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How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature

How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature

H. H. Shugart
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature
    Book Description:

    Although people have been altering earth's landscapes to some extent for tens of thousands of years, humankind today is causing massive changes to the planet. Such widespread environmental change is accompanied by accelerating rates of species extinction. In this book, noted ecologist H. H. Shugart presents important ecological concepts through entertaining animal parables. He tells the stories of particular birds and mammals-the packrat, ivory-billed woodpecker, penguin, dingo, European rabbit, and others-and what their fates reveal about the interactions between environmental change and the extinctions or explosions of species populations.

    Change is the root of many planetary problems, but it is also an intrinsic feature of our living planet. Shugart explores past environmental change, discusses the non-existence of a "balance of Nature," and documents how human alterations have affected plants, soils, and animals. He looks with hope toward a future in which thoughtful people learn-and use-ecological science to protect the landscapes upon which terrestrial creatures depend.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12860-4
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Petruchio’s dilemma is our dilemma as well.¹ We choose whether the adder is better than the eel: in the decisions we make that alter the planet’s environment, we favor some species and disfavor others. Intentionally or unintentionally, we manage the biota and the environment of our planet. Our decisions have eliminated some species and created the opportunities and environments for others to become pests.

    However, our challenge is more complex than deciding which species to favor in our planetary management. In a changing and interactive world, we are unable to do only a single thing; the interactions in ecosystems cause...

  5. 2 The Big Woodpecker That Was Too Picky
    (pp. 5-23)

    Sadly, George Lowery’s concerns proved to be well founded. It is highly likely that the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephillus principalis) no longer exists. It was a striking creature in the floodplain forests of the great southern rivers of the United States. An extremely large black-and-white woodpecker with a red crest and white bill, it was never common. Very tame, it made an easy target for commercial hunters, who shot the animals to sell as specimens for wealthy gentleman collectors. This practice certainly decimated the population, but the bird’s vulnerability ultimately stemmed from its need for extensive areas of mature floodplain forest....

  6. 3 The Black-Headed Bird Named Whitehead
    (pp. 24-44)

    Sailing the far southern Atlantic in a solitary tall ship, heading for the roaring gales of the Great Southern Ocean, and being aware of the imminence of the difficult passage through the Straits of Magellan would unnerve any sailor. Joseph Banks, looking out at the sea from the rail of theEndeavour, would have realized that he was in just such a situation. How could he know? By viewing large numbers of a bird that he had never seen until the day before, but that he immediately recognized. The birds were penguins. Penguins (Figure 8) come to our minds, as...

  7. 4 The Rat That Hid Time in Its Nest
    (pp. 45-68)

    This Karok myth captures a distinguishing trait of several species of rodents called packrats. In the story, the packrats were transformed into prodigious gatherers of material stolen from others. In actuality, packrats busy themselves gathering bits and pieces that they use to build stick nests (usually with multiple escape routes), or middens. Because a packrat is equivalent to the food energy of about half a hamburger, it makes a worthwhile target for a wide array of predators. Midden building is a significant adaptation for a small animal that provides a nice hors d’oeuvre for a large predator such as a...

  8. 5 The Earthquake Bird and the Possum
    (pp. 69-88)

    Eliza Bryan relates some of the immediate effects of the largest of a horrific series of earthquakes that struck in the vicinity of the town of New Madrid on the Mississippi River in what is now called the boot heel of Missouri. Of the several New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, the one that Bryan describes in her letter is thought to be the largest in recorded history to strike the contiguous United States.¹ It and two of the earlier New Madrid earthquakes register in the top ten such earthquakes.²

    In all, as many as five earthquakes occurred over...

  9. 6 The Most Common Bird on Earth
    (pp. 89-105)

    The red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea), an African weaver finch (family Ploceidae) is a small, mostly brown bird (Figure 24) found in the annual grasslands of Africa. Other than ornithologists and the people who see the bird in its native habitat, almost no one has ever heard of the little quelea, although it may be the most common bird on earth. Its annual grassland habitat has an extremely pronounced wet-and-dry seasonality. When the wet season and its rains come, annual grasses sprout from seeds, grow, and mature to produce the seeds for the next wet season. Queleas are adapted to reproduce...

  10. 7 The Engineering Rodent
    (pp. 106-115)

    Beavers (Castor canadensis) are the largest North American rodents. They attain lengths up to 4 feet (1.3 m) and can weigh more than 75 pounds (30 kg). Compact, rather thickset animals, they have small eyes, short legs, and broad, scaly, flattened tails (Figure 27). Their paddle tails and their large webbed feet are adaptations to aquatic life. Other aquatic adaptations include valves in their ears and nostrils that close when they are submerged. A clear membrane, called the nictitating membrane, covers the eyes when beavers are underwater. Beavers have dense fur: a fine gray underfur overlaid with coarse, darker brown...

  11. 8 The Fall of the Big Bird
    (pp. 116-137)

    New Zealand broke away from a giant continent of the Southern Hemisphere called Gondwanaland between 80 million and 85 million years ago. Over time, Gondwanaland further fragmented to produce the continents of Antarctica, Africa, Australia (including New Guinea), and South America. Smaller pieces separated to become Madagascar, southern India, and New Caledonia. As the Tasman Sea formed between New Zealand and Australia, New Zealand’s fauna and flora were launched on an evolutionary trajectory independent from the rest of the world.

    After New Zealand separated from Gondwanaland, any creature unable to cross a considerable distance over ocean water could not spread...

  12. 9 The Wolf That Was Woman’s Best Friend
    (pp. 138-158)

    The startling observation (startling at least to male European explorers) of women nursing wild animals was not just a curiosity seen in Hawaiian Polynesia. Early chroniclers of such geographically separated people as North and South American Amerindians, Australian Aborigines, and New Guinean Melanesians, to name but a few examples, noted the same practice regularly.¹ One can easily appreciate that such close nurturing of baby animals would reduce their fear of humans, behaviorally imprint them on humans, and ultimately serve to tame them.

    Hunting people often encounter baby animals in their pursuit of food and bring them back to a base...

  13. 10 The Gentle Invader
    (pp. 159-177)

    At the dawn of recorded history, the distribution of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Europe was confined to what is now the Iberian Peninsula. In 1100 B.C., Phoenicians sailing to the peninsula found large populations of these rabbits, a species they had not previously encountered. They named the country after the rabbits; translated, that name became Hispania, or Spain.¹

    Populations of rabbits existed too in northwestern Africa, but in as much as they do not show up in the fossil deposits until Neolithic times, humans may have transported them there.² If so, this prehistoric human introduction of the rabbit...

  14. 11 Planetary Stewardship
    (pp. 178-184)

    The biblical admonition to humans to have dominion over the Earth and its creatures has analogies in the tenets of many peoples. The Masai of Kenya believe that they are placed on the world to take care of all the cattle. Ancient Egyptians performed elaborate rituals built around their calendars and intended to ensure the coming of the seasons, the flooding of the Nile, and the moderating of the weather. As our species,Homo sapiens, has spread and become more numerous, humankind has altered the face of the planet. Another manifestation of the biblical instruction to have dominion over the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 185-218)
  16. Index
    (pp. 219-227)