As the holidays approach, I like to bring up a book or two that might make a good gift for those on your list (if you make one) who are either confirmed or aspiring nature/science lovers—or for yourself! The book I am high on at the moment is Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World (copyright 2003 by Ecco Press). I have the hardcover edition and although I have skimmed through it many times, I do not think I have ever read it cover to cover. So when I saw it as an audiobook at my library, I checked it out. Over the next three weeks or so, on my short commute or trip to the grocery store or longer ride to the seacoast and back, I listened to various amazing facts about how animals survive the winter.

Heinrich is completely captivated by the tiny golden-crowned kinglet that inhabits the Maine woods where he has a cabin that he frequents in winter. He marvels throughout the book about the ability of these little creatures to survive the harsh winters in Maine. Winter World is scattered with ongoing first-hand research and findings of his observations of these birds and he says “…I’ve felt an infectious hyperenthusiasm flow from them, and sense a grand, boundless zest for life.” He mulls over how they could not possibly be bothered with thinking about how the odds for survival are stacked against them since this would just deplete their drive to survive the night after a day of foraging up until the very last possible moment when they find the nearest covered shelter—an abandoned squirrel’s nest, a snow-covered brush pile—to shiver ‘til dawn.

The author’s own enthusiasm fueled my enthusiasm to now see a golden-crowned kinglet myself. In fact, I am wondering if what I saw late last winter that I thought was a ruby-crowned kinglet was in fact a golden. Heinrich describes them as having a red patch at the top of the gold-crowned head that is only visible when raised from agitation of some sort. I did not notice any gold on the bird I saw, just the red patch that raised and shimmered like an small oil slick, but I am now questioning my identification and, thanks to Winter World, hope to repeat my sighting again this year.

The book, now sixteen years old, starts the ongoing discussion of kinglets with a matter-of-fact mention of global warming. Although the earth, Heinrich says, should be in a cyclical cooling period “we are experiencing global warming instead, because the cooling effect of the astronomical cycle is being overridden by human-induced climate change….Unlike the astronomical cycle, which is gradual and permits evolutionary adaptations, this new phenomenon in the history of the planet is sudden. It will affect kinglets, and us.” So despite my perception that global warming warnings are relatively new, scientists (Heinrich is a professor of biology) have been ringing the warning bell for many years.

My only complaint, if it is one, is that so keen is the scientist’s desire to know everything about his subject, Heinrich seems unconcerned about doing experiments that mean the demise of individuals of his beloved kinglets. One such experiment revealed what kinglets, insect eaters, survive on in winter. The answer was moth caterpillars under the bark of trees. This required examining the stomach contents of some birds, who it is safe to assume, may be able to survive a harsh winter but not the curiosity of humans. While I found the information fascinating to learn, I did feel somewhat conflicted about the need to kill birds in order to find the answer. True scientists surely are perfectly fine with the sacrifice of a few individuals to learn a grander answer but all I could think of is “Why do humans need to definitively know what kinglets survive on in winter?”

Despite this, I highly recommend Winter World as an addition to any nature book collection to dip into regularly or as an audiotape to listen to bits at a time.

Bird Tidbits

On a quick trip to northern California staying on a friend’s sailboat I enjoyed watching little herons stalk the docks; it seemed likely they were black-crowned night herons but they were around at all hours of the day and night so they could be green herons. I watched one take his mussel snack and step down from the dock onto a horizontal line just above the water line. He grasped the line rather precariously with his feet, and leaned over to dip his snack in the water, clearly rinsing it before he swallowed it whole. There were also very tall cranes (egrets?) that were a bit creepy as they quietly patrolled the foggy docks at night. The warmer ocean bird I love most of all are pelicans, of which we saw plenty when we went on a short sail in San Francisco Bay.