Natural history

101 Natural History Books to Read Before You Die, No. 8

This post originally appeared in the Journal of Natural History Education & Experience. Natural-history writing comes in many flavors. Sometimes it takes the form of a catalog of observations of plants and animals, other times it presents accounts of exploration and adventure in the wild, and sometimes it is as much about the people as the landscape that shapes them. Nonetheless, perhaps because its subjects and themes appear so constant, it has to me a timeless feel.

Why are Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers so hard to tell apart?

As winter descends and the days become cold and short, most of my birdwatching becomes rather narrowly focused on the feeders outside my front door. A walk through my woods in winter, although lovely in its own right, tends to yield fairly few birds. If I’m lucky, I might come across a noisy flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-capped Chickadees, and Brown Creepers. Just as easily, though, I can spend an hour wandering through the snow in absolute silence; the trees seem empty of birdlife.

Fox Sparrows move south

Late each fall, and then again early in spring, Fox Sparrows visit my backyard. Large and brightly colored, at least by sparrow standards, they are a harbinger of the changing seasons and a delight to watch during their brief stay. Sometimes they even sing during their brief spring stop-over, a beautiful set of downward, slurred whistles. Most field guides and general references depict Fox Sparrows as a bird that nests only in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska and the high mountains of western North America.