Light snows and bitter cold weather have been the trend in January. It is the kind of weather that makes me want to curl up by the fireplace and read. Since this is the kind of weather we have had for over a month, I should be caught up with my reading, but I’m not.
There are just so many good new books out that I can’t find enough time. However, there are a few books I’ve read or have read about lately that I fell many readers of this column may find interesting.
The first is entitled, “Bird Coloration” by Geoffrey E. Hills. It is published by National Geographic, and in the words of the author, “My purpose in writing this book is to communicate in prose accessible to nonscientists what scientists know about the coloration of birds. “
It is the most complete work on color that I have seen and includes chapters on how various colors are formed as well as on how birds see and use color. Many of the color changes in birds are caused not by growing a whole new feather but by the wearing off of the edges of existing feathers so that the color of feathers that are beneath it can be seen.
Feathers with white or very pale cream or tan edges seem to wear off most, so many white birds (gulls, terns, white pelicans, etc.) have black wing tips, which enable them to spend more time in the air with less feather wear. It’s a fascinating book, available through the library.
Another book I have enjoyed recently is not new but was first published in 1983. It is “The Owl Papers” by Jonathan Evan Maslow, published by Vintage Books. It is a collection of papers on owls through “history, literature and myth.” I found it most delightful and at times humorous.
Another book that is just out is a second edition that I haven’t yet seen but hope soon to own is “Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds” by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. G. Harrison, published by Princeton Press. This should be most helpful to all of us who need to identify young birds and nests.
Princeton has several books in its new spring list that tempt me. You might want to ask for its new catalog of books on birds and natural history at University Press, 41 William St., Princeton, N.Y. 08540-5237.
In my own backyard, winter rules. Deer, elk, fox and other critters move through almost daily as they search for food, but they all seem to be doing well. The warmer day last Thursday melted most of the snow off the southeast facing slope, and the daytime temperatures have ameliorated enough so that I think our Northern Flicker will soon be able to find some ants. The snowberries along our garden steps have lost their leaves, but a few white berries still persist. I was amazed that the chipmunk hadn’t eaten them all, but he certainly did his best before the snow came and he went to sleep.
Snowberries are special to me because they remind me of my childhood home. My father had planted one in a corner group of shrubs in our front yard at the farm. Snowberries were not native to western New York but my father, who should have been a landscape architect, had found one in some nursery, and it did well in our yard. I don’t recall seeing anything eating the berries there, but chipmunks, ground squirrels and a few birds eat them here.
The berries are waxy white and look more like they were carved out of wax than snow. According to Bill Weber in his “Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope,” we have three native species of snowberries locally. All belong to the genus, Symphoricarpos. He lists S. Albus and S. Occientalis as two distinct species that can be identified and separated from the others, but you must have both the flower and the fruit to key them properly. he lists He lists Symphoricarpos rotundifolius as a third species but says it “includes S. orcophilus, S. vacciniodes and S. palmeri” of previous manuals. Stating that it is “extremely variable in leaf size, lobation and stem pubescence,” I assume this is the result of the recent lumping and splitting of some species due to DNA testing.
Without very close microscopic examination, most of us will just see two general types of snowberries when hiking: the smaller, more delicate type plants that I have scattered on my hillside and the bigger more robust plants that grow in huge colonies or masses of shrubs along stream valleys and other slightly more moist areas. These are sometimes referred to as buck-brush because deer hunters find them impenetrable, and the deer hide in the middle of them.
My more delicate plants grow more or less singly in my yard, but where clustered together by my steps, they make a delicate low hedge. The berries in all species are round to slightly oval, waxy white and stay on the bushes well into winter until something eats them.