Sunday, November 4, 2018

Coming Home

A plucky, determined robin travels home for Christmas to meet his mate in this charming picture book. Feeling the pull of a mysterious force, the bird swoops and darts, soaring onward and upward, on a long journey to leave the cruel snows and make it safely home where his mate is waiting. Gorgeous digitally composed illustrations vary in tone and color to reflect the various areas the robin must fly through. Over land and water, escaping danger, sometimes flying in a flock but often alone, helped along the way by a kindly sailor, the little robin is finally with the one he loves. While this is primarily a gentle story to read aloud, it is also a heartwarming holiday tale and readers will learn a bit about birds along the way.


Prefatory facts refer to the bird as a Scandinavian robin, although I don't find that there is a species with that specific name. European robins (Erithacus rubecula) are found from Siberia to Algeria and the Azores and robins from Scandinavia migrate to Great Britain and Western Europe to escape the cold winters. The same fact section explains that robins use the stars to navigate and fly up to a 1,000 feet above sea level. In contrast to American robins, which are heralded as a sign of Spring, in Britain the European robin is most associated with Christmas as they begin looking for a mate in mid-December and have, hopefully, found one by mid-January.


My only quibble with the illustrations is that there is no discernible difference shown between the male robin and his mate. The female's coloring should be muted, almost washed out, in comparison to the deep, rich colors of the male. I think it would also be helpful to have a map showing the bird's migration route.

American robin
(photo by J. Larson)

Although the term robin is used for both European robins, members of the Old World flycatcher family, and the American robin, which is a thrush, this story is clearly about a European robin.  While both birds have reddish-orange breasts, they are not related. The European robin's breast is so distinctive that it is also called robin redbreast.

The author, Michael Morpurgo, is best known for his book, War Horse, which was also made into a major motion picture. Illustrator, Kerry Hyndman, is a London-based illustrator and map-maker. Coming Home is her first children's picture book.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Hummingbird Sings and Dances: Latin American Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes

I requested this book and CD to review because it contains a few songs about birds, and those are rather hard to find. As a bonus, the songs are from various Latin American countries and are in Spanish, with English translations.

All of the lyrics are provided in Spanish and English in the back of the book, along with definitions of less common words, like aji, a very hot chili pepper. A map outlines Central America and identifies the countries. Also, while the book includes a CD, it also includes a code to download MP3 files for those who prefer to access the music from a computer or MP3 player.

Only four of the songs nineteen songs relate to birds, although the art frequently includes birds:

  • Canciones del colibri/Songs of the Hummingbird
  • El gallito/The Little Rooster
  • Déjala que se vaya/Let Her Go  (about a dove)
  • Los pollitos/Little Chicks
Additional music selections, including Arroz con leche/Rice Pudding, Los esqueletos/Skeletons, and Rana Cucú/Cuckoo the Frog, make this a great choice for library and preschool storytime use. The music is lively and lyrics share fun vocabulary words like cinnamon and mango in Spanish and English. While not bird-related Los esqueletos/Skeletons teaches time as the skeletons eat at two, tumble down at four, and go for a ride at noon.

The pictures by Argentinian illustrator Mariana Ruiz Johnson are bright and folksy and Grupo Cántaro is a Mexican musical-vocal ensemble founded in 1979. 


FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

About Woodpeckers

Part of a series, this title looks at, well, woodpeckers. The text is simple, usually one or two sentences on a white background facing a large plate that features an illustration of an individual species. While the text is generalized, discussing basic characteristics common to most woodpeckers, seventeen of the eighteen plates look at a single type of woodpecker out of the more than two hundred species around the world. The eighteenth is a squirrel using a woodpeckers hole as its home.


The Afterword provides details, plate by plate, on specific birds. The watercolor illustrations are clear and detailed, showing features that might be harder to see in photographs, and include glimpses of the habitat. The size and length make this a great introduction for preschoolers and students through about second grade and may inspire them to look for those woodpeckers they can find in their area.

Northern flicker
(photo by J. Larson)

Pair this with Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs by Sneed Collard for older readers. Also helpful for teachers and parents is the publisher's guide to the series, which offers some extension ideas to use with any title in the series. Other bird titles in the series explore birds in general, parrots, hummingbirds, and penguins.


FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Magnificent Birds

Beautiful linocut illustrations of fourteen birds from around the world fill each page in Narisa Togo's Magnificent Birds. Text accompanies each double page spread to briefly describe the bird's attributes, diet, appearance, habitat, and special features.  In order of appearance, the included birds are the bald eagle, Andean flamingo, greater bird of paradise, red-crowned crane, common kingfisher, toco toucan, ruby-throated hummingbird, bar-tailed godwit, wandering albatross, Australian pelican, barn owl, emperor penguin, kakapo, and the peregrine falcon. With the exception of a couple that are widespread, each is labeled for the area of the world where it is found. No mention is made of the others in a species, like the flamingo or the crane, that can be found elsewhere. The book was originally published in Great Britain by Walker Studios and many online book retailers show the British cover (which features the red-crowned crane). Although the book is short, an index or bird list would be helpful.


The illustrations are richly detailed and include a glimpse of the habitat: forests, waterways, cliff faces, and gardens. Linocut is a printmaking technique that allows for a grainy texture, with subdued colors that give the illustrations an almost retro look. Because linoleum is easy to obtain and work with, linocut is often used with children and it would be a lot of fun for them to create and print their own local birds. Easy to follow instructions are readily available at sites like Art for Small Hands.

Although I think adults will appreciate the information and illustrations, the book is intended for readers in grades 5-9. I'll be donating this review copy to our local kid birding team.


FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Galápagos Girl / Galapagueña

This is not strictly a bird or birding book but is so filled with birds that I wanted to share it. Also, one of my "bucket list" trips is to go to the Galápagos Islands. Marsha Diane Arnold tells the story of a young girl, born on the islands, a Galápagos girl, and the wonders she finds in the world around her. She plays among the delightfully funny blue-footed Boobies and dances with the island's eponymous penguins. There are 56 different species of birds on the islands, with 80% being found only there. Arnold also includes the Galápagos flamingo, Galápagos petrels, and the waved albatross.

Valentina learns that the world she so loves is endangered, threatened by animals that don't belong on the islands and people who don't care. The young girl leaves the island to go to school but returns a biologist, dedicated to sharing her love of the Galápagos with visitors and encouraging them to leave with promises to help keep the animals safe.

An Author's Note explains how Arnold met the real Valentina Cruz and how she and her family have protected the islands. Her work will be an inspiration to other young people who care about our world. Other back matter discusses the Galápagos and provides fun facts about the various birds and other animals introduced in the book. She concludes with an extensive bibliography for further reading, most of which is for adult readers. Another important aspect of the book is that it is dual language--providing the text in both Spanish and English.

The spectacular wildlife of the area is brought to life by Angela Dominguez, the author and illustrator of several other books, including two that have won Pura Belpré honors from the American Library Association. Great illustrations, a large format, and an engaging story make this an excellent choice for read-alouds and storytimes.




FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

I spotted this book in a book store and was intrigued so checked it out from my local public library. I really didn't know much about this book beyond the title until I started reading it. I knew it was a true crime story about a young man who stole dead birds from a museum collection. I didn't know why anyone would steal dead birds. Turns out there is a huge market for feathers for tying flies for fly fishing. There is, in fact, an entire subculture of people who use feathers to tie fancy flies. These flies will never be used as fishing lures because what the tiers use are expensive, often illegal, feathers from exotic, endangered, and even extinct birds.

A drawer of Scarlet Minivets 
The story starts with Edwin Rist breaking into a British natural history museum in the small town of Tring. Having scoped out the museum on an earlier visit, Rist methodically pulled out drawer after drawer of specimens, dumping them into a suitcase. He often cleared a drawer of the entire collection of a species, leaving only the drab females. He then fled into the night. It would be weeks before the museum even realized there had been a break-in.

Each stolen specimen held a biodata label tied around its leg, information meticulously collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who did fieldwork in the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. He collected some of the rarest birds in the world, including the almost mythical Bird of Paradise, for scientific research. And Rist just stole more than $1 million worth of them just to provide feathers to supply the "feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers."

Bird of Paradise
Between the heist and the detective work, Johnson provides background to bring the reader to current events by exploring the "feather fever" that struck during the mid- to late 19th century. During that period birds were hunted for their feathers to decorate Victorian fashions in America and Europe. Of course, Victorian ladies did not want bland feathers from common birds. To show status, ladies craved feathers from Toucans, Quetzals, Hummingbirds, and Egrets. The demand devastated populations as, for example, hunters killed a thousand "Snowy Egrets to yield a kilo of feathers." Starting in 1896 a few outraged women and the Audubon Society lobbied against using birds and feathers in fashion, as many species had been hunted to extinction or near extinction.  Legislation in the early 1900s created refuges and, in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed the hunting of any migratory bird in North America. Jumping ahead to the 21st century, customs officials were no longer looking closely for feathers, as they were busy with big game trophies, like rhino horns and elephant tusks. This, and the Internet, created "a small community of obsessive mend addicted to rare and illegal feathers: practitioners of the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying." Johnson provides a surprisingly interesting overview of this practice before transitioning to the present.
Edwin Rist

Enter Edwin Rist. Raised in a small town and homeschooled, Edwin's parents were Ivy League graduates who had fled Manhattan's Upper West Side to better nurture their children and support their multitude of interests. At a young age, Edwin became obsessed with the flute and fly-tying and he mastered both talents. His obsession with music led him to England; his obsession with fly-tying led him to crime. Ultimately, in 2009, this 20-year-old young man broke into a branch of the British Museum of Natural History, stealing millions' of dollars worth of birds and irreparably damaging scientific research.

The book is filled with serendipitous experiences, including how Johnson came to write this book. And he didn't just write the book; he spent years tracking down details of the crime and playing detective as he pursued the stolen birds and feathers. The research and investigation itself are worthy of admiration and pulls the reader into the story in ways that a straight forward retelling could not. Without going into detail, it's hard to tell if justice was served in the end, but answers to many questions were certainly found. And although I have zero interest in fly-tying, the story was both compelling and intriguing and offered a different perspective on birding. The final section of the book contains many photographs and sketches. (I read an electronic copy and it was not immediately obvious that the book contained a ton of illustrations. so be sure to check the end.)
The Jock Scott fly

While I have no interest in fly-tying, I found it odd that the fly tiers talk so much about collecting and possessing feathers. It is illegal in the United States to possess feathers from most birds; this is something I frequently explain to friends who know about my bird rescue and rehabilitation activities and want to proudly show me a feather they found on the beach. According to the law, there is no exemption for molted feathers or those taken from road- or window-killed birds. It is legal, however, to have feathers from a few non-native birds like starlings, but those are not the feathers coveted by the tiers. Interestingly, while it is not legal to sell feathers from wild ducks and geese that have been hunted, it seems that the laws were written by a fly-tier who made an exemption for using those feathers for fly-tying so they can use them for fly fishing. To learn more about feather laws and to view their Feather Atlas, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Atlas includes feather terms, scans of feathers, and identification aides, along with the laws on possessing feathers.

It was also disturbing to learn from Johnson that the biggest market for illegal feathers is eBay. In addition to selling feathers at fly-tying conventions, tiers sell through the Internet, with little or no policing done by eBay. My own recent search found feathers from many of the endangered or near-extinct birds mentioned in The Feather Thief for sale.




FTC Disclosure: I checked a copy of this book out from the public library. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs

Woodpeckers are odd and fascinating birds. What other bird, for example, intentionally bangs its head against a tree? Most are brightly colored with varying degrees of red, white, and black but some are less flashy. In Woodpeckers, Collard points out that there are more than 200 species of woodpeckers and birds in the Picidae family and they live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia with about twenty-two species in the United States and Canada.


Readers learn that while they all eat bugs (that is what they are looking for in the trees) they also eat sap, seeds, berries, and nuts. A woodpecker's beak bangs away at about 15 mph yet somehow they avoid brain damage. (Find out how in the book.) They also have "amazingly long tongues" and a reinforced beak. Makes sense!

Used under license by Creative Commons
While we meet many species of woodpeckers in this book, the most famous woodpecker is, of course, Woody. Woody was based on an Acorn Woodpecker, one of the species covered by Collard, supposedly because one was banging away on the cabin where Walter Lantz was staying. Acorn Woodpeckers collect thousands of acorns throughout the year, storing them in trees riddled with storage holes, or in old water tanks, vacant houses, and telephone poles.

Collard covers other types of woodpeckers, including sapsuckers (yes, there are yellow-bellied sapsuckers but they are not cowardly) and flickers. The book ends with a look at lost and vanishing woodpeckers. In addition to what Collard has to say, I recommend reading the Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose, which examines the tragic failure to save the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from extinction.

Copyright Phillip Hoose

Sapsucker; Photo by Jeanette Larson
Woodpeckers is a great introduction to a fascinating and fun species of birds and Collard includes a lot of humor and puns. Check out the two pages of photo bloopers for a fun look at the challenges of bird photography. (Although I have to say Collard's worst photographs are always better than most of mine!). In a book filled with information and colorful photographs, every birder will learn
something new.


Also by Sneed B. Collard III is  Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests.