Wild WNY / Natural history books

A year-end round-up


I have been reviewing nature books for almost thirty years and, in each of those years, I have been impressed to find that there are still always more books representing fields of interest I’ve never explored or with which my familiarity has been superficial. This year is no exception. I am delighted to recommend a few of this year’s remarkable new books.


Sara Lewis is a Tufts University biologist, a serious scientist who has published dozens of papers and successful grant applications, but she shows us a different side of her character in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies. As she says of her experience with these charismatic insects: “I’ve spent decades delving into fireflies’ scientific details, yet these astonishing, radiant creatures still fill me with wonder.” 


The fortunate among us have witnessed the flashes of these so-called lightning bugs (they are actually beetles), and some of us have even captured one or two in a jar to watch as they turn their lanterns on and off. Lewis takes us further into their lives, sharing her knowledge of their growth stages, sex lives, and enemies; she even describes the chemistry that produces their glow. She does so, however, in such clear and accessible prose that she makes these subjects fascinating.


If you are anything like me, you have paid no attention whatsoever to QR codes, the small black-and-white pixilated squares that provide product information for store managers. Now, Donald Kroodsma, an ornithologist who has specialized in bird song, has adapted those same codes to produce a book that breaks new ground for readers: Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This is a book for the young or at least the young at heart, because, to gain full advantage of it, you must be able to work an iPhone.


You first download a free QR reader that interprets the codes. Then, as you read Kroodsma’s account of his bike ride with his son across our continent, you come across those codes. On page sixty-nine, for example, as the bikers are crossing Kentucky in mid-May, one code is labeled Eastern Kingbird and another, Yellow-breasted Chat. You focus your QR reader on each code to listen to the associated on-the-spot recording of these birds singing. I was not sure that at my age I could master this technique, but I managed it in a few minutes and have received many hours of entertainment in return.



One evening in June 2011, a car struck a large animal on a Connecticut parkway within twenty miles of New York City. Pathologists determined that the animal was a mountain lion and they were amazed to find through DNA evidence that the cougar was neither a released pet nor a zoo escapee but rather a wild male that had been born in the Black Hills of South Dakota two years earlier.


In Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America, William Stolzenburg traces this cougar’s remarkable 2,000-mile odyssey based on sightings along the way. Early evidence suggested the possibility that this migrant puma passed through Western New York, but Stolzenberg’s collected evidence makes clear that it made its way east after passing through Minneapolis on to Sault Ste. Marie and over Lake Huron, before crossing back across the St. Lawrence River into northeastern New York and down to Connecticut.


Wildlife professionals are constantly bombarded with reports of mountain lions. I used to monitor a website maintained by John Lutz that listed hundreds from New York State alone. (Many of these sightings were of black animals. Although melanism has been observed in leopards and jaguars, as well as in many birds and smaller animals like squirrels, this is a variant never substantiated for mountain lions.) Wildlife specialists have evaluated these reports and found almost all of them wanting. They often turned out to be house cats whose size had been exaggerated in views by flashlight. A few, however, warranted further study. Stolzenberg reviews this and other cougar-related history to provide a full picture of this exotic animal, whose presence in the Northeast has now been upgraded from chimerical to real.


The topic of cats brings me to Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. This necessary book provides the science-based case for removal of free-roaming house cats from our environment. Not only do these animals kill over a billion birds each year, but they also carry diseases like rabies and toxoplasmosis that represent serious human problems. Removal-means include adoption, confinement, or, when those are not available, euthanasia.


You need only read the negative reader reviews of the book on Amazon to see the violent response from well-organized cat lovers. This is expected, because the book provides strong arguments against two of their favorite strategies: TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs and cat colony support. It is a useful exercise, however, to compare the nature and tone of those responses with the careful and fact-based arguments of these authors. If you are unfamiliar with these important issues, you should find this book a useful starting point.


For more than eighty years, Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold has served as a foundation text for environmentalists. Leopold, a professional wildlife ecologist, wrote about his principles as they related to his family’s reclamation activities around an abandoned farm in rural Wisconsin. Now his daughter, Estella Leopold, has written a memoir of those times, Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited. I found this book more entertaining and less case-making than her father’s, and I enjoyed reading her observations from a child’s perspective.


Do you plan a visit to Alaska? If you do, you could do no better preparing for your natural history observations than by reading Sharon Chester’s The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North. You will find everything here, from musk oxen to ptarmigans, from salmon to moor frogs, and from Arctic butterflies to Northern bog orchids. All are beautifully illustrated with notes on where to find them.


I conclude these reviews with a book I hate, Fred Pearce’s The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation. I could only read two or three pages at a time, it made me so angry. Why mention it then? Because these are the arguments that face those of us who wish to preserve our natural places and our native species. They are offered by the same people who claim that we need not be concerned about climate change. We must be prepared to answer them if we don’t wish to be overwhelmed by Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard, Burmese pythons and fire ants, water hyacinth and wild boars, killer bees and Asian carp. We cannot simply close our eyes to these threats or to those who defend them as super species.        



UB emeritus professor Gerry Rising wrote Nature Watch for the Buffalo News for many years.


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