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Christmas Books for the Biologist-Reader

By Sean Mitchell

It is December 2021 and Christmas morning is rising, evening star-like, on the far horizon. This is a time for loved ones to ask us what we would like for Christmas. Here I would like to offer some advice for valuable gifts to be left under the tree for practicing biologists or those interested simply in natural history. Being a bibliophile as well as biologist and writer, naturally my suggestions are books.

For those of you that have read some of my previous blogs or taken one of my writing courses, you know my views on modern technical writing; there is no need to reiterate those here. But I do want to emphasize that technical writing has not always suffered the modern afflictions, and that older material is both valuable and timeless. And most importantly a pleasure to read. During this holiday season and into the new year I urge you to explore the forests of historically significant biology publications. A few examples are provided here as an arrow to the trailhead of the path to enjoyable, information-rich, historically fascinating, and still-relevant volumes encompassing the science, natural history, and management of the species we are most interested in. Time in these pages will not be wasted.

The original classic has to be Audubon’s and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America (published originally 1842-1846) which combines Audubon’s unique illustration style with a comprehensive review of all that was known on the species to that time. The author also includes intriguing personal stories, such as his disagreement with Samuel Hearne over the stupidest deer in North America, or anecdotes from authorities; he tells of Andrew Graham of the HBC relaying a story of a man diverting a polar bear from himself by holding a bag containing bread and beer at arm’s length — the bear sniffed it then wandered away without bothering the bag-holder. This is less a book to be read entirely, rather it is to be dipped into for those species of interest — particularly given Audubon’s lack of attempt at systematic organization. To enjoy parts of this tome with a glass of eggnog on a cold winter’s evening is to get a sense of the conditions under which the early naturalists worked, and a recognition of how small the ecologist community, even then, was in North America.

Ernest Thompson Seton’s Lives of Game Animals (eight volumes, published in the 1920s) is the next in time to consider. Seton, a fine author in his own right, compiled all known information on the mammals of North America — he did such an exceptional job it was commonly cited within the scientific literature as late as the 1980s. As with Audubon it is his personal accounts that bring the writing to life, it is not merely recitation of data and facts. He recounts a man shooting a bald eagle at Hamilton Bay and, upon examination, the bleached skull of a weasel was found concealed by the feathers; the long-dead and decayed mustelid had seized the adult eagle by the throat and refused to let go. In death, the skull remained attached to the bird. This is a level of observation unknown of today. Seton, the iconic Canadian naturalist, deserves greater readership and awareness in this decade of the centennial of his massive publication.

Continuing forward, three books from the 1940s are worth the attention of all wildlife ecologists. Adolph Murie’s The Wolves of Mount McKinley (1944), Young and Goldman’s The Puma: Mysterious American Cat (1946), and Rand’s Mammals of the Eastern Rockies and Western Plains of Canada (1948) all treat descriptions of wildlife in a most readable and engaging way. Unlike modern guides and compilations focussing only on the species, these author’s of the war years include such management related influences as hunting and trapping as well as explorations of the relationship of the animals within the web of their environments. They also provide clear indication of the difficulty of actually studying these animals, for example, from Rand (1945): “The great coniferous forest is the home of the lynx. It is a shy, seldom seen animal, as are our other cats, and some trappers who have taken hundreds of them have never seen one outside of a trap or snare.” The clearest description of the difficulty of seeing lynx that I have ever found. For those reader’s more interested in the natural history of animals, relationship with man, and anecdotes of actually studying them — instead of listings of gestation periods and number of young per litter — these publications from the middle decades of the twentieth century cannot be beat.

There are historic academic tomes also worth perusing and reading for pleasure. The Deer of North America (1954), edited by Taylor, is such a find. Examining all three species of deer in North America (white-tailed, mule, black-tailed) the multiple authors, including BC’s own Ian McTaggart-Cowan, write in engaging and informative ways providing all that is known on those species to that time (including how to hunt them). Reading this one is struck that we really don’t know much more today than they did; the fundamentals and deep understanding of deer biology (with the obvious exception of the role of genetics) was well worked out by the 1950s. One could read this book and then would need only touch up a few small components to be completely up to speed with modern deer biology. And if that were one’s task I would recommend this monograph for enjoyment of reading over anything written in the last forty years.

The second historic academic opus is much nearer in time… actually within my lifetime. In 1982 Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, Economics (Chapman and Feldhamer, eds.) was released. While certainly using a more formal tone and structure to the writing, and so losing some of the reader engagement, it feels to me to be on the boundary between the pleasure of historic reading and the dry, hard-to-keep-your-eyes-open manner of modern writing. Relying heavily on data, statistics, and conventions of writing which badly break up the flow, it still retains the use of quotations and some anecdotal information. I think of this book as representing the modern date after which I am not sure it is possible to say that we can read species accounts and wildlife books for pleasure. From here forward they are informative and data rich… but a bit of slog.

There you have it. My Christmas gift to all past NRTG students, instructors, and recipients of this newsletter: a selection of wildlife books which you may consider for these cold months we are entering. This is only a sampling, seven suggestions, but I hope that it encourages you to more closely consider the older literature. You may not learn much new, but I know that you will enjoy the reading. I wish that you get as much enjoyment out of these volumes as I have.

Sean Mitchell