Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Shapeshifting and the New Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

March 12, 2013

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No, it’s Superman!”


Well, no. Actually it is a bird.

In fact, it’s the fastest animal on earth. While the cheetah plods along at 70 mph this bird can zoom through the sky up to 240 mph. Plummeting from the heavens and enduring G forces that would kill a person, this paragon of flight and vision, with eyes that see shapes and patterns humans can’t, entered mythology long before Richard Crossley wrote his marvelous new Princeton Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. Another Englishman, J.A. Baker wrote, “Evanescent as flame peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above.” They are, these peregrines, the little brothers and little sisters of Eagle.

“What do they see?” wondered Anaximander of Miletus about these birds two thousand five hundred years ago. About the same time, the Native Americans of North America knew what they saw. Shapeshifting was easier then and many people, not just the shamans, could do it. Later, ordinary people lost the power of flight and only shamans could do it. Soon human flight became metaphorical flight and the idea of the soul as a bird was born. Then flight and intelligence joined. In the Hindu Rig Veda we read, “Among all things that fly, the mind is the swiftest.” Another ancient text proclaims, “Those who know have wings.” Calling someone a “bird brain” is a high compliment indeed.

crossleyraptorsA fine new book is on the way about peregrines and all the other raptors of the world. Princeton’s Crossley ID Guide to Raptors will soon be available and promises to be every bit as useful and as beautiful as the other guides in the series. You can pre-order from our store, The Fat Finch.

Long before people and animals lost the ability to shapeshift, the Apache Black Hactcin held out his hand and a drop of rain fell into his palm. He mixed it with earth and fashioned the first bird from the resulting mud. The bird flew and the Hactcin saw that that the bird needed companions so he grabbed the mud-bird and whirled it around his head, faster and faster. The mud-bird grew very dizzy and began to see many images as it whirled around. He saw hawks and eagles, other raptors, and song birds too. Then the Hactcin stopped whirling the mud-bird and those images became real birds. To this day the raptors created in that Apache’s whirl live in the air and seldom land on the ground because the rain that helped create them fell from the sky.

DIGITAL CAMERAHigh on the mountain in New Mexico known as Shiprock lived the bird-monsters that were eating all the people on the earth. This was before modern raptors. It is said that one of the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer climbed the huge rock and killed both of the bird monsters. Two fledglings in the nest were terrified, but Monster Slayer decided not to kill them. To the eldest he said, “You will give us plumes for our rites and bones we will use to make whistles.” Whirling the fledgling around his head four times he flung it high in the air and it became First Eagle. To the younger monster bird he said, “You will be an oracle to my people and foretell the future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and other times you will lie.” He whirled that bird around his head four times and, as he did so, the bird’s head became large and round and its eyes grew larger and larger until the bird became First Owl.

Once a water monster made war on the people and flooded the earth. Only one person survived, a young woman. As she was about to drown a great eagle — perhaps the one made by the Apache or maybe the Navajo one — flew over the young woman, allowing her to grab his talons. He flew with her to the top of a spire in the Black Hills where he lived in his aerie. It was the only dry place on earth. There they lived as man and wife and they had two children, a boy and a girl. When the waters finally receded these two children of an eagle and a human returned to the earth and founded the Lakota Nation.

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

Some scoff at these creation stories from other and older cultures, but doubters may remember that physicists have just found the Higgs Boson, the last remaining particle necessary to confirm the family of elementary particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics. That means one single electron can be in two places at the same time. In fact, it can be everywhere at the same time. It’s sister electron can be at the far end of the universe but it can communicate with her instantaneously, never mind the speed of light. Superposition is real. Nothing is certain. Matter is nothing but highly concentrated energy that shapeshifted into the mass that blurs in the sky above you as Eagle’s little brother, the peregrine, hunts.

The universe is a strange place and we all should remember Niels Bohr’s injunction to no less a person than Albert Einstein. “Albert”, he said, “perhaps your idea of reality is too limited.”


This post is part of Princeton’s Blog Tour and we’re supposed to send you on to the next stop at The Flying Mullet. As they say in Spanish, que le vaya bien. (Travel well.) Thanks to Jessica Pellien of Princeton for organizing the tour. She has done good work.

Caribbean Birds

August 4, 2010

About a year ago we told you about the real James Bond, the author of the best field guide to the birds of the West Indies. Ian Fleming borrowed the famed ornithologist’s name for his famous fictional spy.

Now a new field guide to West Indies birds is on the way, about to be published by Princeton University Press. The latest in Princeton’s Illustrated Checklists, it is the little book you want to carry when you travel anywhere from the Bahamas to Grenada. “Bond, James Bond” is about to be supplemented by Norman Arlott.

Mr. Arlott is not a spy as far as we know, although he is British. He is a fine illustrator of birds. Arlott has illustrated field guides to the birds of China, Europe, Japan, and Russia. In Birds of the West Indies he illustrates and very briefly describes each of the 550 species of birds that live, breed, or pass through the islands.

Many flights to the West Indies from the U.S. connect in Puerto Rico. The book will make you want to get off the plane and stay a few days so you can go in search of the male Pin-tailed Whydah. In breeding season (April to November), its tail grows like Pinocchio’s nose, starting out at a modest 11 centimeters and growing to 33 centimeters. (Page 168) And you’ll wish for an agreement of some kind with Cuba so Americans can again explore the avian richness of that island and see Grundlach’s Hawks and Cuban Parakeets. Being British, Mr. Arlott can go there at will, look at birds, and legally smoke Cuban cigars.

Pin-tailed Whydah

The book is a perfect size for a field guide. 5 inches by 7.5 inches and 240 pages, it weighs in at 14 ounces. (400 grams.)

Generally, we have a prejudice against field guides that put the range maps at the back of the book. It can be a pain to look at the bird, find it in the book, then flip to the back to assure yourself that your identification comports with the bird’s likely range. However, it is not a problem with this field guide. The brief textual entries always name the islands where the birds are found and you’ll always know what island you’re on. For instance, if you are on Petit St. Vincent – and if you are, you have no idea how envious we are – you might see a White-necked Jacobin Hummingbird. But you’ll know you’re in the Grenadines and the text will tell you whether that bird ever visits the Grenadines. You’ll have no need for the range maps. In fact, if you really need to shave weight you could excise the last 70 pages of the book, tape the rest together and save about 4.3 ounces or 167 grams. That weight savings can matter at the end of a long day trekking up and down Caribbean hills on a hot day.

The book retails for $24.95. If you are going to the West Indies, don’t leave home without it


Thanks to Doug Jansen for the photo of the Pin-tailed Whydah and the Creative Commons license to use it.


Birds of Peru

June 6, 2010

It’s not easy to write a book review of a birding field guide. One cannot write the wonderful zingers that other book reviewers sometimes get off:

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” (Dorothy Parker)

I did not know that fourteen publishers had turned down this book. If true, it’s the most encouraging thing I have heard about the publishing industry in years.” (A.J. Liebling)

“The poet accepts oblivion; his lessers seek survival.” (Murray Kempton)

“I never read a book before reviewing it – it prejudices a man so.” (Sydney Smith.)

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging. . .” (E.B. White)

But one cannot dodge the task  assigned. The Princeton University Press just sent us a review copy of its revised, updated Birds of Peru from its Princeton Field Guide series, so we can hardly decline to review it. That would be rude and birders are never rude.

Besides, the book covers all of Peru’s 1,817 confirmed species. That’s right, 1,817.  Hummingbirds consume forty pages all by themselves. We count 91 species of Tanagers alone. Where else could you expect to find the field markings and range map for the Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant that lives on the ribs of the Andes? Or examine detailed, excellent illustrations of the thirty species of Antwrens that live in Peru. Or learn about the “professional” followers of the Army Ants that swarm on the floor of tropical forests. These birds follow the swarms and dine on the spiders and small vertebrates that flee the ants.

You may not have known that the Stygian Owl’s status in Peru is not clear. It may be rare or local or just “overlooked.” It’s probably easy to overlook birds in the vast Amazonian Basin. It’s full of trees after all. Twenty-nine major rivers drain the Andes in Peru; most end up in the Amazon.

Five authors and five principal illustrators fill the book with orderly information with a range map just to the left of each species and a right-hand page full of truly fine illustrations of each bird. If there is a bird in Peru that can’t be identified using this field guide and a pair of binoculars, I’d like to see it. The news release announcing the publication date (June 2, 2010) claims that this book is “the most complete and authoritative field guide to this diverse, neotropical landscape.” We believe it. If you’ve never looked at any of Princeton’s bird books, you’ll be surprised at the amount of detailed information they all contain.

It is the fashion in short book reviews these days to insert a paragraph toward the end complaining about something. We expect that is to prove that the reviewer actually read the thing. We have such a complaint: This book is 664 pages of print that is too small for eyes over forty years of age to read without reading glasses. I suppose Princeton claims that the print had to be small or the book would have weighed too much for a field guide. (It almost is too heavy as it is.) The authors admit to having jettisoned, “often with great reluctance” much additional information.

Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant

Plus, 1,817 bird species do rather fill up a field guide.

And what a field guide it is. We’ve never been to Peru and haven’t got a trip planned and we’ve spent hours just thumbing through it. The Peruvian Tourist Authority ought to buy several thousand copies to distribute to tourist agencies. If you never wanted to see Peru, you will after spending some time inside the covers of this book. And you can go anytime. According to the book, most Peruvian species live there year-round.

We’re just sorry that it doesn’t lend itself to any book review zingers like Ambrose Bierce’s, “The covers of this book are too far apart.”


The paperback version costs $39.50 and is worth every penny. We’ll be happy to get it for you.

Monitoring the Birds of “The Oregon Trail” (One)

April 2, 2010

Frances Parkman

A copy of The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman arrived at our house recently. Parkman wrote it during and after a trip he took over part of the trail in 1846, a time when the Great Plains of the tall grasses reminded viewers of a great land ocean.

[W]e pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods. Till at length, issuing forth into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of that great forest, that once spread unbroken from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of shrubbery, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of prairie, stretching swell over swell to the horizon.

Tall grass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Only about 4% remains, the two largest preserves being the 39,000 acre Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in Oklahoma and the 11,000 acres of the Flint Hills of Kansas where the National Park Service operates the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve. The rest was plowed under. But even today, in this age of splintered, tiny habitats, more than 150 species of birds can be found on the tiny remnants of a once great prairie. Imagine how many there must have been in 1846!

Parkman traveled the Trail from April to September of that year and we thought we would ride along with him, this summer of 2010, one hundred sixty-four years later, to see what he noticed about the bird life of those tall grass prairies which are now long gone.

Early in the journey, after failing to convince a Delaware Indian woman to part with one of the turkeys she was feeding at the front door of her little log house, Parkman takes his rifle and looks for something fresh for dinner.

A multitude of quails were plaintively whistling in the woods and meadows, but nothing appropriate to the rifle was to be seen, except three buzzards, seated on the spectral limbs of an old dead sycamore, that thrust itself out over the river from the dense sunny wall of fresh foliage. Their ugly heads were drawn down between their shoulders, and they seemed to luxuriate in the soft sunshine that was pouring from the west. . .As it grew dark, and the voices of the whippoorwills succeeded the whistle of the quails, we removed our saddles to the  tent to serve as pillows, spread our blankets upon the ground, and prepared to bivouac for the first time that season.

We’ll travel along with him and report to you his comments about the birds and other wildlife he meets. So far, along with the quail, the buzzards, and the whippoorwills, all he has described are “varmints” into which category he has already dumped wolves, frogs, snakes, and “musquitoes.”


The photo of the Oklahoma tallgrass refuge, operated by the Nature Conservancy was generously put in the public domain by “Dbinfo.”

Boned Larks in a Pie

March 2, 2010

Huh? Boned Larks in a pie? What’s that?

It’s a recipe. And not a recipe for the faint of heart. A recipe for which you will need 36 larks. Dead larks to be precise. From which you will remove all the feathers, offal, and bones. Why 36? Because a lark, feathers, bones and all, only weighs about two ounces and this is a meal for a full-grown human.
Patrick O’Brian wrote about the dish in one of his Aubrey/Maturin novels about the Royal Navy. (The Surgeon’s Mate, p-319)  Two authors have written a cookbook in which they compile many of the meals that the characters in the novels consumed. The characters are fictional, but the recipes are real and historically accurate.

We should note that as the two main characters travel the world, they see and report on a great number of bird species. O’Brian knew his birds as well as he knew his food and his rigging on a ship. More about the birds in another post. Right now we’re after boned-larks-in a-pie.

But don’t even think about collecting the larks until you first get the other ingredients together. You will first need to prepare the “godiveau” and for that you will need one-half pound of real suet.

Forgotten what real suet is, have you? That’s the fat surrounding the kidneys of a cow. Beef suet is what you need for this recipe and it needs to be fresh.

You will mix this half-pound of pure beef fat with six ounces of veal. That’s right, six ounces of baby cow. Throw in some scallions, parsley, ginger, a shallot, a raw egg, and salt and pepper to taste and it’s finished. Yes, that’s right. It’s finished. No cooking necessary yet.

Now you have about a pound of godiveau, so it’s time to start on the main dish.

Because this is going to be a pie, you now must make the hot water paste which will be the crust. For that you need one-half pound of butter and one-half pound of lard. And nine cups of flour and two cups of water. Lard, in case you’ve forgotten, is pig fat and the best grade of lard consists of the fat around the kidneys. You need lard for this recipe because of its high saturated fat content.

Now mix the butter, flour, and lard together. Keep it warm because you’re going to use it to make – and we kid you not – the “coffin” for the larks.

Now you can go find 36 larks, kill them somehow, and get to work plucking, cleaning, and deboning them.

But given that you’ve  used a pound and half of pure fat and you’re going to mix a quarter of a pound of bacon into the lark meat, maybe you should just skip the whole thing and let the larks live. They are such pretty birds and they sing so well. Just ask Shakespeare (Sonnet 29) or Shelley (“To a Sky-Lark“).

If this meal just has too much fat for you, you could prepare a “pig’s fry.” It’s much lower in fat. For that dish you’ll need an onion, a lemon, an egg, parsley, sage, breadcrumbs and a pig’s harslet. What’s a pig’s harslet? Trust us, you don’t want to know.

The recipes come from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog by Anne Grossman (No groans please) and Lisa Thomas. If you read the O’Brien novels their cookbook is a pleasant accessory, because the characters eat many dishes no longer familiar to most of us.
The photo of the lark is by Daniel Pettersson

Paying for “Birds of America”

February 4, 2010

Our last post was about John James Audubon self-publishing Birds of America. It cost him more than $115,000.00. Today that would be more than two million dollars. Some of you may have wondered where he got the money.  After all, he was a draft-dodging, illegal immigrant from France. Apparently the poet Steven Vincent Benet wondered too, so he wrote this poem:

Some men live for warlike deeds,
Some for women’s words.
John James Audubon
Lived to look at birds.

Pretty birds and funny birds,
All our native fowl
From the little cedar waxwing
To the Great Horned Owl.

Let the wind blow hot or cold,
Let it rain or snow,
Everywhere the birds went
Audubon would go.

Scrambling through a wilderness,
Floating down a stream,
All around America
In a feathered dream.

Thirty years of traveling,
Pockets often bare,
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Patched them up with care).

Followed grebe and meadowlark,
Saw them sing and splash.
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Somehow raised the cash).

Drew them all the way they lived
In their habitats.
(Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Sometimes wondered “Cats?”)

Colored them and printed them
In a giant book,
“Birds of North America” –
All the world said, “Look!”

Gave him medals and degrees,
Called him noble names,
Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Kissed her queer John James.

Self-Publishing Birders

February 1, 2010

Self-publishing acquired a vague, unpleasant odor somewhere along the way. Like a cowbird, it’s just not entirely respectable. That may be changing with the advent of new technologies that allow books to be published on demand. What’s more, the internet, fascinating blogs like this one, and the increasing difficulty of getting an old-fashioned publishing house to actually publish something you wrote may soon return self-published books to respectability.

Nowadays, it takes months or years just to find an agent whose job it becomes to deposit your manuscript with publishing houses. Gone are the days when new authors just sent off a manuscript to a publisher and waited for a response. Do that today, and your manuscript ends up in a “slush” pile where someone barely out of college and barely above minimum wage reads it before consigning it to history’s rubbish heap.

It’s a small step from the slush pile to the rubbish heap.

This week we acquired a new copy of Audubon’s Birds of America to sell at the store. It is a beautiful book and expensive. $175.00, if you must know, and worth every penny. Fine binding, high quality paper, and exquisite reproductions make it a marvelous book to have around. Ours is the Roger Tory Peterson edition published by Abbeville Press for the Audubon Society and known as a “Baby Elephant Folio” edition.

But the first edition was self-published by Audubon himself. In four volumes. If you could find those on the market today, they would cost a lot more than $175.

Known as the “Double Elephant Folio” and priced at $1000. when it came out, each page was 29 ½ inches by 39 ½ inches and just one of the volumes weighed fifty-six pounds. Printed from exquisitely etched copper plates, the images of the birds were life-size. Especially tall birds, such as the flamingo in the photo below, were painted with their necks bent to the ground so they would fit on the pages. Audubon invested about $115,000.00 of his own money to get Birds of America published.

After Audubon died, his widow sold his original paintings to the New York Historical Society for $4000. For the next 100 years the Society kept them in the basement. Many of the original copper plates from which the first edition was self-published by Audubon himself were damaged in a fire and others were given away. Some were sold to a smelter! Fortunately, the fourteen year old son of the owner must have been a birder because he realized what they were and saved about thirty-six.

About one hundred thirty sets of the complete first edition are still in existence, the others broken up. Twenty-years ago a broken set fetched $4 million at auction.

That’s why we always back-up our blog posts. You never can tell . . . .

My name is Bond, James Bond (007 Goes Birding)

August 16, 2009

“My name is Bond, James Bond.”


No. No. No. Not that James Bond.  This one:


The real one. I’m the one who published more than 40 original ornithology papers but never once shot anyone with a Walther PPK.  Ian Fleming stole my name.

I was the author of The Birds of the West Indies, first published in 1936.


In real life, I was an American ornithologist and lived from 1900 to 1989.  When Ian Fleming needed a name for his fictional spy, he chose mine because he used my book often when he was living and bird watching in Jamaica.  Apparently he saw my book on his bookshelf in his home in Jamaica and decided that mine was the perfect name for his spy.  In 1964 he gave me a first edition copy of his book, You Only Live Twice. He inscribed it for me:

“To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”

I never minded that he borrowed my name, although I must tell you; birding in the Caribbean was never like this, except for the clouds:


His books and mine, even though we are both long since dead, are still in print.  You can get mine from Amazon or have your local bookstore order it for you.  That is better.  Your local book store needs the business. Now, it is named The Peterson Guide to the Birds of the West Indies.

If you’re interested in more about me, Auk published a nice obituary after my death.

The Fat Finch Reads

August 13, 2009

We love to read, but since opening a bricks and mortar store, the owner’s reading consists of several paragraphs at bedtime just before falling asleep. She no longer has the energy to sit leisurely in a chair reading for hours with nothing else on her mind. She comes home at the end of her day with just enough energy to cook dinner. She hates that part of running the store.

But here she is on a different book, one that did not put her to sleep:

life list

Recently I wanted to read a summer page-turner, a book so engrossing that I would sit in a chair and read until I finished it. In the past those books have been the occasional well-written mystery or the dying-a-hideous-death-mountain-climbing on-Everest book.

This summer’s page-turner turned out to be a birding book, Life List by Olivia Gentile.  I read it in one sitting and loved every moment.  It was as good as going birding.

I love birds, of course, so I might be biased; but this book, about birds, birding, and obsession, really is a page-turner.

It chronicles the life of Phoebe Snetsinger. Snetsinger was a 1950’s housewife (the same vintage as my mother) who felt trapped in her life as a wife and mother.  Her introduction to birds was a revelation and she became obsessed.  In her late 40’s she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and given only a year to live.  She decided to spend her time seeing as many birds as possible.  (We call these people “listers”. Listers keep track of the number of birds they see.) Phoebe had a list of more than 8400 bird species before she died. (Almost twenty years after the diagnosis and grim prognosis and it wasn’t the cancer that killed her, it was a car wreck.) Seeing that many birds requires often dangerous travel to remote parts of the world.  At the time of her death she had seen 84% of the world’s bird species.

As far as anyone knows, that is the record.

A Blackburnian Warbler, the first bird on her list.

A Blackburnian Warbler, the first bird on her list.

Phoebe Snetsinger would never have won the wife or the mother of the year awards. Was she too independent to have been a “good” wife or mother? Did obsessions run in the family? Was it the one-year death sentence when she was only in her 40s?

Or maybe it was just the birds.

Olivia Gentile reports the details of Phoebe’s life as a journalist should—without judgment. Gentile examines all facets of Phoebe’s life—as daughter, wife, mother, cancer-survivor and obsessive and loving birder.  It is clear that watching and searching for yet another bird for her list kept Phoebe alive.  She shared her love of birds with her traveling companions and inspired others whom she met along the way.

The last bird on her list, a Red-shouldered Vanga

The last bird on her list, a Red-shouldered Vanga

I don’t aspire to be a lister, but I do know that my love of birds is one of the greatest joys of my life.  Watching birds brings me into the moment, those moments when life’s petty little problems disappear.  Life List chronicles those moments in the life of a great birder and is a fine read for a summer’s day.

We have the book online and at the store. So do the big book stores and Amazon but, as always, we encourage you to find a small, locally-owned book store and buy it from them.

birding on borrowed timeMs. Snetsinger wrote her own book, which we don’t have but can get for you, Birding on Borrowed Time, published posthumously by the American Birding Association in 2003. For another book about life-list obsessions, you might enjoy, To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel.

The photograph of the Red-shouldered Vanga was made by Mike Danzenbaker, that of the Blackburnian Warbler by a wikipedia user who identifies him or herself only as “mdf.”

For more on Olivia Gentile, here is her website.  (Warning:  It opens with sound.)

Life List

June 13, 2009

life listOne of us just finished “Life List,” a new book by Olivia Gentile.  It’s a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger who saw more species of birds than any human before her.  Ms.  Gentile was interviewed this week in the New Yorker’s blog, The Book Bench.  Decscribing a trip to Kenya — to follow the path of one of Ms. Snetsinger’s birding trips — Ms. Gentile told them, “I had this sense that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing—learning that life is about survival, mating, storing your food, caring for your young.”

If you need a reason for bird-watching, that is as good as any.

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