Earth, Water, and Sky: A Naturalist's Stories and Sketches

Paul A. Johnsgard, Author University of Texas Press $25 (186p) ISBN 978-0-292-74059-4
Not stories after all but brief, accessible essays, these instructive writings by ornithologist Johnsgard (a professor at the University of Nebraska) cover the lives, behaviors and habitats of many North American birds, from ""The Tree Quail of Mexico"" to ""The Elusive Musk Duck."" (Some first appeared in the magazine Natural History.) The intriguing lead essay describes the collective, synchronized mating dances of grouse, performed in arena-like spaces called ""leks,"" which pose a Darwinian puzzle: why would sexual selection favor a system where males ""perform the same displays in exactly the same ways?"" Other essays cock an ear for quails' complex duets, distinguish and explain ""the evolution of the train of the peacock"" and ""the even more wonderful ball-and-socket"" tail designs of the Great Argus pheasant, and lay out facts about the bustard, the world's heaviest flying bird. Johnsgard's expert knowledge of waterfowl is apparent on every page; he neither talks down to his readers nor assumes technical knowledge. (The titular ""sketches"" are simply careful drawings of birds.) In the tradition of Konrad Lorenz, Johnsgard often ties neat facts about birds to current theories about the evolution of animal behavior. Sociobiological parallels between pheasants and human beings are, however, mercifully absent. Instead, Johnsgard injects personal asides, describing his rural upbringing in a quick preface and detailing the beautiful (and, often, endangered) habitats where his fascinating avians flourish. Literate bird-watchers will enjoy the details; readers of modern biological essays (Stephen Jay Gould's, say) will find Johnsgard's eminently worthwhile. 25 b&w drawings. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 01/04/1999
Release date: 01/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Hardcover - 186 pages - 978-0-292-74058-7
Open Ebook - 978-0-292-78856-5
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