The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 25, 2012

Holiday Gift Ideas

CAMERON — Books always make great holiday gifts, especially for those who have everything.  Here are a few recent titles that I recommend.

On heels of “Leviathan” (2008) and “Fur, Fortune and Empire” (2011), Eric Jay Dolin has planted himself at the intersection of natural and human history. “When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail” (2012, W.W. Norton, $27.95) is the story of how trade began between America and China. From silk spun by caterpillars to luxurious sea otter fur, the roots of this tale began in 1784.

 “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation” by Eric Rutkow (2012, Schribner, $29.00) is another compelling tale of how American history is intertwined with nature. Most of us take trees for granted, but without them this country would not exist. Trees are the backbone of  America. Both historians and nature lovers will find American Canopy a compelling read.

 “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds” by Jim Sterba (2012, Crown, $26.00) delves into the dark side of wildlife conservation success stories. For hundreds of years, North America’s wildlife resources were plundered by explorers, traders, and settlers. Over-exploitation continued well into the early 1900s. Conservation efforts dating back 75 years reversed this trend, and then some. Alligators, beavers, deer, and many other wildlife populations roared back. Today the business of wildlife damage control booms. Sterba documents these stories and makes it clear too many of anything is never good.

“Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest” by Judy Helgen (2012, U. Mass. Press, $24.95) tells the story of mysterious deformities that began plaguing frogs and making headlines in the 1990s. As a biologist for the state of  Minnesota, Helgen watched this problem emerge and helped define it for the public.

The title of the “Kaufman Field Guide to the Nature of New England” by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman (2012, Houghton Mifflin, $20.00) misleads. It is not strictly a regional field guide. Superbly illustrated with more than 2,000 color photographs, this guide covers everything from geology, weather, and the night sky to wildflowers, trees, insects and all five groups of vertebrates. All but the coastal topics will prove useful throughout the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

“The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania,” edited by Andrew Wilson, Daniel Brauning, and Robert Mulvihill (2012, Penn State University Press, $64.95), updates the status of Pennsylvania’s breeding birds. At 616 pages, it is a monumental achievement. From 2004 to 2009 more than 2,000 birders surveyed the state’s 190 breeding birds.  The result is a serious reference for birders and ornithologists in Pennsylvania and adjacent states. Casual birdwatchers will covet this book when their interest in birds reaches beyond the backyard.

Finally, in 2004 Mark Obmascik published “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.” It’s the story of three birders competing to see the most bird species in a single calendar year. It provides insight into what motivates serious, competitive birders.

In the fall of 2011, the film version came to the big screen. Despite a cast that includes Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, “The Big Year” flopped at the box office. That’s a shame because it’s a gentle, light-hearted comedy that lacks foul language, bathroom humor, and violence.

“The Big Year,” the movie, is a fictional version of the true story of three men who set out in 1998 to have a “big year.” A big year is a competition to see or hear as many species of birds as possible in a single calendar year. To do it seriously requires free time, an understanding family, and deep pockets.

The winner set a record, 745 species, that will probably never be broken. A confluence of unusual environmental conditions resulted in many rare birds reaching North America in 1998. It was the birding world’s perfect storm.

“The Big Year” is now available on DVD ($29.98, but heavily discounted at and as more people see it, it’s getting many thumbs up.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV  26033 or by e-mail at

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