Bird Fact Friday—Tinamous

Adapted from pages 28-29 of Birds of Central America:

Drawings of the Great Tinamou (top 4 birds), and the Highland Tinamou (bottom two birds).

Tinamous are short-tailed, terrestrial birds, found mainly in humid broadleaf forest. They are sensitive to hunting pressure and can be difficult to see as they quickly walk away at the approach of an observer. In less humid areas, tinamous can sometimes be located by the scratching sound produced as they walk over dry leaf litter. Most are detected by voice.

The Great Tinamou (Tinamus major) is the most common and widespread.  They are 44 cm tall, and are fairly common residents in lowlands and foothills (to 1800 m). These birds can be identified by their gray legs and white throat, mostly brownish barred with dusky on upperparts and flanks, and are grayish below with fine barring on flanks. Most often detected by voice during early morning or dusk, and sometimes calls from elevated roost site. Individuals, pairs, or small groups can be located by listening for rustling sounds produced as they forage or walk in dry leaf litter. Their call is two to four paired, long, tremulous whistles. First note usually slightly lower-pitched and sometimes repeated two or three times. Second note drops in pitch.

Meanwhile, the Highland Tinamou (Nothocercus bonapartei) are uncommon residents in foothills and highlands (above 1200 m). These are fairly large (40cm) birds, with  gray legs, and dark gray crown and sides of head. The birds’ underparts are cinnamon, becoming brightest on throat and belly, and narrowly and sparsely barred with dusky. They have Dark rufous-brown above with fine blackish vermiculations and variable buff spotting on wings. Some have buff spotting extending to rump and mantle. They are, more often than not, solitary or in pairs, secretive and rarely seen. Most often detected by voice , with a call that sounds like a short, hoarse, low-pitched huh-wowr or unh-heer, which it sometimes repeats steadily.

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central America is an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Galápagos: Courtship, Mating, and Birth

Adapted from pages 128-138 of Galápagos: Life in Motion:

Swallow-Tailed Gulls engaging in a courtship ritual, Española Island

From an evolutionary point of view, nothing is more critical than finding a mate, having offspring, and ensuring that those offspring can survive to reproduce. To this most important of activities, Galápagos animals devote enormous time and effort. For some species, courtship and mating have evolved into elaborate rituals involving song, dance, and the exchange of gifts. Others meticulously prepare nests—in the trees, on the rocks, or under the beach— for sheltering their young. For many species, parental care is freely given, sometimes over many years. But for a few unusual species, parental care is just as easily revoked, sentencing offspring to certain death.

Flightless Cormorants engaging in a courtship dance, which continues after mating, Fernandina Island

Galápagos mating rituals can be quite elaborate. Swallow-tailed Gulls pairbond and build nesting platforms out of pieces of coral. Boobies sing, dance, and exchange gifts prior to mating. And the rare Flightless Cormorants engage in a beautiful, synchronized courtship dance both before and after mating.

Blue-Footed Boobies engaging in a courtship dance, North Seymour Island

The birds and reptiles of the Galápagos employ many strategies to protect their eggs and their offspring. Some birds build nests in trees, others on bare rocks. Some nests are built out of leaves and twigs, others out of bits of coral and urchin spikes, and still others are simply large holes under the beach. Once they lay eggs, some parents, like Blue-footed Boobies, keep a close watch on them. Others, like Pacific Green Turtles, leave the eggs and offspring to fend for themselves.

 

Galápagos: Life in Motion
by Walter Perez & Michael Weisberg

The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on—and in the waters around—their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.

Watch male Marine Iguanas fight over territory and females; see frigatebirds steal food and nesting materials from other birds; witness the courtship dance of a pair of Blue-footed Boobies; go underwater to glimpse a Galápagos Sea Lion pup playing with its mother; and observe a baby Pacific Green Turtle enter the water for the first time. These and dozens of other unforgettable senes are all vividly captured here—including many moments that even experienced Galápagos observers may never be lucky enough to see in person.

Complete with a brief text that provides essential context, this book will be cherished by Galápagos visitors and anyone else who wants to see incredible animals on the move.

Bird Fact Friday – Finding Birds as an Urban Birder

Adapted from pages 205-206; 220 of How to Be an Urban Birder:

Birds are everywhere, but in order to see them you will need to know where to look and how to search for them. This is certainly the situation in urban areas and is perhaps why so many people shun the idea of there being any birds to be found in our towns and cities. Newbie birders are often overawed when they are out with birders more experienced than themselves, some even doubting their ability to have found any birds had they been on their own. Never worry about things like that, as there will soon come the day when you realize that you know more than you thought you did and have seen far more than you’ve given yourself credit for. Learn at your own pace. No one knows everything, and at one point everybody knew nothing.

Carrion Crows. Photo credit: Gideon Knight

Those birders who seem to see everything and get all the luck have actually had to earn it. They would have invariably spent hours in the field watching over their patches and studying every bird that they happened across. Therein lies the secret of how to become a better birder: getting enough experience in the field. However, this does not mean that you have to be out birding several days a week, as your skills can still be honed as you go about your daily life. The golden rule is always to look closely at every bird you come across, wherever that might be, and to listen to calls and songs to work out what they mean – is it a contact call, song or alarm note? By doing this you will be practicing hand-toeye coordination with your binoculars, learning more about identification and behaviour, picking up on sounds, and generally noticing birds that you may not have done previously. 

Don’t be put off looking at birds for fear of not being able to recognize them. There is not one birder on the planet who can confidently put a name to everything that perches up in front of them. If they say they can, then they are fibbers. I have hung out with some of the best observers in the world and they are all fallible. There is nothing wrong with drawing a blank, as some birds just defy identification. Simply enjoy the experience and try to make as many notes as possible. 

An interesting aspect of this learning curve that is not often talked about is the use of peripheral vision. When you look at a bird, also look around it at the same time, and train yourself to be alert to movement at the edges of your visual range. In this way you may notice the Sparrowhawk buzzing the extreme end of the Starling flock you were focused on, or spot the Snipe feeding unobtrusively in the wet meadow near the Moorhen that you were admiring. When you watch a bird such as a Buzzard passing overhead use your peripheral vision to locate any other birds soaring with it. Soon you will be noticing movement from the corner of your eye far more regularly.

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

 

Bird Fact Friday – Southern Lapwing

This shorebird is a common and widespread species along the banks of lakes and rivers as well as open grassland habitats throughout South America. It has benefited from the clearance of forests for cattle ranching and in some areas is very much an urban bird. Indeed, they can even be watched feeding on floodlit football pitches during televised games. I have spent much time watching these charismatic birds on the urban fields of Sāo Paulo in Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile.

Photo credit: David Lindo.

Southern Lapwings is part of the Vanellus genus of waders, to which the Northern Lapwing belongs, and is one of three to be found in South America. The other species are the Pied Plover and Andean Lapwing. Although all three are fairly distinctive, the Southern Lapwing is the only one with a crest. Normally monogamous, in high density areas they may indulge in co-operative breeding. It is the only shorebird in the world where adults of the same sex have been found caring for eggs and young.

 

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

David Bainbridge on Stripped Bare

For more than two thousand years, comparative anatomy—the study of anatomical variation among different animal species—has been used to make arguments in natural philosophy, reinforce religious dogma, and remind us of our own mortality. This stunningly illustrated compendium traces the intertwined intellectual and artistic histories of comparative anatomy from antiquity to today.

Stripped Bare brings together some of the most arresting images ever produced, from the earliest studies of animal form to the technicolor art of computer-generated anatomies. David Bainbridge draws on representative illustrations from different eras to discuss the philosophical, scientific, and artistic milieus from which they emerged. He vividly describes the unique aesthetics of each phase of anatomical endeavor, providing new insights into the exquisite anatomical drawings of Leonardo and Albrecht Dürer in the era before printing, Jean Héroard’s cutting and cataloging of the horse during the age of Louis XIII, the exotic pictorial menageries of the Comte de Buffon in the eighteenth century, anatomical illustrations from Charles Darwin’s voyages, the lavish symmetries of Ernst Haeckel’s prints, and much, much more.

Why The Art of Animal Anatomy?

Although my day job is teaching anatomy to veterinary students, it has taken me until my seventh book to write about it. All my other books have been about how very strange and unusual human biology is when compared to animals, but this time I thought I’d try something different. Animal structure has been a central artistic element since early humans were painting on cave walls, and I wanted to write a book that reflects how much it has permeated our artistic culture. To do this, the format had to be right – everything else I’ve written has been very text-heavy, but Stripped Bare had to let the images speak for themselves. I did have to weave it into a narrative, but just as important is the quality of the reproductions. Enormous effort and skill went into them, so we wanted to do them justice.

Has the artistic side of science always interested you?

I’ve always found that some of the most interesting aspects of science are when it interacts with language, culture and the arts. Right back when I was slogging through my science subjects to get into vet school, I was also lucky enough to be able to take a two-year course in Art History. I suppose that’s where I learnt the language – knowing my Cubists from my Fauvists, and so on – but also understood for the first time the very real ways that changes in the visual arts reflect, and are reflected by, changes in thought and society. It didn’t take long for me to realise that animal anatomy is not only depicted for its own practical sake, but has also become an eerie, visceral motif to which artists have returned again and again. It has the power to both shock and inspire, and often that’s just too good for artists to ignore.

So how important is it to be familiar with anatomy and art history to enjoy the book?

Not at all, I would say. I assumed nothing of the reader, other than an intelligent inquisitiveness. Comparative anatomy is so much more interesting than seeing the striking ways in which a human, a flamingo and a trout differ, and are similar. It’s a story which almost writes itself. In the book, I tried to highlight what I think are fascinating snippets of the science, but anatomy is a huge topic, and I couldn’t assume any prior knowledge of it. I guess I assumed slightly more foreknowledge of art history, but still not much. A general sense of the flow of the centuries and movements is beneficial, but that’s all. And if readers are teased into finding out more about Futurism or Hyperrealism, then that’s great.

Who is the most important character in the book?

It would have to be Carlo Ruini, an anatomist from Bologna who wrote the remarkable 1598 Anatomia del Cavallo (Anatomy of the Horse), what I like to think of as the Principia Mathematica of comparative anatomy. Before the Anatomia anatomical writings just looked ancient – rare, error-strewn, unscientific, fragmentary, and worst of all, often unillustrated. In contrast, for all its four centuries of existence, Ruini’s book looks recognisably modern: structured, enquiring and detailed. For example, Ruini discovered the one-way nature of the valves of the heart, an important component of later discoveries of the circulation of the blood. The anatomical precision in the book is amazing, especially as it seems to have sprung into existence as if from from nowhere, but most striking is its artistic beauty. There are hundreds of meticulous wood-block engravings, capturing not just the science of the animals’ structure, but also the emotional visual impact of gnarled bones, contorted intestines and convoluted brains. Most of all, the animals retain a remarkable dignity, despite their progressive ‘disrobing’ – they stand proud, or even sometimes trot gaily through renaissance landscapes.

And which artist brings you the most pleasure?

It would have to be Georgia O’Keeffe. In many ways she’s at the other end of the spectrum. Ruini’s book was a practical, scientific book, whereas O’Keeffe uses animal bones solely as elements, often central elements, in her compositions. Just like her paintings of libidinous flowers, her depictions of animal bones allowed her to explain her own feelings about her adopted environment in the American Southwest. Bleached skulls become the central band in the American red, white and blue, while a crumbling pelvis on the desert floor becomes a grand, eroded rock arch framing the distant sierra. I believe that the use of the dusty white skull as a symbol of the desert states (think of an Eagles album cover!) can be traced directly back to O’Keeffe’s decision to place them centre-stage in her compositions.

Has the art of animal anatomy run its course, do you think?

Not at all. If anything, there’s more happening now than ever before. Over recent decades it has become clear that biology is bewilderingly complex and detailed, and one of the major challenges we face is explaining and depicting the new superabundance of information in a comprehensible way. As soon as a neuroscientist generates a scan of the internal nervous pathways of the brain, they have to make artistic – yes, artistic – decisions, if they are to intelligibly represent the tangled and cascading neural superhighways they’ve discovered. Modern, computer-generated diagrams of animal structure and biology are usually beautiful, and always striking. Animal anatomy has even made its way into modern street art. One of the most inspiring images in the book is of a dog’s skull, spay-painted freehand apparently, by the artist SHOK1, onto a building-site hoarding in Walthamstow, North London. It’s one of the most anatomically accurate depictions in the book, a true memento mori for the modern age. The pace of anatomical art is hastening, not slowing – I’m sure there is much more to come.

 

David Bainbridge is University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist at the University of Cambridge. His books include Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape and Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey through Your Brain.

Bird Fact Friday – Feral Pigeons

Adapted from pages 69-72 of How to Be an Urban Birder:

Photo credit: David Lindo

Feral Pigeons are sometimes referred to disparagingly as Flying Rats by city folk. The term ‘Flying Rat’ first appeared in a New York Times article in 1966, but was actually popularized by Woody Allen in his 1980 film Stardust Memories, in which he referred to these pigeons as rats with wings. Along with their non flying mammalian namesake, they have got to be the most hated feathered creature in the land, surely? Pigeons poop whenever the desire takes them, with little respect for the unfortunate souls who might be standing underneath at the time. They certainly foul the pavements below their nest sites: classically underneath railway bridges or in deserted buildings in cities.

There have been many studies and surveys conducted of urban birds, some of which have come back with surprising results. Pigeons are one such fascinating subject matter. For example, research has shown that they are able to recognize the faces of the people that feed them, even if those faces are in a crowd of others. In London, some have learnt to ride the tube system, seemingly purposefully disembarking a few stops later to continue nonchalantly pecking at the pavement. They are accused of being dirty and spreading diseases. But do they? Why do they come in so many colour variations? And how come we never see baby pigeons?

In terms of their propensity for spreading disease, you would be forgiven for thinking that Feral Pigeons harboured every ailment known to man, plus a few that we perhaps don’t yet know about. This is seemingly visually corroborated by the sight of some individuals sporting gammy legs, club feet and very dishevelled plumages. Pigeons are known to carry lurgies like chlamydiosis or psittacosis, a bacterial infection that has flu-like symptoms. The jury is still out as to how much of a health risk they pose to humans, as many experts believe that the chances of catching anything from them are minimal. It is the droppings that we really have to worry about. Fresh droppings plopped on your head, whilst being unpleasant and, contrastingly, a sign of good luck, pose no risk to health. It is when they become dried that things can get dodgy. Spores from these droppings can be carried on the wind and be inhaled as dust. This can cause a flu-like illness in healthy people and a much more serious reaction in those with low immunity. Additionally, accumulations of droppings, which are highly acidic, can cause long-term damage to buildings, much to the chagrin of council officials.

Far from being boring and not very intelligent, Feral Pigeons have a fascinating life history, one part of which often flummoxes members of the public – the often-posed question “how come we never see baby pigeons?” The answer is actually quite simple. Young pigeons, or squabs, remain in the nest until they are about the same size as an adult – so when they make their debut appearances on our streets they are often indistinguishable from their parents.

 

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

Bird Fact Friday – Common Starling

This cheeky bird has to be one of the most familiar birds not only in the UK but perhaps the world. It’s natural range includes Ireland and the British Isles, temperate Europe and into western Asia. It has been introduced to a host of countries around the planet including the US, Canada, several South American countries and Australia often to detrimental effect due to competition with native species. Although flourishing throughout most of its introduced range the population here in the UK and in Europe it is famously in decline.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The Starling, as it’s simply known, belongs to the Starling family of 115 species found predominantly in Europe, Africa, Asia, Northern Australia and some Pacific Island. In Asia they are known as Mynas.  There are several subspecies with faroensis being the largest. Aside from its greater body size it also has a bigger beak and feet.

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

Bird Fact Friday—White Stork

David Lindo – author of How to Be an Urban Birder –continues his take over our Bird Fact Friday series. Check out these posts every week to learn about the different birds he’s encountered in his travels through the Concrete Jungle. In his latest entry, he highlights the White Stork.

The White Stork is the classic bird of Mediterranean Europe that is often to be seen standing nonchalantly on top of enormous nests, usually on the very tips of impressive old buildings. Their stick nests grow with every year of use and are often used for generations. Their range in Europe actually extends beyond the Mediterranean basin north to Finland and into Eastern Europe. Globally, they range as far south as South Africa and east into the Indian subcontinent. Famously a long distant migrant it has been discovered that birds in the Iberian Peninsula are increasingly overwintering to take advantage of the food sources found in refuse dumps as well as at more natural sources.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The White Stork’s black-and-white plumage makes it an instantly recognisable bird in Europe, although care has to be taken when viewing distant birds as confusion may occur between it and its darker cousin, the Black Stork. The White Stork’s history within the UK is a bit of a contentious one as many of the birds discovered there are often suspected of being escapees. What is startling though is the fact that they have not bred naturally on British soil in over 600 years!

 

How to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

 

 

Katrina van Grouw on Unnatural Selection

van GrouwIs Unnatural Selection all about domestication?

No, only Chapter 12, the final chapter, is about domestication. The rest of the book is about selective breeding, and the book as a whole is about evolution. Domestication is the process by which wild animal species are transformed into self-sustaining populations of tame ones (that’s not the same as simply taming individual animals). Selective breeding is what happens after that, as those domesticated populations are gradually honed into more useful, more productive, more beautiful, or simply different, varieties. As Darwin recognised, the process is uncannily similar to evolution by natural selection.

It’s about time someone made a book about selective breeding, to expose the awful things we do to animals.

Husband and I are animal-breeders ourselves, and many of the examples here are based on first-hand experience, so no—this book is NOT intended as a condemnation of selective breeding. Quite the reverse, in fact.

No-one would deny that there are practices that go against the interests of animal welfare, and I have discussed some of these in Unnatural Selection where I considered them relevant. There are, however, many emotive examples that are more complex and less black and white than public opinion would allow, and in these cases I’ve attempted to present a balanced explanation. Sadly, there’s also a public trend for the condemnation of many harmless and interesting traits in domesticated animals simply because they’re unusual.

This book is about evolution, and one of the central messages here is that these traits can, and do, occur in all animals—wild and domesticated—and might be favoured under certain environmental circumstances, of which domestication is only one. Like Darwin, I find this subject fascinating, and have endeavoured to present it in an objective way as just one more marvellous facet of evolutionary biology.

I’m not really that interested in domesticated animals. They’re just man-made freaks, aren’t they?

If you think about it, there are some pretty ‘freakish’ wild animals too—animals with short limbs, giants, dwarves, animals with an up- or down-curved jaws; there have even been wingless birds.  And all these animals, wild and domesticated, came to exist in exactly the same way: by gradual selection on naturally-occurring mutations. The only difference is that in the case of wild animals these traits flourished in a natural environment, and with domesticated animals they were favoured by their human custodians and evolved considerably faster. The variations themselves are equally likely to occur in either environment. All diversity on the planet is a result of mutation; just heritable copying errors in DNA replication. I like to think of unusual traits in domesticated animals in terms of speculative zoology—as a way of revealing what forms wild animals might have taken if their evolutionary history had taken a slightly different turn.   

What has selective breeding got to do with evolution – it’s hardly survival of the fittest, is it?

It has many things to do with evolution; at many levels. Darwin used selective breeding as an analogy for natural selection in nature, and it follows precisely the same formula: random heritable variation + non-random selection = evolution. In other words, breeders produce more animals than they will use to breed from; every individual is different, so they select the ones they wish to pass on their traits to the next generation, gradually resulting in the chosen trait becoming more extreme, or more plentiful in the population. The only difference between natural and artificial selection is that the choice is a conscious one allowing breeders to use their knowledge of inheritance to plan several generations ahead. What I find particularly fascinating is that artificial selection has precise parallels with some of the more fast-acting facets of evolution in nature, like sexual selection or ‘arms race’ runaway selection. At another level, however, you can argue that even human environments are environments in nature, so the process isn’t only analogous with evolution—it’s evolution in itself.

Incidentally, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a very misleading expression and has nothing to do with physical fitness or strength. Evolutionary fitness means ‘best fitted’ for an environment. And the measure of that is purely in terms of how many viable offspring an animal manages to produce. So in the environment of a middle class family home a toy dog breed with a short muzzle would be considerably ‘better fitted’ than a wolf!

I loved The Unfeathered Bird. I suppose Unnatural Selection will be a collection of anatomical drawings of domesticated animals?

I started Unnatural Selection with that intention. However, it very quickly began to evolve into something much more interesting. Selective breeding can result in many variations from the wild type of animals—not just in skull shape and posture but in fur and feather type and especially in colour (I think the sections about colour are some of the best in the book). I also thought it important to show the external appearance of many of the breeds that I talk about, as these are probably much less familiar and much more changeable over time, than species of wild animal and birds. The result is a visually exciting mixture of drawings of live animals and their anatomy that communicate the message more effectively than could skeletons alone.

Did you always want to be an artist?

Absolutely not! Unfortunately I was so prodigiously good at drawing as a child that my teachers actively discouraged me from developing my real passion—for natural history. Every so often I rebelled and turned back to biology only to find that I was less and less qualified to pursue a course of formal study in science. Most universities wouldn’t accept anyone without the right A Level subjects. I only finally attended art school because there was simply nothing else I could do. And after that I assumed I had to make my living from producing and selling pictures. It’s a long story that really deserves to be told in a book of its own.

To be honest, nowadays I prefer to think of myself as an author rather than an artist. The drawings I do now are illustrations for the books, and are not produced for their own sake. It’s the collective work of science that’s become the work of art.

I don’t really like domesticated animals; do you have any plans to do a book about the anatomy of wild animals?

As it happens I do—eventually. But I have quite a lot to do before I begin that, and distant plans have a way of evolving and changing over time. But Unnatural Selection really is all about animals in general, not just domesticated ones, and anyone interested in wild animals should find it very useful. It’s not just about anatomy, you see—it’s about the way evolution works, and that applies to everything.

Will Unnatural Selection be an art book, like The Unfeathered Bird?

If you mean will it be large format, richly illustrated, and beautiful to look at, then the answer is yes. However, I don’t consider either to be an art book. Both have science—evolution and adaptation—as their central subject and although the science is presented in an accessible way, it’s not dumbed down in the slightest. The illustrations are created for the books; not the other way around. The take-home message is that it’s possible to combine art and science without compromising either.

Which skeletons did you prepare yourselves, and how did you prepare them?

Most of the dogs, all of the cats, the rabbit, and all of the birds were prepared at home by Husband specifically for Unnatural Selection. The birds needed to be mounted in the particular show posture (including historical show postures) for each breed, so these really required a high degree of specialist expertise which Husband has. There’s probably no-one else in the world who could have done these. Fortunately I managed to find all the specimens of large livestock I needed already prepared so we didn’t have to do this at home.

Lots of people assume that articulating skeletons is easy. It isn’t. Ours are set up using a combination of wire and glue. It’s very time consuming and each skeleton takes weeks to do. The hardest part is getting the posture correct, and this requires an intimate knowledge of the animal in life. Then there’s the cleaning, and the de-greasing and bleaching of the bones. You have to be careful to get the ribs and vertebrae in the right order, and not to get the bones of the toes and fingers muddled up. I’ve seen far, far more incorrect skeletons than correct ones. So unless you want to devote a huge amount of time to getting it right, if you want a skeleton of your own my advice would be to pay a professional to do it for you. And if your mind is set on learning to do it yourself, you’ll find plenty of online sources. Different preparators have developed techniques of their own, so finding your own way is a matter of trial and error. As the saying goes: there more than one way to skin a cat!

You worked at the British Natural History Museum. That must have been really useful for drawing all those skeletons.

Actually no. My job had nothing to do with art. I was a curator of the bird skin collections (the equivalent to a collections manager in US museums) and my job involved sourcing and preparing specimens, looking after the collections, overseeing scientific visitors, data entry, answering bird-related enquiries, and the occasional bit of public engagement. I kept my day job and my personal interests entirely separate and never drew a single specimen in the seven years that I worked there. I finally left the museum when a senior manager forbade me to write or illustrate bird-related books in my spare time, as this was never in my contract and I wouldn’t abandon my plans for The Unfeathered Bird.

How did you get to be producing books like Unnatural Selection and The Unfeathered Bird – what course of study would you recommend to someone interested in art and science?

It was a long and convoluted journey and nothing in my employment history or education really made that much of a contribution to what I’ve ended up doing, though, looking back, the collective experiences add up and seem to make sense. The things that really make a difference are passion, determination and integrity. Every individual path is different, and no-one has the right to point anyone else in a specific direction. I would recommend following your passion, and listening to your instincts.

What medium do you use to do the pictures?

The illustrations are all drawn in pencil. Just a normal 2B or B grade, though I find that a harder grade works better for drawing teeth. I then scan the drawings and adjust the levels and colour digitally afterward.

Why do you draw skeletons?

Actually I prefer to think of it as anatomical drawing, and I began doing it – directly from dead specimens that I dissected myself – as a way of understanding the anatomy of birds so that my pictures of living birds would benefit from it. I draw them now purely as illustrations for my books, to communicate a point I want to make. The books are not collections of skeletal art – they’re illustrated science books that I approach in such a way that ticks all the boxes for me intellectually and creatively. I no longer consider myself an artist in terms of picture-making, and if I did, I would almost certainly notbe drawing skeletons.

You’ve hinted in the book that natural selection is a difficult concept to accept. Is this because you believe that Darwinian evolution excludes the existence of God?

It is, and I do, though unlike some evolutionists I don’t wield my atheism like a spear. I’ve spent a great deal of my life thinking very carefully about natural selection and its wider implications, and was devastated when it led me to the conclusion, about 20 years ago, that I could no longer support any personal belief in a deity. However, whether we see natural selection as a meaningless struggle for existence or something miraculous depends on our individual viewpoint. I certainly recognise it as the latter, which for me is as spiritual and profound an experience as any belief in God.     

Do you make a living from doing books?

I prefer to think about my books as my life rather than my living. I work on them all day every day seven days a week, I dream about them at night, and put them before everything else; there’s nothing I wouldn’t do or sacrifice for them. Ironically, if I considered my books a job or a business, I wouldn’t be able to justify giving them so much time. Like all authors I rely on people buying books new, requesting books from libraries, paying to use material instead of downloading it for free, and being willing to pay for my time. No non-fiction author is in it for the money and when producing a book takes 5 or 6 years of full-time work, it’s very difficult indeed to earn a consistent income from it.

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Bird Fact Friday— Blackcap

For the next three weeks, David Lindo – author of How to Be an Urban Birder – will take over our Bird Fact Friday series. Check out these posts every week to learn about the different birds he’s encountered in his travels through the Concrete Jungle. In his latest entry, he highlights the Blackcap.

The Blackcap. Photo credit: Rubén Cebrián.

The Blackcap is one of Britain’s and indeed, Europe’s most familiar summer songsters. Its rich warbling is often cited as one of the best of any bird in the land. Its song led it to be referred to as the Northern Nightingale and the King of Warblers in the 1700’s during the days of Gilbert White – the pioneering English naturalist. With perhaps 1.2 million breeding pairs, this handsome warbler has steadily spread across the UK. Elsewhere, Blackcaps breed over much of Europe, western Asia and northwestern Africa favouring mature deciduous woodland. Nearly all winter around the Mediterranean and tropical Africa. However, it is well known that a steadily increasing number of Eastern European and, in particular, German birds are migrating west to winter in Britain. They are even evolving thicker bills to deal with the bird table food that we provide.

Listen to the singing males in Switzerland, Austria and southern Germany as they sometimes sing a different variant to their usual song. It is a very abbreviated warble ending in a repeated ‘tuuli, tuuli, tuuli’.

How to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

Larks at Birdfair

As I write, it’s Monday morning after the glorious Birdfair 2018 weekend. I am propping my eyes open with matchsticks and trying to fit back in to the normality of my office job, after a fabulous weekend with the Princeton WILDGuides team, along with thousands of other nature lovers.

In case anyone reading this is not already fully aware of Birdfair, it is the British Birdwatching Fair – the Birdwatching Glastonbury – an annual event for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Set on the nature reserve at Rutland Water, UK, Birdfair offers a packed programme of lectures, events, and talks, and of course hundreds of stands selling the latest products for wildlife enthusiasts: everything from scopes to sculptures, binoculars to bird food, eGuides to eco-holidays.

So, what did we get up to?

As publishers of some of the very best natural history books and field guides of course PUP were there in our usual stand in marquee 5. This year the team were sporting new green T-shirts promoting both the WILDGuides imprint and the newly published How to be an Urban Birder.

We supported our various authors who gave talks in the Author Forum (sponsored jointly by Princeton WILDGuides,

Katrina van Grouw on the lecture stage.

WildSounds bookseller, and Bloomsbury), followed by book signings.

  • David Lindo (How to be an Urban Birder), a charismatic speaker, charmed the audience with tales of urban birding from his childhood to today: watching peregrine falcons over London, eagles flying over Edinburgh, and Bearded Tits in Kensington Gardens.
  • Michael Brooke’s (Far from Land) talk about what seabirds get up to when far from land was riveting and occasionally astonishing – not least when Michael treated us to a bit of a rap about Ross’s Gulls (written by Mark Maftei on a forlorn Arctic island).
  • Katrina van Grouw (Unnatural Selection), always a fascinating speaker, talked to us about evolution, most particularly at the hand of man, accompanied by slides showing her exquisite artwork.

Our Natural History Editor Robert Kirk and our WILDGuides editors Andy Swash and Rob Still (Britain’s Birds) had copious meetings to discuss books – at various stages of gestation. And I managed to meet up with lots of my contacts in the world of wildlife magazines.

Visual proof that we like to start our birdwatchers young!

We also celebrated both the publication of How to be an Urban Birder and our presence at Birdfair with a reception. It was a happy and relaxed gathering of supporters – authors, colleagues, and friends.

As our contribution to the Birdfair raffle we donated a full set of the Britain’s WILDGuides series. This year Birdfair was raising money for the Flamingo Protection programme for Mar Chiquita in Argentina – supporting the creation of Argentina’s largest national park, in the process providing a refuge for nearly a million flamingos and shorebirds.

The marquees are now struck, the WILDGuides team (and the thousands of nature lovers) have dispersed to our various homes happy to know that lots of books were sold (How to be an Urban Birder more or less sold out across the site), old friends were embraced, a lot of contacts were renewed, new contacts were made, plans for new books were hatched, and Princeton University Press’s place in the natural history world remains firmly fixed.

Bird Fact Friday— Black Redstart

For the next four weeks, David Lindo – author of How to Be an Urban Birder – will take over our Bird Fact Friday series. Check out these posts every week to learn about the different birds he’s encountered in his travels through the Concrete Jungle. In his latest entry, he highlights the Black Redstart.

The Black Redstart is one of two species of redstart to be found in the UK with other being the summer visiting Common Redstart. Globally, there are 15 species of redstart ranging from the large Güldenstädt’s Redstart to the charismatic river dwelling Plumbeous Redstart. The various species are mostly found in Asia. Formally classed as members of the thrush family the popular thinking is now is to include redstarts as Old World flycatchers.

Black Redstart

Photo credit: David Lindo

Black Red’s, as commonly coined by British birders, have a large distribution ranging from the UK across to Central China and south into Morocco. In Britian, it is a very rare breeder and thus Red-listed with between 40 – 100 breeding pairs. Their numbers are swelled to around 400 individuals during the winter. In Europe, their population is ranked at 4.5 million pairs. There are several theories as to why the British population is so low yet literally across the Channel they are numerous. One interesting supposition is that their numbers are kept low by competition with the far more dominant European Robin. Whereas on the Continent, the Robin is very much a shy woodland dweller and thus the Black Redstarts there can thrive in urban areas due to the lack of competition.

Although being well known to birders in the UK, Black Redstarts are virtually unknown to the general public. This is probably due not only to their rarity but to their propensity for nesting on derelict land or in business areas.

 

How to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings