A bee-eater consumes some 200 bees a day to survive. The tailorbird uses its beak and spider webs to sew leaves together for its nest. In owls, one ear is higher and bigger than the other to sharpen hearing. Collectively, a bird’s feathers weigh more than all its bones. And in the next few decades, one of every nine species of bird may go extinct. These are just some of the facts Colin Tudge has gathered in his capacious, enthusiastic study, The Bird (Crown, $30). He shows how birds nest and mate and he explains the difference between calls and songs. He includes lessons in taxonomy and surveys the 31 orders into which the world’s 10,500 species of birds are organized. He explains what little we understand about migration, and describes scientific debates over the relationship between birds and dinosaurs and how birds think. He lays out the arguments for seeing birds in a spirit of Darwinian competitiveness as opposed to one of mutually beneficial cooperation. As he did in The Tree, Tudge assembles a huge amount of information into a compelling narrative.
Is it possible to be an urban naturalist? To find out, Lyanda Lynn Haupt turns to crows, the native wildlife which city-dwellers and suburbanites most frequently (if reluctantly) encounter. She relates her findings in the slim, beguiling Crow Planet (Little, Brown, $23.99), a book that inspires and surprises. In graceful prose, Haupt records her own struggle to understand crows and to truly see nature in the city. She also shares delightful asides on motherhood, Benedictine monks, and Seattle yuppies. Most important, Haupt drives home the seriousness of the environmental crisis without succumbing to despair.
Annie Dillard first forced me to reevaluate my position (“yuck”) on insects; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek left me, if not fascinated, at least open to the idea that the insect world is complex and offers sophisticated insight into life and the human condition. Fireflies, Honey, & Silk (Univ. of California, $25.95) took my entomological curiosity several steps further, towards actual infatuation and appreciation. Gilbert Waldbauer takes a meandering, humanities-friendly survey of “insects people like,” highlighting the debt our material culture owes to bugs (by way of silk, beeswax candles, shamanist implements), but he also considers poetry (from Japanese haiku on the lightning bug to a summary of the “flea on bosom” trope in European literature), and peppers the narrative with personal anecdotes. The wonder and enthusiasm here are contagious.