Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Prairie Chicken Little

Okay, this book has NOTHING to do, really, with prairie chickens but there are several prairie chicken festivals coming up this month so it seemed like a fun book to read right now. In Prairie Chicken Little, Texas author Jackie Mims Hopkins retells the classic story with a prairie twist. Back when the bison roamed the area, a prairie chicken decides that a stampede is coming and rushes off to tell the other animals to run away "lickety-splickety." I won't tell you the real source of the rumblin' and grumblin' and tumblin' she heard but the ending is delicious. Among the animals, Hopkins includes a meadowlark, a bird more easily seen than most prairie chickens.
Eastern Meadowlark
The illustrations by Henry Cole are very realistic looking and feature plenty of Texas icons, like bluebonnets and cowboy grub. A fun read-aloud that is colorful and fast-pace and may also pique interest in prairie chickens.

Some prairie chickens are more common than others but the Attwater's is near extinction. Once found in abundance along the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies, today their very low numbers make them one of the most endangered birds. The males perform an elaborate courtship ritual that includes inflating yellow air sacs to release a booming sound that can be heard across the grasslands. It's very hard to see the Attwaters at the refuge near Eagle Lake but Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is working to breed chickens for re-introduction to the wild and you can often catch a glimpse of the Attwaters on their behind the scenes tour.

Attwater Prairie Chicken Festival is held the second weekend in April (unless it falls on Easter weekend) in Eagle Lake, TX. Other locales hold celebrations for other types of prairie chickens, including the greater and lesser prairie chickens, throughout the spring.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Peachtree Publishers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On the Wings

Birds come alive through the poetry of David Elliott and the illustrations of Becca Stadtlander. From the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird to the massive Japanese crane, short poems highlight the majesty, music, and merriment of seventeen birds from around the world. Most, like the oriole, the woodpecker, and the crow will be easily found in the United States. The meticulous gouache illustrations include landscapes and foliage that show where the birds are found. Children and adults will pore over details, like the difference in coloration between male and female cardinals while enjoying the clever words that clearly synthesize some of the birds traits. ("He's a hotshot/ valentine./ She's a Plain Jane./ But one without/ the other.../a song without refrain.") Young readers will learn a bit about birds but also find inspiration to try their own hand at writing poems about the birds they see in their

I do wish that a few facts had been included as back matter in the book. Kids will need to look elsewhere for additional information, ranges, and characteristics for the birds that intrigue them.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Candlewick Press.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests

This book offers something a little different for anyone interested in birds. Most of us are very frightened by fire. I still remember my father making me go into the crawl space attic of our house to see if there was smoke or fire after a small kitchen mishap! No way was I going up there! Jim and I declined buying a wonderful house in a canyon in California because of the potential for wildfires and limited exits out of the area. We all watch in jittery awe as blazes consume forests and homes. And, of course, we believe 
Courtesy Nevada Div. of Forestry
Smokey Bear when he tells us that only we can prevent forest fires. Wrong! Many fires are natural and Smokey's message needs to be updated.

Natural wildfires, those not set by pyromaniacs and firebugs and that are not burning down houses, are actually a beneficial part of the natural cycle. Sneed Collard clearly shows how these natural fires benefit the bird population. As he points out, the "eerie landscape of charred, blackened stumps and snags" is filled with wildlife. Fallen trees create nesting areas for more than 15 species of birds in the Western U.S. that thrive in burned forests. While these birds are also found elsewhere, they are abundant in burned forests.

 Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The book follows the work of  Richard Hutto, a biologist who became interested in the connection between forest fires and wildlife the same year that Yellowstone National Park burned. The book is filled with striking photographs of birds living, feeding, and nesting in burned out areas. One bird, the Black-backed Woodpecker,is the ultimate fire bird, is found almost nowhere other than in burned forests. Although it is not just about birds, other animals also thrive where the birds are doing well, many birds like the dark-eyed juncos, house wrens, northern flickers, western tanager, and others are prevalent in burned forests.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Another biologist, Dr. Vicki Saab, focuses her work on figuring out how to manage burns to support wildlife. The decisions made regarding public lands and fire management "are often driven by politics, money, and the public's negative attitudes toward wildfires." But there is beauty and life in the burned out ecosystems. So next time I'm in a burned out area, I'll be looking for birds that I've never seen elsewhere.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Bird Is a Bird

I have to admit that this book had me at the cover, which features one of my favorite birds, the Black-necked Stilt. Okay, I admit, I have a lot of favorite birds and many of them are included in A Bird Is a Bird.

Lizzy Rockwell uses short, poetic lines of text and simple, yet realistic,
illustrations to explain how birds are distinguished from other animals and the many ways we can categorize birds, juxtaposing different species to make her point. A bird can be tall or short, fancy or plain. They use their beaks to consume different types of foods. Despite any differences, a bird is a bird because it starts out as an egg and they have feathers.

The text is simple enough for a beginning reader to read alone and the story ends with a little girl watching a Rock Pigeon from her window. I appreciate that the book concludes with a child enjoying a very common, and frequently maligned, bird. These common birds, more so than my beloved Roseate Spoonbill or the elusive Eastern Screech Owl are what most kids will easily see at home and that will get them started as birdwatchers. Most of the examples are birds that children would find somewhere in the United States, although the Toco Toucan might be in an aviary and the penguin only in an aquarium, allowing the book to act as a sort of checklist for observations.

For classrooms or extended reading time, pair this book with An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, which looks at one feature of a bird (the egg) and how many other animals also start out as eggs. Other thematic options for paired reading are two of Rockwell's earlier books, A Nest Full of Eggs, written by Pricilla Betz Jenkins, or Our Yard is Full of Birds, written by her mother, Anne Rockwell.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Survival Secrets of Turkey Vultures

Vultures get no respect. We use the term to signify someone who is contemptible and who preys on others. In fact, as readers of this educational book discover, they are great helpers and important to our eco-system. They also live in nuclear families and both parents tend to the chicks.

Vultures are not predators, lacking sharp talons or a muscular jaw. They glide a lot, using the thermals and updrafts to keep aloft. In Survival Secrets of Turkey Vultures, photographs by nature photographers show the turkey vulture gliding across the sky while tightly written text explains what is happening. 

The turkey vulture relies heavily on scent to find food, thus the "hole" in the
Turkey Vulture
Her nares (nostrils) seek the scent of decay as turkey vultures are natures garbage collectors. This is not an easy task as other birds attack and peck at the turkey vulture to keep her out of their territory. When the turkey vulture finds carrion, she eats, hoping that no enemy tries to take the food from her. Vultures have few defenses against coyotes and others who would take their food. Facing other carrion eaters, the vulture vomits. Only then is the bird light enough to fly away from danger.  Readers follow a day in the life of a mated pair of turkey vultures as they care for newborn chicks. Mother and father share chick care duties and each will hunt to feed the babies, who are really cute. 

Following the story, Toor provides vulture facts and activities for classroom use. Also on the author's website teachers and parents will find even more vulture activities and learning links, including a curriculum guide and visual glossary. While the book is short, it and the ancillary materials pack a powerful punch. Best for readers in grades 3-7 but any bird lover will learn new things.

I love vultures! The first photograph I took when I started photographing birds was of a black vulture,
Black Vulture in Rockport, TX
While there are more species in the Old World, New World vultures include the turkey vulture, black vulture, three species found in Mexico and South America, and the California and Andean condors. Colloquially some people refer to turkey vultures as buzzards. In fact, buzzards are birds of prey that will eat live animals and insects, as well as carrion. Some folks think that because there were buzzards in Merry Olde England the colonists who saw vultures and other large soaring birds just started calling them buzzards. But they are not so unless you want to see birders, biologists, and naturalists cringing, show these birds they respect they deserve and call them vultures!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Penguin Awareness Day

I firmly believe there is a day to celebrate anything and everything. Today, January 20, is Penguin Awareness Day. Later, on April 25, we can celebrate World Penguin Day. I'm not sure why or how Penguin Awareness Day started but World Penguin Day coincides with the northward migration of these funny, flightless birds. One source indicates the day celebrates "everyone's favorite zoo animals." Personally, I prefer to see these cuties in their natural habitat. So far the only place I've seen penguins "in the flesh" was on Phillips Island, Australia. The little fairy penguins are adorable and their parade is not to be missed. At dusk the tiny birds swim back to shore and march, often in a line, back to their homes.
Courtesy of Creative Commons

Several sources suggest ways to celebrate today. Wear a tuxedo, donate stuffed penguin toys to children, visit a local zoo...I prefer the idea of protecting marine resources. Go out a pick up trash on the beach. Don't throw bottles and plastic into the ocean. Stop over-fishing. Read a book like Poles Apart by Elaine Scott. I want there to be penguins in the wild when I finally get to Antarctica. And have a little fun today....waddle like a penguin.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rare Birds: The Movie

Since beginning to watch birds a little more seriously, I've become aware of a sub-genre of movies: birding films. Rare Birds had been in my Netflix's queue for awhile, probably suggested because I had borrowed The Big Year. It arrived a few days ago and I watched it last night.

I'd never heard of the movie despite its starring one of my favorite actors, William Hurt. Hurt plays Dave Purcell, a depressed and somewhat reclusive restaurant owner in Newfoundland (great scenery). He serves first class meals at The Auk, but does nothing to drum up business, spending his days sampling his great wine cellar. In fact, many of the locals think the restaurant has closed.

A friend, Phonce, devises a plan to drum up business by reporting sightings of a rare bird in the area. This attracts hordes of bird-crazed people with binoculars. Phonce is a conspiracy nut, paranoid that Winnebago is trying to steal his plans for a personal submarine but he always has a plan and he plans to keep The Auk open and his friend in the area. Of course two years earlier Phonce found several kilos of cocaine off-shore and narcs may be in the area trying to catch him selling the dope. It's unclear whether Phonce is partaking of his "treasure" but William Hurt certainly snorts a few lines in several scenes.

Along the way Dave jettisons his estranged wife who is living in Washington DC, gets help running the restaurant from locals who make supply runs, wait tables, and help with the food preparation, and falls in love. The only "action scene" is one where Phonce and Dave are testing the submarine and it is unclear whether they will survive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quirky with a whimsical touch of rom-com. Unfortunately by the
end it is a little over the top and falls apart. Even worse, there are few birds. I counted only three mentioned: The Auk, for which Dave's restaurant is named; the rose-crested grebe; and the Tasseter's Sulfurious Duck. The duck is the supposed rare bird everyone is searching for. In fact it is a fictional species.  I don't find any information about a rose-crested grebe so it is either made up or a very uncommon name for another grebe (possibly the red-necked grebe?). The movie doesn't even talk about auks. Auks can hardly walk and have very small wings which they use to "fly" underwater. They are related to puffins and black guillemots.

Bottom line: An enjoyable, if not distinguished, independent film that really has nothing to do with birds or birding.

Interesting things:

The movie was shot in 30 days except for the last scene. Unexpected early snow delayed filming for seven months until the snow melted!

The crew who had been shooting The Shipping News contributed equipment and their services to complete the movie.

The movie's premiere was scheduled for September 11, 2001. Of course that never happened, and the film was pretty much sent to rental.