Woodpecker Tongues are Weird

"Did You Know...Woodpecker Edition" - The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl (All Rights Reserved - Used With Permission)
“Did You Know…Woodpecker Edition” – The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl (All Rights Reserved – Used With Permission)

In fact, I did know; but that is mostly because my children love to read The Unfeathered Bird* by Katrina van Grouw. I, however, greatly enjoy being reminded of this fact as often as possible (it is the kind of thing you know, but then forget you know – like that John Ratzenberger was in Empire Strikes Back), especially when accompanied by such wonderful illustration.

*Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

What I Don’t Know About Flyingfish

Steve N. G. Howell’s The Amazing World of Flyingfish plays with the concept that eveyone “knows” about flyingfish as a way to highlight the huge gaps in our knowledge about these iconic fish. Those areas of ignorance can have dramatic and direct impacts on conservation and sustainable fishing issues.

At its heart, The Amazing World of Flyingfish is a book of pictures – beautiful and hard-won pictures (photographing flyingfish in flight is apparently, but not surprisingly, challenging). The images are not just aesthetically pleasing. They serve Howell’s major theme, contrasting the known with the unknown.

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)
Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

On one hand, flyingfish are common and well-known. On the other hand, we do not necessarily know that much about their life history, development, or how many species their really are. Howell uses this contrast between the known and unknown to discuss different aproaches to research. The benefits of briefly viewing live animals behaving in their natural environment are compared to detailed laboratory analyses of preserved specimens in a way that shows the value of both approaches. The problems posed by limited knowledge of species identity for conservation and sustainable fishing are discussed with a thoughtful approach to the value of common usage versus scientific naming.

And, if those issues do not interest you, the book is filled with over 90 gorgeous photos of flyingfish in action, revealing aspects of these animals that were entirely new to me.

The dynamic of known versus unknown played out when my six-year-old joined me in looking over this book. The beauty of the images and the name “flyingfish” immediately captured our attention. Then we got curious.

As I am not an expert in flyingfish, fish, nor any set of multicellular organisms, that meant we were rapidly going to bump into the familiar territory of “things to which Daddy does not know the answer”.  This is fun territory, because we get to go on the journey from “not knowing” to “knowing” together.

We asked the question, “Do they really fly?” We learned that you cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes/no”. We first had to decide what we meant by “fly”. We were learning about the process of asking and answering questions.

When Howell discusses the difficulty of pairing juvenille specimens with adults in terms of species identity, we talked about physiological changes in appearance during development and the expectation that her own body would change as she grew.

One image, however, did not draw us in. The altered image of a human-sized, trophy-style flyingfish confused and distracted. Instead of discussing the fascinating biology of flyingfish, I had to explain that the huge fish was not real, the ethics (or lack thereof) of trophy fishing, and Photoshop. The worst effect was that it planted a seed of doubt about the veracity of the book’s other photos in my child’s mind.

Nothing, for us, could compate to the realization that some flyingfish have butterfly-like patterns on their transluscent wings/fins*. Howell connects this delightful discovery to the larger problem of species identification, which is vital to conservation efforts. Apparently, the patterns do not survive the preservation of specimens, leading to a divergence in what one sees in the wild and what is analyzed in the laboratory. For Howell, the species identification problem cascades into many unknowns regarding flyingfish life history, population sizes, distribution, and seasonal variation.

For us, the conversation started by those beautiful wing patterns touched on the importance of different people with different interests and experiences communicating with each other. We even talked about what we can do to build knowledge when no one know the information we need. In other words, we can draw a direct, curiosity driven line between that image of yellow and black spotted flyingfish wings/fins* that you can see above and reinforcement of the scientific method. Not bad for a book with only 45-pages in it.

*I was informed by my precocious offspring that I am not allowed to call them “fings”.

DISCLOSURE: Josh Witten was provided with a review copy of The Amazing World of Flyingfish by Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press had no input or influence over the decision to review this book or the content of this review.

The Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea by father-son team Stephen R Palumbi (marine biologist) and Anthony R Palumbi (science writer & novelist) was, to me, like a grown-up version of some of my favorite childhood books – books of interesting animal facts, like how high a mountain lion can jump or how fast a house fly can fly.

The Extreme Life of the Sea is less narrative and more an enthusiastic sharing of cool things in the sea, which are loosely tied together in thematic sections. It is not, however, just a collection of “gee whiz” facts. The compelling vignettes help to convey broader concepts of science and nature with excitement and enthusiasm.

Most of all, the Palumbis remind the reader that science and nature are not just important, they are fun. Continue reading “The Extreme Life of the Sea”

The Unfeathered Bird – A review in three parts

Skulls of Galapagos Finches by Katrina von Grouw - The Unfeathered Bird (2012 Princeton University Press - Used with Permission)
Skulls of Galapagos Finches by Katrina von Grouw – The Unfeathered Bird (2012 Princeton University Press – Used with Permission)

Katrina van Grouw‘s The Unfeathered Bird is a complicated book that combines elegant writing, copious information, and beautiful illustrations with bird anatomy. There may only be one person on earth prepared to handle all of that on her own. She wrote the book. And, it took her over 25 years.

We don’t have anyone that can cope with The Unfeathered Bird on their own. That’s ok. A multifaceted book should get a multifaceted review. So, we created a dream team of reviewers: artist Michele Banks focused on the artistry, Rebecca Heiss (PhD in avian physiology) focused on the avian physiology information, and Josh, me, focused. . .well it is not entirely clear what I focused on, like usual.

Michele Banks: The Art of The Unfeathered Bird
Rebecca Heiss: The Birds of The Unfeathered Bird
Josh Witten: The Layers of The Unfeathered Bird

The Layers of “The Unfeathered Bird”

The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw

My copy of Katrina van Grouw‘s The Unfeathered Bird demanded to be placed on my coffee table. In the same way that everything about a cheetah says fast, everything about The Unfeathered Bird says coffee table book. There are 385 illustrations of 200 bird species. It is 287 pages long and weighs a couple of kilograms. When a book like that asks space on your coffee table, you ask “how much space?”. Fortunately, I have a sturdy coffee table.

I also have two small children (hence the sturdy coffee table). As a result, my first encounter with the content between the covers was not the orderly perusal with wine I had been planning for that night. Instead, it started with my 4-year-old, The Frogger, opening The Unfeathered Bird and asking, while staring at an immaculate illustration of a skinned bird foot, “Daddy, what is this book about?”

“It’s a book about birds. It shows you the insides of birds so we can learn how they work.” Continue reading “The Layers of “The Unfeathered Bird””

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