Review of Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Reviewed by FMN Stacey Remick-Simkins

(2009, 229 pages) This is a masterpiece that I recommend to all, but particularly those grappling with the most difficult questions of how to live meaningfully in this challenged environmental milieu. Crows are the purveyor of the wisdom and carry us to the places of wonder that Haupt seeks to take us.  Specifically, she portrays her relationship with the injured crow Charlotte. 

Crow science and lore engage us to consider our humility and courage as we live out our life of responsibility and care for the wild world.  Haupt uses references to some of the great known writers and scientists, including Leopold, Thomas Eisner (Cornell professor and biologist), and Rachel Carson, that offer us ways and tools to challenge many of our naturalist assumptions and potentially revising our thinking. She suggests tools for further exploration such as nature journaling, Buddhist practices of Mindfulness, the Benedictine Rule of Life and Lectio Divina, as they can be transformed for our observations of nature.  She recognizes science as critically important to understanding where we are now, but demands that we do not lose our ability to see the wonder that exists quite apart from data gathering and naming only. She provides us the tools, the questions and the insights that challenge us all to be reverent co-inhabitants and all the profound responsibility that entails.

I have made it part of my life library which contains books that have had an extraordinary impact on my thinking or influenced me in ways that are life-changing. 

(Included is a reading group guide which includes an interview with the author, study questions and her list of must-read texts)

Review of How Birds Migrate, by Paul Kerlinger

Reviewed by FMN Kristine Lansing

In just a few weeks, nothing short of a miracle will be well underway.

Birds of all sizes and shapes — from the tiniest of hummingbirds to the largest of hawks — will embark upon an incredible geographic relocation, traveling thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands of miles to reach their summer breeding grounds . . . where they will stay for only a few months to raise their young.

How do such fragile creatures survive a journey that would do most of us in — despite all of our modern conveniences — on the very first day? It’s not too late to learn more about the odyssey that is spring migration before it gets into full swing.

In this succinct book (only 216 pages) from 2008, ornithologist Paul Kerlinger demystifies migration by discussing: why birds migrate; factors that trigger migration; how birds prepare for the journey; their navigation across water and vast terrain; why some birds fly at night while others fly during the day; migratory rest stops; and in-flight communications. Dr. Kerlinger’s explanations, accompanied by short case studies and artist Pat Archer’s illustrations, make this book exceedingly accessible to non-birders and birders alike.

So if you’re new to birding (or simply curious), and if you read this book right now, you will never see spring and fall through the same eyes again. If you’re an experienced birder, though, don’t pass the book by; you’ll find yourself referring to it time after time.

Dr. Kerlinger is a former director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

Review of The Secret Life of Flies, by Erica McAlister

Reviewed by Kristine Lansing

“Flies. A nuisance at best, a harbinger of death at worst. Regarded by many as a disease-carrier that vomits on our food, it earns nothing more from us humans than feelings of disgust. The little we know about the fly we don’t like.”*

Now, really, doesn’t that introduction just grab you? As master naturalists each of us probably spends more time around flies than we do around any other plant or animal. And yet, what do we really know about these incredible little creatures?

In a mere 240 pages, entomologist Erica McAlister introduces us to the life cycle of flies and to the many varieties we’re likely to encounter in the field, from the pollinators (some closely resemble bees), to the detritivores, the coprophages (yes, there’s dung!), necrophages (and death!), vegetarians, fungivores, predators, parasites, and sanguivores (and even blood!).

“The Secret Life of Flies” is not only packed with information, but it is brimming with humor. Ms. McAlister’s enthusiasm for her tiny subjects is infectious, and leaves the reader wanting to observe them “flirting with one another in front of a good dung pat,”* or dancing and gifting one another during courtship, or locking horns in competition. And if all of this isn’t enticing enough, just wait until you read about flies’ dining habits.

For all of you bibliophiles out there, this BBC Wildlife Book of the Month is beautifully illustrated and lovingly printed on high-quality paper.

Ms. McAlister is a curator of diptera at the Natural History Museum in London.

*All quotes from The Secret Life of Flies, Erica McAlister, 2019, Natural History Museum.

Review of Tales from the Ant World, by Edward O. Wilson

Reviewed by Don Coram

Edward O. Wilson is perhaps the most famous living naturalist.  He has written more than 30 books on nature, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes.  He is one of the naturalists mentioned in the FMN Basic Course.  

In this book, Wilson describes the fascinating diversity among the 15,000 (known) species of ants (probably twice that number overall).  The study of ants is called myrmecology.  Ants have been around for 150 million years.  Adaptive radiation, in which a few successful ant species multiply dramatically into many species filling specialized niches, started in the Mesozoic era and led to the diversity that we can observe now.   

Wilson describes the characteristics of a variety ant species, including their physiology, behavior, personalities, and social organization.  His list includes common kitchen ants, carpenter ants, fire ants, army ants, leaf cutter ants, and bull ants.  Ants are the most warlike of all animals and the book describes some of the fiercest ones.  But there are also timid ants who disappear when threatened, only to reform the colony quickly when safe. And the society of leaf cutter ants is surprisingly complex.  You must read the book to learn about other astounding adaptations in ant species.

For us amateur naturalists, the book describes Wilson’s life-long interest in ants and nature in general.  As an 8-year-old boy, he began collecting and identifying insects in his backyard.  Between the ages of 10 and 12, he lived in Washington DC, near the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, which were inspiring to him.  By 13, his family had moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he continued observing nature and soon found a colony of invasive fire ants.  His was the first record of these ants in the Northern Hemisphere, and they came to be a serious pest in the South.  The book continues describing Wilson’s field trips over the next 8 decades seeking ants throughout the world.  He finds them atop mountains, in deserts, on isolated islands, and in caves.  The book also describes how Wilson learned to communicate with ants.  He was able to extract and purify a fire ant pheromone and use it to communicate with ants to direct them to follow a particular human-selected trail.   Wilson is a now professor-emeritus at Harvard University.  

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