers can almost feel the birds shivering.

The story concludes with two pages of fun facts about peacocks and information about the inspiration for Jules' story. While she credits Afro-Caribbean roots for her story, the birds depicted in the story and the illustrations are not necessarily birds that would be in the same area. That doesn't detract from the story.
Peacocks are a bird many children will see in parks and zoos, adding to the fun of sharing this story.

In addition to being a fun story to share, the book can be used as inspiration for children to create their own pourquoi stories. The website ReadWriteThink has a worksheet to help outline the tale.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher, Wisdom Tales but that in no way influences my review.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Swim, Duck, Swim!

I have a backlog of books to review so many will be brief but I don't want to miss any of the many great bird books that have been released recently.

Nesting season has started and we will soon have babies in the Coastal Bend. Few things are cuter than ducklings!  This adorable board book is perfect for little hands. Simple, short lines of text accompany photographs of mama, papa, and baby duck. Little duck doesn't want to learn to swim (he doesn't like to get wet!). Finally he is swimming. While the story is about a duck and what makes a duck a duck (they swim!) the patience with which the parent ducks work through their child's fears make it a good book to use with a child who is herself learning to enjoy the water.
Whistling duck chicks

While not the type of duck pictured in Swim, Duck, Swim! some of my favorite ducklings are the Black-bellied Whistling ducks. Found primarily in Texas and Louisiana, these ducks really do whistle. As they fly overhead you will hear them!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Peregrine Spring

One of the fun things about book reviewing is the serendipitous nature of what you get to review. I've read a number of books that I would probably not have picked up on my own. Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed H is for Hawk, a book I looked at several times, intrigued by the cover, but only reluctantly started to read. This year I received another memoir by a modern female falconer. And it was just as good!

Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey is Nancy Cowan's compelling tale of how she raised and trained a variety of hawks and falcons. With her husband, she spearheaded a campaign to make falconry legal in New Hampshire and started a school to train would-be falconers.

I've long been fascinated by birds of prey. While some are beautiful, most would never be labeled as "cute." They are all, in my opinion, majestic. While they naturally hunt prey in the wild, many of the birds can also be trained to hunt and return to the falconer. There are four main categories of birds used in falconry but all are of the order Falconiformes. 

American Kestrel
North America's littlest falcon
Those who know me know that I'm not a fan of hunting but there is something that intrigues me about falconry. While falconry is a hunting sport, it doesn't appear that the primary emphasis is on catching anything for the falconer to consume (although that likely was the primary reason in the earliest days). Rather it is a lifestyle with a close relationship built between the bird and the handler. The bird is catching its own meal (although it may not be allowed to eat it all at once). Cowan states that the relationship between falconer and bird becomes "a partnership unlike any...experienced with any other animal" and she outlines this relationship through her many stories. About the falcon's gaze, writer Sy Montgomery (who was also Cowan's first student at her School of Falconry) said it was "like looking directly into the sun." Watching these birds in the wild makes it easy to understand this sentiment.

Cooper's Hawk
 The book follows thirty years of training and living closely (sometimes bring the birds into her
house) with Harris' hawks, Goshawks, Gyrfalcons, Peregrines, and more. Her vignettes are amusing (a lost falcon is recovered by the police and has to be "bailed out"), informative (female raptors are larger than their male counterparts), poignant (an annual watch for the return of urban peregrines to nest on the downtown buildings), and sad (a bird Cowan rehabilitated died shortly after being released).

"My owl" being released.
Peregrine Spring readers meet a wide variety of hawks and other birds of prey and will look forward to seeing them in the wild. I frequently see some of these birds in my range of birding. I also had the privilege of releasing an owl after rehabilitation. (He took off and immediately fell into the water. Thankfully he was able to get back in flight before needing to be fished out for more rehabilitation.) Owls are birds of prey but have been used with mixed success for hunting.

Pre-order Peregrine Spring before its March 2016 release.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Charm of Hummingbirds

It's no secret. I love collective nouns. You might even say I collect collective nouns. (Hmmm....I wonder if there is a collective noun for a collection of nouns.) Anyway, a group of hummingbirds is called a charm. Because they are such popular birds, they actually have several options and are sometimes referred to as a shimmer or a glistening. But I like a charm.

I've been busy and the summer flew by without me writing a blog post. For that I apologize, but there's no better time to return than when hummers are charming my backyard!  One reason I've been too busy to post is that filling feeders and photographing the hummingbirds is a full time job during migration. Texas is in the Central Flyway, the major superhighway for birds migrating between Canada and Mexico so spring and fall migrations are very busy times.

Myth: If I don't take down my feeders, the hummingbirds won't migrate.
Fact: Healthy hummers will migrate no matter what. A few, maybe older birds or birds that bulked up too late to safely make the journey, may over winter in some areas. Prevailing wisdom says to keep feeders up for about two weeks AFTER you see the last hummer.

After spending the summer in Canada and Alaska, these tiny birds make their way to the coast. Here they bulk up on sugar water and natural nectar that they will need to sustain them for a 20 hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Remember that these tiny birds weight about the same as a  penny yet have to add up to 40-50% of their body weight in preparation for the long flight.

They fly alone, not in flocks, on their 500 mile trip. And that is after having made the journey from the north. Some hummingbirds will travel up to 2700 miles between their summer and winter homes. There is some evidence that they follow the same route (without the benefit of AAA or Mapquest!) so you may see the same birds year after year at your feeders.

Myth: Hummingbirds catch a ride on the backs of Canada Geese or other birds.
Fact: Hummingbirds fly at much lower altitudes than geese do. Also geese flying south don't end up in the tropics.

This past week was the Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration. I was thrilled to get to see hummingbirds being banded and even was privileged to hold two for release after they were banded. The banding process allows scientists to gather data about sex, weight, health, migration patterns, and size. Banders can even tell if a female hummingbird hatched babies (the head feathers are raggedy from spending so much time in a tiny, thimble-sized nest). Banders must hold a federal permit and the birds can not be held for very long during the banding process. Only about 150 people are certified for banding hummingbirds (and at least 3 were at the Celebration)! Anyone can take a look at how many birds of various species have been banded in any state by searching the USGS map. It's unlikely the average person will spot a banded hummingbird but sightings can also be reported to USGS. And many birders do spot bands on larger birds, providing information on migration patterns.

The hummingbird is caught in a mesh bag that has been hung near feeders. Then the bird is banded. weighed, measured, sexed, and an estimate of body fat is taken. The bird is remarkably calm in its "sock." Once all the clinical stuff is done, the bird is placed onto the flat hand of an observer. After a moment, the bird flies off.

There is so much more to be said about these charming little birds, but I've got to go fill feeders and monitor the proprietary antics of my own little charm. They'll only be around for a few more weeks!