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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book of the Week: The Bittern and Bird Identification for the Ornithological Novice


If you find yourself in the mid-United States to northern Canada this time of year, you may be witness to the final days of occupation in this area for Botaurus lentiginosus, the American Bittern. From early May through the summer, the American Bittern spends its breeding months in the Mid-US to northern Canada, occupying nest sites chosen and constructed by the female Bittern of the mating pair. For the duration of the egg-laying period, the female Bittern will lay one egg each morning, with the incubation period lasting 24 to 28 days. Once the mating season ends, the American Bitterns find their way to the south Atlantic coast across the Gulf coast and west to southern California for the duration of the wintering months, although some populations living in regions with milder temperatures appear to actually be non-migratory.

So, if you happen to find yourself in the mid-US this time of year observing a bird that may or may not be the American Bittern, how to you determine, with little to no ornithological training, whether or not what you see is Botaurus lentiginosus? Such a question was of great concern for Reginald Heber Howe, a naturalist focusing on lichens, birds, and dragonflies. With this week's book of the week, "Every bird;" a guide to the identification of the birds of woodland, beach and ocean (1896), Howe hoped to present a resource that would be both efficient and useful to beginners in the field of Ornithology. Howe makes this desire perfectly clear in his preface, writing,

"Having long felt that the identification of a bird would be much less difficult to beginners in the Study of Ornithology, if they could have a book in which every genus was illustrated by an accurate outline drawing of the head and foot, with a description of the general plumage void entirely of technical terms, I offer this volume to the bird lover."

And, indeed, on page 116, Howe succinctly describes the key features of the American Bittern, accompanied by a line drawing of the head and foot of the bird. With such a companion, the casual naturalist might have no difficulties identifying this species, or any other bird species, that crosses his or her path. So, take a look at this week's book of the week, "Every bird;" a guide to the identification of the birds of woodland, beach and ocean (1896), by Reginald Heber Howe, and if you happen to find yourself crossing paths with an unknown bird species, bring up the title on your mobile device and put your ornithological skills to the test!

Click here to see a list of other titles in the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Reginald Heber Howe.

This week's book of the week, "Every bird;" a guide to the identification of the birds of woodland, beach and ocean (1896), by Reginald Heber Howe, was contributed by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book of the Week: Deadly Fungi

It is one of the most poisonous of all known toadstools, and it is responsible for a majority of human deaths involving its type - mushrooms. It is the Amanita phalloides, more commonly known as the Death Cap. This innocent-looking fungi has been blamed for the deaths of Roman Emperor Claudius and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. It causes, often fatal, damage to the kidneys and liver, and there is no known antidote.

Amanita phalloides is widely distributed throughout Europe, particularly in the southern parts of the continent. However, with the cultivation of non-native species of oak, chestnut, and pine, the Death Cap has been accidentally introduced to other regions, including New Zealand, North America and South Africa.

The Death Cap is a topic of much discussion in this week's book of the week, A Manual of Poisonous Plants: chiefly of eastern North America, with brief notes on economic and medicinal plants, and numerous illustrations (1910-11), by L. H. Pammel. The reader is warned in no uncertain terms about the danger this species poses to humans. Quoting a "Professor Peck," the text reads,

"The Poison amanita is very variable in the color of the cap, and yet is so definite in its structural characters' that only the most careless observer would be likely to confuse it with any other species. There is, however, a sort of deceptive character about it. It is very neat and attractive in its appearance and looks as if it might be good enough to eat. This appearance is fortified by the absence of any decidedly unpleasant odor or taste, but let him who would eat it beware, for probably there is not a more poisonous or dangerous species in our mycological flora. To eat it is to invite death."


Take a closer look at this species within this week's book of the week, and read more to find tips on how to identify this species and avoid misidentification that could prove, well, fatal. And, once you're finished with Amanita phalloides, feel free to read on about more poisonous plants found throughout Eastern North America.

This week's book of the week, A Manual of Poisonous Plants: chiefly of eastern North America, with brief notes on economic and medicinal plants, and numerous illustrations (1910-11), by L. H. Pammel, was contributed by the New York Botanical Garden.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Neighbors: Modern Ecology

The modern ecological movement* can be traced back to the 1970 observance of Earth Day. Now a global celebration, the first Earth Day was conceived by a United States Senator from Wisconsin and called for nationally coordinated educational programming to raise consciousness about increasing environmental degradation. Forty years later, "Earth Day is everyday" and the UN has named 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity in an effort that mirrors Sen. Gaylord Nelson's hopeful vision.

But there are distinctions between earlier environmental campaigns and current thinking; it's no longer sufficient to organize efforts around the "wilderness" or far-away habitats of endangered species. The flora and fauna of your back-yard could be just as susceptible to extinction as the inhabitants of the rain forests. And unless you live under the sea, saving the whales might not be your first priority. Popularized by Michael Rosenzweig, a University of Arizona ecologist, reconciliation ecology acknowledges that "nothing influences species' diversities more than the amount of area available to life." And as cities continue to grow, area available to local species becomes increasingly sought-after, a veritable arena for biological competition. Traditional wisdom tells us winners and losers are functions of competition. Period. Conversely, reconciliation ecology accepts the reality of competition for finite space while insisting a win-win outcome is still possible--provided we adjust human activities in accordance with local species' requirements for survival.

Click here for more information about reconciliation ecology and here for a look at BHL content about species in your neighborhood.

*oh, and of course, we should remember the galvanizing effect of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Image credit: WiscMel@en.wikipedia