"More Tails of Birding
By Chris Petrak
Pondville Press, 2012
A year ago, local birder Chris Petrak published "Tails of Birding," essays collected from a Reformer newspaper column he’d been writing for a decade. This year, he’s come out with "More Tails of Birding: Birdwatching, Familiar Birds, Biology, and the Men Who Got Us Started." In this second volume, Petrak organizes his essays into three main sections: Familiar Birds; Bits of Bird Biology; and Life Histories of American Birds. As in his previous book, Petrak includes his own photographs as well as notes and a bibliography.
Part I of "More Tails of Birding" deals with familiar birds (presumably familiar to Vermont and the immediate area though he doesn’t specify), from chickadees to robins to pigeons, each essay delving into aspects of the bird’s history, song and behavior. These longer essays offer readers a close look at birds they might often encounter.
Take robins. We learn that many half-truths surround these ubiquitous backyard birds -- they don’t eat just worms, for example, and many stay in New England all winter.
And, despite the starling’s reputation as the most hated bird in America (according to Petrak) they have an astounding vocal versatility and are accomplished mimics.They sound fascinating.
Occasionally, a statement needs a reference to back it up, as in
Part II discusses some bird biology: energy expenditure in migrating; courting and feeding behavior; and convergent evolution. Some of the facts in this section amaze. Here’s one: "Ornithologists studied the Blackpoll Warbler, which flies over the Atlantic Ocean nonstop from New England to South America in about 90 hours. They suggest that the flight is equivalent to a human marathon runner competing in 50 consecutive (42km) races without consuming any food or water en route and without losing speed from the first to the last leg."
Part III introduces two early American birders, ornithologist Alexander Wilson and artist John James Audubon. Petrak describes the contributions these men made to birding in the early 19th century and details their rivalry, which was full of charges and counter-charges of plagiarism, one accusing the other of copying a bird portrait. He includes pictures of the birds under contention so readers can see for themselves. Part III might have benefited from one more chapter that mentions women such as Cornelia Stanwood (1865-1958,) and Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1948), who struggled to make their own contributions to ornithology at a time when this vocation was strictly male.
In between the three main sections, Petrak inserts Interludes -- an odd mix of folklore and anecdotes. "Raven, Bison, Bear" retells a satisfying circle of life story. An anecdote about "murder" among grackles is strangely prefaced by the relating of Stanford White’s murder in 1906. The famous architect was having an affair with the chorus girl and model Evelyn Nesbitt, and in a jealous rage, her husband murdered White. But "murder" is strictly a human term. Somehow the killing of a rival male grackle by another male grackle, doesn’t quite compare to that of one human murdering another in a jealous rage.
The epilogue is particularly thoughtful. In it, Petrak challenges readers to consider what good birding is. For many, he says, it means a long list -- a day list, year list or life list of checking off birds seen or heard. Petrak believes good birding is more than that. It involves an added awareness and appreciation, which over the years, he has learned. Now, he waits for the right moment to take a photograph. And now, he realizes that the female robin won’t bring nesting material to her nest until he leaves the area. That’s good birding.
Chris Petrak will read and discuss his book at the Brooks Memorial Library, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m., in the Meeting Room.
Elizabeth G. Macalaster writes from South Newfane where she enjoys watching birds and other animals.
For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library 802-254-5290 or email@example.com.