Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: Our Bird Friends and Foes

Book Title: Our Bird Friends and Foes
Author: William Atherton DuPuy
Date: 1925, 1948
Publisher: John C. Winston Company
ISBN: none, but click here to find the collector copies on Amazon
Length: 319 pages plus index
Illustrations: drawings by George Miksch Sutton
Quote: “My purpose here is to take the reader into birdland, to acquaint him with much that goes on there, to show him the routine of bird life, its hardships, its joys, its romance, all sketched into just enough of scientific background relieved of its technical terms, to give him a basis of real understanding.”
Yes, DuPuy will continue to insult half of his audience by calling the reader “he” throughout the book. The effect is less rude than quaint; it was, after all, 1925.
Fittingly, it’s in his discussion of “The Sea Gull” that DuPuy first gullibly swallows a piece of evolutionary theory and regurgitates it, probably in a mangled form, as if it were a fact. That today’s living creatures have evolved within the genetic potential of their species is an indisputable fact: for example today’s Anglo-American men, whose average height is 5’11” or more, evolved from fifteenth-century Englishmen whose average height was apparently about 5'0". Birds have also evolved, and if DuPuy had written fifty years later, he could credibly have discussed the natural selection that shifted the Herring Gull species from being merely “the best known” to being by far “the most numerous,” “the dominant,” if not in some places “the only” species of gull.
It’s also an indisputable fact that birds’ feathers, reptiles’ scales, and mammals’ hair are all made of “cuticle proteins.” It is not, however, a verifiable fact that anything but reptiles ever evolved from reptiles. It’s a fact that reptiles have solid bones that decay much more slowly than birds’ hollow bones, so reptile remains date back further than bird remains. It’s a fact that, even though the fossil Archaeopteryx looks a bit like a bird, even though birds’ round eyes and scaly feet look a bit like reptiles’ eyes and skins, and even though the claws of young hoatzins give this peculiar species a temporary resemblance to lizards, the DNA studies that are currently rearranging the taxonomy of bird species are showing that such superficial resemblances can be misleading.
Certainly DuPuy’s description of how “birds first developed this ambition to fly” although “their feathers were limber, fluffy, and quite ineffective,” and so “the bird leaped from perch to perch...flapping its wings and trying to make them help” until “the bird’s feathers began to respond to the demand,” is more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Evolutionary theory itself has evolved considerably since 1925, and today’s evolutionists are likely to chuckle at DuPuy’s form of evolutionism.
Then there is the touching innocence of DuPuy’s assertion that “house cats...are the worst enemies of the singing birds.” In 1925 this was almost true. All North American songbirds evolved side by side with many flightless predators, including wild cats, foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, weasels, otters, raccoons, and snakes. Each of these wild predators is generally much more efficient than a typical house cat, whose own evolution from a relatively large, strong, fierce, wild animal into a small, soft, lazy pet was assisted by humans about two thousand years ago. The bird species survived attacks by these species as well as hawks, owls, gulls, crows, jays, herons, shrikes, and cowbirds. But by 1925 North American humans had hunted the wild predators almost to extinction, placing domestic cats and dogs at the top of the food chain in populated areas. Individual birds were thus more likely to survive through the summer, but also more likely to be ripped apart on humans’ doorsteps, than they had been before. Bird species could have adapted to this...and DuPuy could not have anticipated how chemical pollution and habitat destruction would become the real enemies of whole species of singing birds.
Such quaint features may detract from the usefulness of Our Bird Friends and Foes as the elementary school textbook it was written to be (each chapter contains questions and suggestions for classroom use), but they add to its usefulness as an historical document. DuPuy informs us that “the mocking bird...a generation ago...was not to be heard in Washington, but was abundant fifty miles below that city,” and the same was true of the “Richmond” cardinal (Richmondena was actually proposed as its genus name). While living in Maryland and watching “our” resident mockingbirds and “the neighbors’” resident cardinals bicker about their territorial boundaries, I used to enjoy reflecting on the factors that have contributed to shifts in the habitats of bird species.
DuPuy further documents how our language has evolved even within the past century. We have developed a taboo against previous centuries’ classification of land not suitable for human habitation as “waste.” It may be shocking to read, on page 2 of Our Bird Friends and Foes, that a hundred years ago the Pacific Ocean was routinely described as “the greatest waste of water in all the world.”

A book containing so much quaintness can no longer be recommended as a first book for children, but it should still amuse adult birdwatchers. It was written to be read for pleasure as well as for school credit; it sold well, and reprints are still widely enough available that I can offer it here for $5 + $5 shipping.