Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Tales of Remarkable Birds

The avian world abounds with examples of remarkable species. For many of us, our spark bird was visually remarkable - one whose appearance caught us off guard, whose bright colors, size or shape lingered in our thoughts long after that first encounter. But no less compelling are the stories of how birds make their living. Their mastery of flight, their complex social structures, and the myriad other physiological and behavioral adaptations for solving problems of survival and reproduction are absolute wonders in their own right.

In Tales of Remarkable Birds, Dominic Couzens takes it all on, relaying stories of the bizarre and extraordinary birds from around the world. Couzens' engaging volume relates aspects of 40 species or families, with selections covering a range of behaviors related to mating, breeding, foraging, navigation, and competition from within and between species. Some entries highlight iconic, no-brainer choices for inclusion; others are compelling precisely because you have to read on to find out what's so remarkable about them.

And these birds are truly remarkable. As in, I would literally remark on them to Maureen: "Apparently bowerbirds are the only non-human instance of giving forced perspective" or "Did you know that swiftlets can echolocate, but only use it to navigate in caves?" This book is filled with trivia that you'll want to share with other birders, or possibly harass your non-birder friends with. Although birds' appearances aren't the principle focus of this book, it's chockablock with gorgeous photographs that are every bit as worth sharing as the stories.

Tales samples birds from across the globe, with five entries for every continent. North America is represented by such species as Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, and White-throated Sparrow. While these will be familiar to many U.S. readers, the book is an opportunity to dig below the surface and learn something new about their backyard visitors. For instance, while I was familiar with "tan-striped" vs. "white-striped" White-throated Sparrows and the behavioral differences expressed by the two color morphs, I hadn't realized that the alleles responsible for the differences have been around for ~2.2 million years - even before White-throated Sparrow even split from its parent species!

The entries are all very accessible for a wide audience, including beginning and young birders, and Couzens is an engaging storyteller. His tongue-in-cheek style helps make the birds relatable, although this does occasionally veer toward anthropomorphism (e.g. "courageous" jacanas), and even moralizing about bird behavior (e.g. "good" vs. "bad" cuckoos, or "sinister" or "repellent" birds). While it's true that I've joked about "sinister" birds on this very blog, it seems a questionable direction to take for a reference book, even one that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Still, we might forgive these solecisms because his enthusiasm for his subjects is so evident. As Couzens notes in his introduction:
"It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that almost every bird in the world has the capacity to amaze and surprise scientists. It just depends what species and aspects are chosen for study. You could write a book with exactly the same title and premise, and choose 40 completely different stories to the ones chosen here." (p. 13)
He'll get no argument from me. And while there are certainly avian characteristics that outshine some of the ones described in the book, there's no question that there's something remarkable about each of the 40 he discusses.

Tales of Remarkable Birds is perfect for kindling a nascent passion for birds (I can easily imagine an eager youngster reading it under the covers with a flashlight). However, it's no less suited for long-time birders keen to learn more about how far birds can stretch the limits of diversity and adaptability. The global focus of the book will make you want to grab your passport to visit some of these wonders, while at the same time helping gain an appreciation for one's hometown birds, each remarkable in it's own way.

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