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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Two Timing Hawk

The New York Post is noted for its sensational stories, photos, and headlines. A June 9, 2018 headline is certainly scandalous: "Two-timing hawk has babies with new mate."

Seems that a red-tailed hawk has been servicing three females in Tompkins Park in New York City. Now he's had two chicks with one of his mates and is now working feverishly to feed them. Click the link to read the tale.  Links in the article lead to other articles about the Lethario and the cheep lady hawks he has taken up with. Apparently he has been quite prolific in sharing his DNA! Wildlife photographer Laura Goggin has posted more photos on her site, including some of the babies and more about the love triangle.

Photo courtesy of the New York Post
Urban hawks frequently stay in the same location and in addition to the Tompkins Park hawks, several can be spotted in Central Park. View the hawks on web cams linked in Urban Hawks. Search this blog for more posts on hawks of various species.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Hawk Rising

I love when a picture book gives you a little window into the story on the jacket and title page.

In the beginning, if you look closely, Hawk Rising shows two birds sitting in a tree near a house. The next two pages are filled to overflowing with the Red-tailed Hawk family sitting in their nest. As the story progresses, Gianferrari and Floca tell and illustrate the ways that a girl and her younger sister rising in the morning mimic the birds awakening for the day. Stretching, waiting for breakfast...and we then see Father Hawk searching for breakfast for his chicks. "He leans--then dives." Some prey is safe, shielded by branches. Others drive the hawk away. Finally, towards the end of day, Father Hawk grabs a squirrel and, back in the nest, "Chicks screech and jostle, no longer waiting." Everyone has eaten and is safe in bed for the night, awaiting the next day.

The sparse, poetic text is very well complemented by Caldecott-winner Brian Floca's intricate art. Notice how his watercolors progress from the dark night to the brightness of day and then subtly fade back to darkness. His watercolor techniques provide a lot of detail and realism to the hawk's feathers and talons. Both the text and the illustrations invite reading aloud and re-reading, savoring the beauty of these birds.

(I need to add that Brian is a native Texan, although he lives in New York. I had the pleasure of working with him when he created the art for the Texas State Library's Summer Reading Program. I doubt that I would ever find fault with his art. If you are not familiar with his other works, check them out!)

(Art copyright Brian Floca)

While Hawk Rising focuses on the Red-tailed Hawk, and the last two pages offer facts about the species, much of the information is transferable to other raptors. The suggested readings include books on other raptors and links for websites, including Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Red-tailed Hawk cam. (As of the end of May there are chicks in the nest that can be viewed on the cam, along with a narrative about what the birds are doing.) Gianferrari is also the author of other great nature books, including a companion volume, Coyote Moon, which explores the nocturnal hunting habits of another urban critter and is definitely worth reading.

Red-tailed Hawk (image used
under license from Creative Commons)
Hawks of various types are frequent visitors to backyards and wooded urban settings so it's fairly easy for young birders to see them. It's harder to actually identify them or photograph them so Hawk Rising offers an excellent opportunity for up-close study. Red-tailed Hawks are large, almost eagle-sized, with broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail.  As with many species, there are color variations but most Red-tailed Hawks are brown above with a pale, streaked belly. The tail is pale on the bottom and cinnamon-red on top. When they flap their wings it is a heavy beat. They often sit on poles and high fences in open areas and they are magnificent to see!

Readers of this blog post are invited to post a comment here and/or subscribe to the blog (do both and you get two entries in the giveaway).  From comments and subscriptions entered between June 5 and June 15, one name will be drawn at random to receive a copy of Hawk Rising from the publisher, Roaring Brook Press. The winner will be contacted to get a mailing address. Sorry, limited to readers in the US only.

I also do seem to be fascinated by hawks. For additional books, see my blog posts H is for Hawk and A Hawk in the Castle.



FTC Disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher and/or author. I receive no compensation or benefit for reviewing this book.




Friday, May 18, 2018

Chasing Birds Across Texas: A Birding Big Year

This book was published in 2003 but I only recently came across it while browsing e-books for my Kindle. Yes, for those who love stumbling onto a book while crawling around the library stacks, you can browse electronic book shelves.

This is one man's account of his Big Year of birding. Mark T. Adams' day job  at the time was as an astronomer at McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains. In 2000, he had plenty of compensatory and vacation time so decided to take on a Big Year.  As birders know, a Big Year starts on January 1 at 12:00 a.m. and the birder works all year to find as many birds as possible in the wild within a defined area. The year ends on December 31 at  11:59 p.m. local time.

For some people their Big Year covers the entire United States and Canada but others limit their challenge to a region or state. While it is a personal challenge, there are rules: Each species counted must be on the ABA Checklist for the year of the challenge; you have to observe or hear the bird and positively be able to identify it for yourself. As Adams notes, it takes money, time, and stamina to successfully complete a Big Year. He estimates that he spent 1,050 hours over 174 days and made 32 trips away from his home turf, travelling 30,000 miles by car and 18,000 by airplane, to view 489 species in the year. According to his calculations, he saw more than 92% of the state's birds. Wow! I was exhausted just reading the book. Although Adams states that he did not set out to break the Texas record, established in 1995, his efforts ended up tying the record for a Texas Big Year (or any state or province, actually).

Painted Bunting, South Llano River SP
The book reads more like a diary rather than a story, with Adams highlighting the birds he observed, who birded with him or helped him find birds, and pointing out great birding locations across the state. Still, his chronicles fill the book with humor, as well as the drama of unproductive days, when he was outwitted by shy birds or just missed a rare bird that was only several feet away. Birding can be a lonely venture and Adams discusses hours spent sitting in swamps or near trees watching, or meticulously tracking and observing gull after gull to hopefully cull out the one that is different, allowing him to count another species. At the same time, he points out that birders are a friendly and welcoming group of individuals, many of whom invited Adams onto private property to find an elusive species or welcomed him into their homes after a day of birding. Adams also discusses his "nemisis" birds, those birds that everyone else finds but that elude you. For me, that bird was the Painted Bunting until I visited South Llano River State Park where they were in abundance.

Whooping Crane colt
Rockport
I don't claim to be even a middling-level birder, being much closer to novice than expert, so I was enthralled by the variety of species that he found, some easily and some that he truly had to chase. It was also interesting to have Adams chronicle his efforts to see birds that I consider fairly common to the area where I live. He had to make a special trip to Rockport, for example, to see the Whooping Cranes. Lesson being: you have to go where the birds are when they are there. Even more exciting was the list I've been able to make of places to bird that I was totally unaware of and now want to try. For example, a prime birding location is in the cane fields around the Zapata Library pond in Zapata. Apparently it is a well-known stop for seedeaters, those birds with conical shaped beaks. I don't think I've ever seen a White-collared Seedeater, the species that eluded Adams for quite some time. I would keep this book simply to refer to for the most likely places to see specific birds as well as the most likely times of the year to see them. The other fun thing was recognizing names of birders I know if only through Facebook bird groups and pages.

An appendix lists all of the birds he located in the state, providing a great checklist for anyone wanting to try a Big Year in Texas. Or, for me, a Big Decade as it will take me that long to find all of these birds. Adams also provides a detailed list of other species that were reliably reported in Texas during 2000 but not seen by him (and therefore not counted in his Big Year).
Black-throated Green Warbler
Warblers are especially hard to locate
and identify, being the ultimate "LBBs"
(little bitty birds)

While I've seen the movie, The Big Year, and read a couple of Big Year accounts, it was interesting to learn that Adams would go out to hunt a handful of specific birds. The movie makes it look almost random rather than well-planned. He planned his trips to catch migrants and other non-native birds when they would be in specific locations. He often drove and looked, then drove some more eighteen to twenty hours a day, staying in cheap motels to sleep for a few hours before getting up before dawn to chase more birds. Reading these accounts is the closest I'll will come to experiencing a Big Year!


Monday, April 16, 2018

This is the Nest That Robin Built

I have long loved Denise Fleming's mixed media paper art but it really shines in This is the Nest That Robin Built. A cumulative tale, based on “The House That Jack Built," the story follows the effort it takes for Robin to build a nest. She needs help from a number of friends, including the squirrel who trims the twigs, the pig who mixes some mud, and the mouse who gathers some weeds. Eggs are laid, "brittle and blue," and nestlings hatch. A triple-foldout page reprises the actions Robin followed, ending with little birds ready to fly.

Baby Mockingbirds (photo by Deb Davis Nevin)
While this is a perfect read aloud that will have children reciting along, it also does have some good information on nest building for young birders right as nesting season starts. And the illustrations of baby birds waiting to be fed is spot on: they are all bright yellow mouth!

Parents and teachers should also visit Fleming's website for activities related to the book, including a really cute baby robin mask that will have the kids looking like baby birds. There is also a teacher's guide available.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Falcon Cam: "Tower Girl" Thrills


Photo collage courtesy of UT-A
Check out the newest "Longhorn" at the University of Texas! "Tower Girl" swoops around campus before returning to her nesting box where she can be viewed by the world thanks to the school's falcon cam. The fastest bird, and one of the fastest animals, on the planet, Tower Girl feasts on the many doves, pigeons, and grackles on campus. Austin, TX is at the outer edge of peregrine falcon breeding territory. The male falcon visits in late winter and early spring so we may see some action here. Click the link to open the cam: Falcon Cam

American Kestrel, a small falcon
(Photo by Jeanette Larson)
Read other Bird Brainz posts on falcons by clicking: Peregrine Spring and The Hawk of the Castle

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Warbler Wave


Warblers are amazing little birds. They comprise one of the largest groups of birds in North America, with more than 50 species identified and considered common to the United States and Canada. They are perching songbirds with plumage that can range from browns and grays to rich yellows, oranges, and greens. While they are found in almost every habitat, they can be difficult to identify because of the color variations, their size, and their swift flitting from branch to branch, often in dense foliage. Because of their size and coloring, birders often refer to them as LBBs (little bitty bird or little brown birds), or, with disappointment, "gone bird."

In Warbler Wave, April Pulley Sayre shares the wonders of these tiny birds with young readers using over-sized photographs composed to give the reader the feeling that they are actually out in the field birding. With the photographs Sayre adds poetically phrased information about the warbler's habits, plumage, diet, and song. The book opens with photographs from the middle of the night, letting the reader know that tiny wings are migrating to find food. With daylight, the reader enjoys seeing these birds in various situations until, as night falls, the birds continue on their migration, "Surfing rivers of wind way up high.../calling zeep, zeep, zeep in the sky."
(Inside page, copyright April Pulley Sayre)

Sayre acknowledges that the photographs are not intended to be of the type used in field guides (where illustrations clearly show markings and features that distinguish one species from another), but the crisp, clear photographs will help armchair birders feel inspired to go outside and find these birds. While guides help with identification, they are usually drawings as it is almost impossible to get photographs that perfectly whos all the important features. In that way, Warbler Wave is also closer to the real experience faced by birders--trying to identify from a wisp of color, a side view, and the tail shape as it flits away.

Four pages of back story provide plenty of additional information about warblers and their habits, as well as information on the Spring migration, which generally begins in late March and runs through May. Her website, http://www.aprilsayre.com/2018/01/06/warbler-wave/ provides specific identification notes and discussion for the birds included in the book. But don't let the simple format fool you; while the book is great for young birders, it is packed with enough information to appeal to birders of any age.

Black-throated warbler
My photos don't begin to compare with those by April Pulley Sayre but I did want to share one from Rockport. These LBBs are hard to find and birders love to share a good catch!


Friday, January 12, 2018

Birds: Discovering North American Species

This very educational book provides an up-close look at 13 different North American birds. For each bird, Raines provides a poem, some facts, and descriptive information about the birds habits and behavior. Some poems are simply melodic while others add to knowledge of the particular bird or offer insights into the bird's personality (Blue jay, blue jay / strut your stuff!) The photographs are clear and near-life size or over sized. The book itself is large and square, making it easy to share with groups of children. The last three pages of the book are devoted to "story stretchers" designed to provide lessons and activities about birds in general or specific species. For example, a science stretcher asks children to explore the habits of hummingbirds while a listening stretcher explorers bird sounds.
American Robin

The birds covered are the American Robin, Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Red-Winged Blackbird, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Pelican, Great Horned Owl, American Crow, Canada Goose, and Northern Cardinal. While several are found across North America, a few will be unfamiliar in some areas or are migratory visitors. This book doesn't take the place of a field guide but serves to introduce the birds, and the crisp photographs provide a good up-close view that will greatly help with identification in the wild. Additionally, most of the birds are ones that can be easily seen in backyards and fields.

Red-Winged Blackbird
Although the publisher is not well-known, the book is widely available through online bookstores and libraries and will be useful for elementary school birding groups and science classes. And hopefully the introduction leads to further investigation and research.



Note: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. It will be donated to my local public library.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Bird Books of 2017

I don't usually post two days in a row but the start of the new year means it is time for all of the "best" lists to come out and I wanted to share this list of the top twelve bird books of 2017. The list was developed by Forbes and, as I have learned being on many book awards and best lists committees, is very subjective. The books are all non-fiction and memoir, although I've noticed a lot of birds in fiction this past year. They are also all for adults so the list doesn't consider the many really good books for kids that came out in 2017. Only Mozart's Starling is on my Kindle but I hope to read, and review, a few others from the list. And it will be interesting to see what books come out in 2018. I already have a few lined up! (Note also that one of the books, The Seabird's Cry, includes puffins, which I blogged about yesterday.) Happy reading!


Click on the link to go to the article and read the synopses but here are the titles:
  1. Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon 
  2. The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson
  3. How to Speak Chicken: Why Your Chickens Do What They Do & Say What They Say by Melissa Caughe
  4. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss
  5. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt 
  6. The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future by Jim Robbins
  7. Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker
  8. Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
  9. Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds by B.J. Hollars
  10. One More Warbler: A Life with Birds by Victor Emanuel and S. Kirk Walsh 
  11. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston and Neil Gower
  12. The Curious Bird Lover’s Handbook by Niall Edworthy


Twelve Best Books about Birds--2017