Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback
Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.


Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.


This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong ObsessionTo See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
by Dan Koeppel
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781594630019
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Pages: 278
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press

What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?

Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.

To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.


The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her.  Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.

To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime.   There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published.  In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book.  Needless to say, it’s not my jam.

BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers.  Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world.  Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand.  The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand.  This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds.  Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way.  The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.

And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety.  True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place.  But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.

But I have no desire to ‘do better’  because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds.  When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels.  Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land.  The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida.  I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention.  And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).

So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.

A Brush with Birds

A Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wildA Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wild
by Richard Weatherly
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781741176445
Publication Date: November 12, 2020
Pages: 282
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hardie Grant

A Brush with Birds celebrates the exquisite artworks and incredible life of one of the world's finest bird painters, Richard Weatherly.

A skilled falconer and artist, Richard has spent more than fifty years observing birds and their natural habitats around the world, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe to New Guinea, Australia and America. In A Brush with Birds, Richard accompanies his stunning paintings and sketches with fascinating insights, anecdotes and knowledge gathered throughout his career.

Richard's work continues to document and celebrate the natural world, and reminds us of the importance of conserving our unique environment.


A few years ago, MT and I adopted the Icelandic holiday tradition of Jólabókaflóð.    We gift each other a book on Christmas eve, then retire to read our gifts and eat chocolate.  This year’s gift from MT was A Brush with Birds, which he bought because he thought it was written by an artist about how to draw and sketch birds.

He was half right; it’s written by a well-known wildlife artist.  But Weatherly is also something of a naturalist; when his art led him into the field, he worked with scientists and conservationists to a degree that his CV, I imagine, would be equally weighted by his artistic and scientific accomplishments.

The result turned out to be so much better than a how-to book about drawing birds.  This, instead, is a memoir of a kind, lightly touching on Weatherly’s journey from his family ranch (station) in Australia and his first personal encounter with a bird, to his higher education in England and his first forays into creating his own art, back to Australia and the homestead, and then on various adventures through Africa, North America, and Antartica.   Generously laced throughout the pages are his sketches, watercolours, and full oil paintings, done throughout the years, chronicling his journeys.

The narrative appears to be his own voice; it’s very much the printed equivalent to sitting on someone’s porch and hearing them tell their stories.  This mostly works, but I did ding my rating 1/2 star, because while that authentic voice made the narrative a warmer, more relatable one, the lack of editorial polish also made it harder to understand in spots.

A genuinely beautiful art book that is also an enjoyable read; it looks good and is good.

Pandemic bird of the day (with bonus llama)

These were neither taken near my home, nor taken recently.  They’re both from my trip in February out to country Victoria.  The birds are also not going to be new to anyone, but I’m posting both because they make me smile, and because – in the case of the llama – I knew at least one of my BookLikes friends is a fan.

First, the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo – rocking the mohawk long before teens got their hands on their dad’s electric shavers:

And, well, 2 domesticated geese, but really it’s about the supremely satisfied looking llama:

Pandemic walks / bird of the day

MT and I did another neighborhood circuit a couple of days ago, this time going across the road to the ‘posh’ side of our neighborhood (and it’s seriously posh, with houses big enough to fit ours in their mudroom.  I brought the wrong camera with me, so I didn’t get any examples.  But we did come across a bird I haven’t seen in our area before.  The crested pigeon is a common bird, and I’ve seen it on the other side of town, but never near us.  I always smile when I see them, because they look a bit alternative, with the head-gear, their prismatic colouring, and their perpetually startled expressions.

 

Non-book Post: What I’ve been doing instead of reading, Part 2

(Archive post moved from BookLikes)

Last weekend, we took off for 2 nights for a place we’ve been trying to visit for years: Kingbilli Estate.  ‘Estate’ might be a stretch, but to each their own.  It’s, in essence, a working farm.  A Llama farm, to be exact.  But in its previous incarnations it was a goat/donkey/horse/pony farm and a wildlife rescue hospital, so there’s a little bit of everything (except goats) rambling around the llamas, including a flock of Indian peafowl.

Years ago, the owners built two stone cottages on the property; one for international volunteers, and one to let out to tourists.  Their daughter has since taken over the property, and while the llamas, ponies and horses still have their space, she’s restored most of what was once grazing land back to natural scrub and forest.

Our Cottage

The property still acts as a half-way house for injured wildlife, and there are no limitations as to where guests are allowed to roam, so we – I – went in with the hope/expectation of seeing a lot of Aussie wildlife I’d normally have a hard time seeing: wombats, bandicoots, sugar gliders, etc.

I soooo should have known better.  They heard I was coming and took themselves off.  There were wombat holes EVERYWHERE but not a single wombat did we see.  Nothing but llamas, donkeys and ponies, oh my.  And birds, thank goodness.  So many birds, it was a constant riot of birdsong around the cottage, which sat right on a little stream (which, until the drought, had a platypus in it, dammit).

All in all it was gorgeous and as they only have the one cottage to let, we had it all to ourselves.  Three days of total peace-out bliss – and no phone reception or internet service.

I’ll only share the interesting, colourful birds with y’all as I know not everybody is a bird lover.  But everybody loves baby llamas, right?

Baby llamas!

White-faced Heron

Pacific Heron

Superb Fairy-wren (I just report the names, but you can tell, he thinks he’s superb.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo – rocking the mohawk

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo – falling off his perch

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo

Leaden Flycatcher

Silvereye, blending in

Golden Whistler- this one kept throwing himself against our bedroom door’s glass; eventually we figured out he wasn’t attacking his reflection, but picking spiders and bugs off the eaves and the door frame.

 

If you stayed with me up to this point you’re either very kind or really like birds. Either way, thank you. That’s it though – until tomorrow, when we’re off on another expedition. It’s a rather unusual one, but I promise to keep the bird pics to a bare miniumum. After that, I suspect MT is going to enforce a ‘rest period’ and my attention will be solidly back on the books. 🙂

Non-book Post: What I’ve been doing instead of reading, Part 1

(This is a post brought over from BookLikes)

As mentioned in my previous post, we’ve been getting out into nature the last few weeks (with another hike scheduled for tomorrow).  The first was a morning hike at a local park we’d never been too – an old reservoir-turned-parkland.

I was expecting primarily birds, because the park is still in a pretty urban area, and I got birds, but I also happily got a bit of everything else too.  I’ve recently become a member of inaturalist.org as a way of keeping track of, and identifying, what I find when I’m out and about; it’s also a way to contribute to science.  So I got pictures of all sorts of flora and fauna.  I’ll limit my sharing to a few birds, some mammals and one reptile (lizard).

The bird:

White-faced Heron

The mammals:

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, exiting stage right

Swamp Wallaby (no swamp required)

Swamp Wallaby also exiting stage right

And the reptile:

Blotched Bluetongue – it’s blotchy, and it has a blue tongue