Helen Scales is your guide to the ocean (and everything) in her latest book

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There’s something so enchanting about visiting an aquarium when you’re a child. The glass tanks rise above you, immersing you in a deep blue world of fish. From the atmospheric music to the shadows of large marine mammals sailing by beyond the glass, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget.

I grew up in Southern California — my childhood was filled with trips to SeaWorld, where you could stand alongside wall-sized glass panes and peer into the world of beluga whales, porpoises, and orcas. My first job was at the local aquarium, where I led tours and taught visitors about sea stars, urchins, and sea cucumbers at our interactive touch pool. Many of us also have powerful memories of visiting the ocean for the first time. In the prologue of Eye of the Shoal, Helen Scales shares her memory from visiting the Southern California shore for the first time as a fifteen-year-old girl. Seeing beautiful beaches and blue water in person is an unforgettable experience.

An author, diver, and marine biologist herself, she’s the perfect guide for your reading vacation. Helen Scales is to Eye of the Shoal what Sir David Attenborough is to Planet Earth: a gentle voice introducing you to the wonders of the natural world. In the prologue, Scales’ lyrical descriptions are entertaining and imaginative, painting images in your head of the beautiful, elaborate ecosystem beneath the waves.

Early on, it’s clear that Scales is here not only to enchant you, but to educate you. She aims to convince her reader that fish are worth paying more attention to — a goal she certainly accomplishes. While I was reading on a flight to Portland, a gentleman glanced over my shoulder and inquired whether I was actually reading an entire book about fish. I laughed and explained that it was more interesting than it seemed. Since he seemed skeptical, I shared an example of how fascinating the book was: I had no idea that some fish eat pigeons! He seemed surprised — but, as I went on to explain, according to the book there is a certain catfish that has been known to leap from its pond to catch pigeons bathing their feathers a the water’s edge. The topic made for a good conversation during our flight.

My favorite science books are the ones that give me the kind of facts I could talk about with a stranger that would be interesting and entertaining to explain. Scales’ book is packed with accessible and engaging stories about the science and history behind the fishes she describes. Why are some fish bioluminescent? How come we can eat some fish, but not others? What’s the difference between a school and a shoal? How do fish communicate? Scales answers these questions and more in each chapter, such as the chaotic movement of a disorganized shoal compared to the synchronized dance of a school, and why fish do both (or neither).

Scales introduces her readers to the scientists who are working hard to improve our understanding of fish and their watery world. One of these scientists is Eugenie Clark, affectionately remembered as the Shark Lady (and who a new species of shark was recently named after). Scales discusses Clark’s ascent to fame, despite being a female scientist at a time when women struggled to break into science. The warmth and admiration with which she tells Clark’s story makes for a wonderful, inspiring read. It’s often hard not to smile while you’re turning pages, looking forward to what Scales may say next.

Scattered between chapters are short stories of fish gathered from other cultures. Scales retells traditional tales in a lively way designed to reengage the reader, perhaps asking them to consider how fish have woven themselves into history. These wry, sometimes didactic stories serve to explain why something is the way it is, illustrating how humans devised explanations for their questions about fish, such as why the flounder’s face is crooked. The stories make for short, enjoyable reading.

If there is one thing Eye of the Shoal succeeds in doing, it’s that no reader will put down the book without looking at fish in new ways — and as Scales recommends, asking the right questions. Like marine biologists, she wants her readers to gain a broader perspective on fish intelligence, to reconsider their preconceived notions, and ultimately to be more curious about creatures of the sea, or even the fish in the tank at the dentist’s office. Because when you’ve finished reading Eye of the Shoal and feel thoroughly enchanted by Helen Scales’ adventures, you will be ready to go dive in and look for fish yourself.


Readers! For more book reviews, exclusive content, and the chance to win great science books in upcoming giveaways, join the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter curated by science writer Sarah Olson. Sign up now for a chance to win this month’s book!

Author and Scientist Nick Pyenson shares the books that influenced him

Today Nick Pyenson, author of the recently released Spying on Whales, discusses the books that made an impact on him. For a chance to win a copy of his book, sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter for readers of popular science and nonfiction.

Nick Pyenson - credit Carolyn Van Houten
Photo by Carolyn Van Houten

Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work has taken him to every continent, and his scientific discoveries frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today, and on NPR, NBC, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland. @PyensonLab 

Author bio courtesy of Penguinrandomhouse.com

Which books inspired or fueled your interest in paleobiology?

You can’t go too far in paleobiology without finding Stephen J. Gould. He was the closest person our discipline has ever had to a cultural celebrity. Gould is never shied from sharing the big ideas in evolution — the graduate school-level issues like tempo, mode, and agency of evolutionary change. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask a reader to confront major intellectual debates, and Gould was great about humanizing this challenge by way of baseball, art, or funny moments in history. Put another way, paleobiologists are not really stamp collecting; instead all of the work is ultimately in service of bigger questions about how life on work has evolved. For me, his Wonderful Life wrapped up all of that quintessential Gould into a book about the record of the first animal life half a billion years ago that still needs to be read.

Neil Shubin’s Inner Fish also has a place in my pantheon for a variety of reasons. It’s completely accessible and its fundamental conceit — that the human body tells us about evolutionary history — will never cease being relevant. It’s also one of the more prominent contributions in a wave of new literature that blends science with first-person narrative in a compelling way. Shubin covers historical advances, findings in his own career, and brings the reader to the field as well. It’s also a work that hangs on a career of the highest quality science. In many ways, it’s obvious that this kind of book was a necessary step for sharing the importance of discoveries like Tiktaalik — a 375 million year-old fossil fish with limbs — with the broadest possible audience.

Also, I have a lot of time for Richard Fortey, who writes so much about what museum scientists do, from the field work to natural history collections. His Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is delightful. Other paleobiologist-autobiography books well worth reading include Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler, and Gary Vermeij’s Privileged Hands.

Lastly, a major influence for a book about whales is Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge. Although many of the evolutionary chronicles in the book are now out of date — a testament, in fact, to how much science can change in 20 years — Zimmer’s mirrored premise still resonates with me because we can best understand a phenomenon such a whale evolution by thinking broadly about other episodes in the history of life where these transitions have happened. Zimmer frames these episodes by emphasizing the distinction between transition (as in land-to-sea) and transformations (what happens to anatomy), which remains a valuable rubric for students of macroevolution.

How has publishing your book Spying on Whales shifted or altered your career as a scientist? 

Writing a book intended for a general audience is a very different task compared with my day job as a scientist. Most of what I accomplish on a daily basis would probably seem esoteric and quietly mundane to the outsider: examining numbered specimens in a museum drawer; downloading datasets and images; or drafting scientific articles for peer-reviewed journals, though I might spend a rare stretch of time on a boat or walking rock outcrop. But all of those small things add up over the years, which makes a book seems like a good place to land all of those story arcs. The small things, after all, should fit under broader themes and questions that investigate the natural world. I think many of my colleagues understand the inclination to write a book, but rightfully balk at the toll and time away from research.

For one thing, the process of book writing happened on top of my day job — in other words, there were still scientific papers to write, committee work, and the usual expectations of being a museum scientist. I downshifted some tasks, but I still organized and led expeditions for international field work. I would say that the process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson. For example, every marine mammal scientist knows that whales are mammals and once lived on land, but that’s not a given for a general reader — and that says a lot about where you can start with readers and where you can take them. Book writing has also made me far less tolerant of sloppy technical writing in scientific papers, for better or worse. Bad writing is annoying and cheap; writing well takes the effort of applying a harsh rubric. Aside from those fresh lessons, I’m most dedicated at the moment to clearing my long backlog of technical manuscripts — I have quite a few colleagues that are waiting on comments and edits — and preparing for future projects.

“The process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson.”

What did the process of moving from scientist to writer look like for you? Were there any challenges you encountered, or surprises you would like to share?

Well, that’s a tricky question because I still think I’m a scientist! Or maybe, I should say, still trying to figure out what it means to be a book author. I think the best answer might be that I’m still trying to navigate the unusual terrain of scientist-author; fortunately, there are so many great role models out with right now with Hope Jahren, Neil Shubin, and many others, who balance the demands of running a research laboratory and communicating to the public. There are, of course, a lot of different kinds of scientists out there (not just principal investigators running labs), and lots of different kinds of book authors — there’s so many ways to potentially combine those two modes.

In some ways, being a museum scientist prepared me a lot for book writing because museums are places where a lot of informal learning happens (in other words, it’s not a classroom and you can’t a degree from it). I’ve spent a lot of my professional career testing different ways of talking about the parts of my research that I think are important to share, especially using different modes whether it’s live-streaming behind-the-scenes activities on social media, 3D printing at large scale, or reporting from the field. Book writing has been special and different from these other ways in scope and method: it was a big platform where I could see how different contributions in my career fit together into a narrative; it allowed me to reflect on what I’ve done and how I did it (namely, with lots of help from colleagues); and it was all an endeavor that was mine alone to accomplish (although I had a great supporting team). I’m happy with the result because it’s very much the book I had wanted to write.

I think anyone who writes a lot will tell you that writing well is hard. Book writing is very different from technical writing in that there’s a real need to think big and small at the same time: invent and refine (and sometimes obliterate) a narrative structure; just get words on a page; and then finesse sections, paragraphs and sentences, sometimes down to specific word choices. It’s demanding and it requires lots of applied effort. I followed a key piece of advice early on in setting aside chunks of time physically away from everyone else to simply do those writing tasks. At times it was tremendously isolating, in a self-imposed way, and so you learn to lean on your support network, especially family and friends — they’re writing the book with you, in many ways.

Book writing also taught me how to edit harshly, on the fly. In the final stages of writing, I felt like I had achieved a kind of editorial superpower, channeling my editor’s voice in my head as I churned out the last few major sections of the book in nearly one go (the prologue and epilogue, actually). I’m not sure that’s persisted, though, because you need to write a lot to stay sharp, like any sport. Lastly, one big piece of advice that’s really hard to swallow: kill your darlings. There’s always a great sentence (in my case, a whole character sketch and side story) that really just gets in the way of the bigger story that you’re trying to tell. It’s for the better. Again, I worked with a great editorial team that really understood me.

What was the most interesting part about moving from reader of science books to author of a science book?

I wrote my book because I wanted to explain, in a clear way, why I spend long periods of time away from my family in remote places to people who may not ever have the opportunity or access to see a living whale. I thought a first-person narrative structure was a good way to accomplish that goal; I really tried to write as if I was explaining various challenges or problems to someone who had never heard of them before, or never had a background in science. Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.

As a long-time reader of science books, I was frustrated by small errors on the easy details: how and when to spell, capitalize, and italicize scientific names; nailing down geologic time periods; or explaining processes clearly, without resorting to cliches or analogies that obscure instead of illuminate. So, in my book, I spent a lot of time getting the facts right, and anchoring statements on published research. There’s quite a long endnotes section with references to original scientific literature, so readers don’t have to take my word for it, but instead can read the scholarship themselves. Put another way, don’t surrender the facts!

“Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.”

What would you say to encourage others to read more science?

There are more great science books out there than ever before, so it’s a great time to discover just the right kind of science book that inspires you. If you’re looking for science books as a gateway drug, I think there ones that highlight discoveries or protracted quests tend to work the best. In many cases, children’s book nail the scope perfectly: Markus Mokum’s Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover is a great example of focusing on a single robot and what it tells us about Mars. Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is probably the best example of a science book narrative focusing on a basic premise — the fate of a troop of baboons — because it’s actually embedded in story about Sapolsky and his own development as a scientist. I think the “life of a scientist” sub-genre is great for people who may not know what a scientist does or who they can be — Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an unflinching examination, in that way. One last thing I’d suggest is read authors who have first-hand experience: they don’t need to be scientists, but as a reader you want to trust that they’ve seen the lab equipment, visited the field sites, or gotten to know the study organism in some real way. Avoid the armchair science storytellers.

And lastly, what’s on your own reading list? 

I tend to read several books at once. Right now, I am paging through Emily Watson’s translation of The Odyssey because I somehow skipped over fundamental books from Antiquity in high school; it’s also reassuring to know that some stories and personality types really persist throughout human history. When I need a pause from that, I read a few pieces from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars collection. I’m trying — and failing — to get through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. But I’m also the kind of person who will stop reading a book more than half of the way through and pick it up years later (or never). You really don’t want me coming to your book club!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Nick

Readers, stay tuned for a review of Spying on Whales and sign up for the monthly newsletter anytime this month for a chance to win a free copy!

Marine Biologist MELISSA CRISTINA MÁRQUEZ Shares Her Favorite Ocean-Inspired Books

Today I am extremely excited to introduce you to Melissa Cristina Márquez, a marine biologist and shark expert who engages in thoughtful science communication on Twitter; she will be debuting on Shark Week this month and is excited to share with you the books that have impacted her.

Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator with a BA (Hons) in Marine Ecology and Conservation degree from New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. She is a TEDx speaker, founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), host of the Spanish marine conservation podcast ConCiencia Azul (concienciaazulpodcast.weebly.com), and freelance environmental contributor. Márquez can be seen as a co-host on Shark Week 2018, is currently gearing up to go to Antarctica in 2019, and is writing her first children’s book series that focuses on diversity and inclusion in STEM.

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What childhood book inspired you to study marine biology?

Funnily enough, “Chicken Soup for The Ocean Lover’s Soul” by Jack Canfield was one of many books that spiked my curiosity in the ocean. Ever since I was four years old I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, but that book and people’s stories about their varying relationships with the ocean made me want to experience what they had and help others experience it too.

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Do you have a favorite book about protecting the ocean?

Marine bio nerd alert, one of my favorite technical book is “Marine Conservation – Science – Policy – and Management” by G. Carleton Ray and Jerry McCormick-Ray.  I like their take on conservation and how it must be “informed by the natural histories of organisms together with the hierarchy of scale-related linkages and ecosystem processes.”

Do you have any recommendations for readers to learn more about the the ocean, its life, and protecting it?

Today’s world is more connected than ever. And while we also read more than ever (our Facebook and Twitter feeds, storylines of favorite video games, news sites about current affairs, celebrities or favorite sports), when looking for books people want to see how something fits into their lives. One way to turn people on to science is to show them how it’s used in their daily lives. Not only that, but the public image of science can be negative thanks to the portrayal of ‘geeky’ scientists in previous books and TV shows — finding ‘cool’ role models to read about can help, such as Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, etc. Most importantly, however, I think it is vital we let people decide what books they want to read and trust that they will get to read all the science must-reads in their own way, in their own time. Doesn’t hurt to be a good role model, though; when people see someone who is passionate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about science, it will resonate with them. I try to combine interactive media with textbook knowledge through my program, The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), and that seems to hook the kids in (pun intended). Not to mention we also have a book club through our newsletter, as we believe science literacy is very important!

What books would you recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with marine biology but ready to learn more?

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The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover. A non-fiction favourite of mine, the 2009 documentary with the same name was actually based on this book! The #1 threat facing our oceans is overfishing (yes, even over plastic pollution) and this book critiques the modern-day fishing industry and talks about the consequences of overfishing… some we are already seeing today.

Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird is one of my recent treasured finds. This book is filled with fascinating facts about what lurks beneath the waves.

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The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One by Sylvia A. Earle is another fantastic non-fiction read. It’s an alarming read about the abuse our oceans have suffered, but how there is hope. It’s a National Geographic publication so you know it’s good!  And if you don’t feel like learning and just want to color your own ocean, National Geographic’s Magnificent Ocean – A Coloring Book by Justin Poul is fantastic fun.

LitofSci is working hard to feature books by underrepresented authors. Are there any authors of books on marine biology-related topics that you feel deserve to be included?

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Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales is a wonderful read about our relationship with fish (an animal most people think as slimy, cold or just food) and how it needs to evolve. I absolutely love If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams and adore Shark Lady by Jess Keating who talk about my favorite subject – sharks! – in such a refreshing way. These two dynamite authors really paint sharks and the people who study them in a great light, and highlight their importance in our oceans.

Thank you Melissa for your wonderful reading suggestions! I think a few of these will need to be featured in upcoming book reviews. Readers, remember to tune into Shark Week on Discovery Channel to see Melissa and learn more about sharks! You can also follow her Twitter.

Do you want to support Melissa’s science? She is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign for a trip to Antarctica with an education program. Any amount you can contribute will help her towards reaching this goal.

Jon Young on the Language of Birds

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I came across What the Robin Knows while wandering through a local bookstore here in West Lafayette, Indiana. I am a west coast girl — I was raised in Southern California, and now I live near Newport, Oregon — but this summer I’m living in the Midwest for a science writing internship.

In the short weeks I have been here, I’ve seen incredible numbers of robins around as I bike back and forth from the office. I’ve also come across cardinals and blackbirds and dozens of little birds I am still learning to name. Each time I see a new bird, I head over to the bookstore and flip through their field guides to identify my latest discovery and learn something about them.

Full disclosure: At the time writing, I know nothing about birds and have never paid much attention to them. I notice them now and then, if there is a particularly unusual one, but birdwatching has never held much allure for me. But after reading Jon Young’s book, my perspective completely changed. Biking to the office is full of thrilling encounters with birds. I pay attention to the sound of birdsong around me. I feel more alert and in tune with my surroundings. I even went out and found a spot to sit and observe birds — something Young refers to as a “sit spot”, a special place of learning.

Young, a naturalist and experienced tracker trained in indigenous tradition, introduces his readers to the concept of deep bird language through an immersive, humble approach. He guides his readers like a true mentor, teaching them how to cultivate respectfulness and empathy towards wildlife through examples and anecdotes.

The way to see more wildlife when you’re outside, Young claims, is to be in tune with bird language. They are the gatekeepers of the wilderness, and you need their permission to pass through.

If you know nothing about birds, like myself, this book is a great place to start learning about bird language. Birds are the communicators of the forest. Their songs, chirps, and behaviors all indicate specific messages to the fox, the deer, the coyote, and the cougar, as well as the other birds. By communicating among themselves, they alert other wildlife about what’s going on around them and forewarn other animals of possible threats. The birds also alert wildlife to your presence.

Young’s specific example often involves Joe the hiker. Unaware of his surroundings, Joe the hiker goes strolling through the forest, his footsteps thumping, his fishing gear clanging, unwittingly setting off what Young calls a bird plow; the flight of birds provoked by Joe the hiker’s presence. By learning not to set off the birds, and to understand and respect their space, you can come much closer to them and see more wildlife — which is basically a win-win.

Young includes a powerful quote from a San Bushman that is worth repeating:

“If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.”

There is much to be learned from the behavior and language of birds. Young references relevant research and science that serves to strengthen his arguments. He introduces his reader to indigenous trackers who have studied the language of birds far longer than any scientists. He also provides audio to accompany the book, referencing different recordings so that you can follow along and learn specific sounds: http://birdlanguage.com/

Mentorship is a significant theme throughout What the Robin Knows. Young has many years of experience as a mentor to youth, teaching them about tracking and bird language. He also talks about the influences of his own mentors and those who have left a strong impression on him. Jon Young’s humility, his authenticity, and his earnest curiosity are strongly conveyed through his writing. It often feels like he is mentoring the reader when he teaches by example. While he is not afraid to own up to his mistakes or reflect on what he might have done differently, he acknowledges his vast experience and recognizes that beginning to learn bird language is a challenge.

It’s a challenge that, by the end of the book, you will be eager to embrace.

How a Childhood Book Inspired a Scientist’s Career

I reached out to Twitter and asked ornithologists what books inspired them to pursue their field of study. Among the answers was an email from Dr. Christopher M. Heckscher, an associate professor of environmental science at Delaware State University. The book that inspired him was a childhood treasure titled Traveling with the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton.

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Published in 1933, Traveling with the Birds was illustrated by American animal artist and National Geographic Illustrator Walter A. Weber. Weber studied art in Chicago and went on to work for the Field Museum of Natural History, which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last weekend. As I roamed the Hall of Birds on Saturday, I actually saw some of Weber’s work. He spent some time working for the National Park Service until eventually becoming an ornithologist for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He would eventually become chief nature artist for the National Geographic Society. 

A first edition copy of Traveling with the Birds in good condition sells for around US $40. It is considered a rare children’s book and illustrations by Weber are somewhat valuable, though you can find vintage prints on Etsy of many of his works. On February 18 in 1934, the New York Times wrote:

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In his email, Dr. Heckscher told me how the beautiful illustrations inspired him to study birds:

The book was given to me by my father about the time he introduced me to birding. It had been an inspiration to him as well.  It was published in 1933 and I’m not sure there was ever a second printing.  I see it’s still available via some second hand booksellers. It was a large book with large beautiful paintings.

The theme of the book was taking the reader on a journey with the birds through text and illustrations. Some birds were migrating, others moving from one place to another searching for food. The descriptions in the text were reflected in the book’s paintings.  I think what made such a big impression on me was the vibrant illustrations that conveyed movement and energy in the subject.  Ducks flying swiftly over ocean waves, a blue jay with an acorn – clearly on a mission.

It’s hard to convey the feeling but it was as if I was really moving with the birds. The book inspired awe in me at how birds were free to move such great distances living out their lives on the wing moving from one world to another. It was not a technical text, but really a book written for older children and adolescents.  I’ve been fascinated with bird behavior and migration ever since.

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I’m glad that Dr. Heckscher took the time to share with me this beautiful book so that I could learn about it and share it on the blog. Children’s books are often something that leaves a long-lasting impression. Many of us can think back and imagine the beautiful illustrations of the stories we poured over, picturing the detail in our heads and imagining the book in our hands as a child. For those of us lucky enough to have kept our childhood copy, we savor the knowledge that we can continue to share it with the next generation. Childhood books are influential and important, contributing to the choices that make us who we are today.

Certainly this was the case for our scientist Dr. Heckscher, who shared in his email that he now “travels with the birds” by using geolocator and GPS tracking devices in his research. Dr. Heckscher holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. and PhD in Entomology and Wildlife Biology from the University of Delaware. In 2016, he received a conservation award:

“Recently, he was the first to document intratropical migration in a Nearctic-Neotropical migrant songbird. That discovery – that each individual Veery migrates between two separate wintering locations – has focused attention on the phenomenon of intratropical movement in North American breeding songbirds which had previously been unknown or otherwise overlooked.”

Thank you very much Dr. Heckscher for sharing your inspiration!

Dive into the mysterious world of grey whales with Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan

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Depth. Insight. Power. These are the words that come to mind while you read Sightings, a moving account of humanity’s relationship with grey whales by nature writer and journalist Brenda Peterson with Chichasaw poet Linda Hogan. Published by National Geographic, this book is an eye-opening observation of how people can learn to respect their roots, celebrate and protect whales, and the shortcomings and celebrations along the way.

“Writing this book in two voices — that of an American Indian woman and a nature writer — we hope to invite the reader to consider another culture, which happens to be nonhuman,” the authors write. “Because we in the 21st century now face many difficult decisions about the futures of both human and animal cultures, this book is a passionate dialogue about both Native and animal rights.”

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Linda Hogan writes from the perspective of an American Indian woman. Her poetic language is strong and captivating, drawing the reader in with bright sensory descriptions and vivid storytelling. I enjoyed Hogan’s chapters in the book for her profound observations of the tribes she discusses, and their struggle to both embrace and reconcile with the whaling history celebrated in their culture. I don’t want to spoil the book by using specific examples because this one to consider reading, but the way Hogan tells her parts of the story effectively balances Brenda Peterson’s more scientific voice. The women tell the story of the grey whale together, and the result is a powerful account of a difficult issue — should indigenous people embrace their traditions of whaling in the 21st century? And how should they reconcile with killing whales if they are to celebrate this aspect of their past? Linda Hogan shows both sides of the issue, capturing the emotional turmoil of tribe elders without seeming biased towards one directions or another. She does exactly what a writer should do, introducing her reader to all sides of the issue and showing the circumstances as they area.

On the subject of modern-day whaling I encourage you to check out this photo diary of a whale hunt featured in Hakai, a visual illustration of a people who hunt whales to provide for their village. It really complicates the issue and is both timely in our current lives and still relevant to Sightings, which was published back in 2002. Although it’s been over a decade since the publication of Sightings, society is still struggling to address the modern-day whaling, the problems that arise, and the rights that indigenous people should have in embracing their culture and traditions.

DEPTH

Brenda Peterson, a nature writer, provides more of the natural history and science side of the story told in Sightings. Her storytelling is similar in some ways to Hogan’s, as she also does well to evoke the reader’s emotions, but her approach comes across more grounded and less abstract. Because of this, the writers balance each other out as the chapters switch back and forth between their voices. Personally, I enjoyed this novel approach because it keeps the story propelling forward and in constant momentum. In fact, if I had more time on my hands I would have finished this book very quickly — the chapters are short, the language is simple and easy to comprehend, and the writers are excellent at reeling you in. With such vivid storytelling, Sightings can be difficult to put down when you’re invested in an exciting scene, and Peterson is very good at investing her readers. Her writing is welcoming and conversational, enough so that you may not realize you’re learning about history and science as you read. She is careful not to bias her reader, but she also emphasizes her own feelings and emotions in order to give the story its characteristic depth.

Sightings is an insightful look into the mysterious history and life of grey whales. It’s both a pleasure to read and a difficult subject to grapple with. You may feel as I did, sometimes torn between the desire for humans to interact with and learn from whales, but afraid that teaching whales to be comfortable with human interaction will only make illegal whaling easier. And what about the rights of tribes who wish to return to traditional whaling, if only for celebrations? The authors approach this complex topic from all angles, ultimately showing readers the allure of the grey whale and how we should make sense of our own relationship with these majestic animals. By the end of the book, you will want to join Peterson and Hogan on one of their whale-watching adventures and see a grey whale with your own eyes. Sightings is an enchanting, and sometimes challenging, look not only at grey whales, but at ourselves as humans responsible for the protection of the ocean and its incredible and diverse life.

Featured photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Jennifer Ackerman Explores the Astonishing Intelligence of Birds

You may be surprised to learn a new definition for the old insult “bird brain”. It turns out that birds are incredibly intelligent creatures. Recently crows made headlines on the New York Times for learning to make sophisticated tools from memory. This month, a paper was published on scientists’ quest to understand bird conversation. But in 2016, when Ackerman published her book, scientists had only been toeing the boundary line of understanding avian intelligence. Now, the subject fascinates the public as much as the scientists who study it.

Ackerman’s book is well-written and well-informed. Her tone is equal parts amused and fascinated as she dialogues with ornithologists and experts. She introduces her readers to the stars of avian intelligence: New Caledonian crows, parrots, ravens, and my personal favorite, the bowerbird.  Bowerbirds are the aesthetics of the avian world. The males create ornate, decorative nests in which they seduce a potential mate. Female bowerbirds are notoriously picky. Males hand-select colorful objects they arrange to impress females. Ackerman describes this unique behavior in such a captivating way that I just had to look up pictures of bowerbird nests.

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The Genius of Birds explores the rich and diverse characteristics of avian intelligence, from language and birdsong to courting behavior and homing instinct. Ackerman presents the bird not as the dumb creature it has been thought of for centuries (evoking terms such as bird brain, etc), but as a brilliant and misunderstood creature that we have yet to fully understand. She focuses on present understanding of birds in comparison to past misconceptions. Although I would have enjoyed a more thorough glimpse into history, as I enjoy science books that move from past to present, Ackerman does a great job of focusing on the present circumstances; what do we know, and what do we have left to learn?

Her book isn’t particularly moving or emotionally-provoking, but it is a thorough account of a fascinating subject. She is careful to quote scientists who warn against anthropomorphism, but it often feels as if she is bestowing her own anthropomorphic thoughts on the birds she observes. I think that this is actually an effective way for her to engage with non-scientific audiences and those who are emotionally invested in birds, but for those looking for a strictly professional and scientific glimpse into bird brains, the book may fall short in that it lacks a serious tone. That said, her writing is fun and engaging, and she puts a special emphasis on puns (for those who enjoy bird puns, you’ll find yourself giggling quite a bit).

The Genius of Birds is a New York Times bestseller for a reason – it’s educational, fascinating, and a wonderful example of engaging storytelling. It is especially wonderful for those who don’t know anything about birds but want to know more about their intelligence, behaviors, and characteristics. Ackerman’s book is charming and worth reading — and if you’re like me, by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll want to watch Planet Earth again for that cute bird with the blue face on its feathers dancing for a potential mate.

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