A summer vacation is a great time to relax in a hammock or beach chair with a good book.
Here are some titles that should appeal to a variety of curious naturalists.
I always enjoy a good thriller while on vacation, but natural history books rarely qualify. In recent years, however, there have been exceptions.
Each tells stories of obsessed collectors who want to possess and own rare natural artifacts. The rarer the better.
The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean (2000) follows an eccentric botanist obsessed with orchids.
The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers (2008) by Bryan Christy describes the payoffs and penalties that come from smuggling snakes and lizards.
The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists (2009) by Peter Laufer depicts the elicit activities of butterfly collectors.
Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty (2010) by Craig Welch shines the spotlight on illegal trade in geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) clams in the Pacific Northwest.
And Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler (2011) tells the true story of the world’s most notorious butterfly collector.
Each of these books qualifies as a compelling summer read.
This year’s entry into the nature obsession genre is entitled The Dragon Behind the Glass: A true Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish by Emily Voigt (2016, $26, Scribner).
Voigt turns her attention to aquarium fish, which can sell for six figures and even lead to murder.
The Asian arowano or dragon fish is endangered in the wild, but easily breeds in captivity. So, of course, it is wild fish collectors prefer.
The remaining titles on my list are more traditional natural history books.
America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake by Ted Levin (2016, $35, University of Chicago Press) is not for everyone, but if you like snakes, timber rattlesnakes in particular, this book is for you.
Just writing an entire book about a single species is an accomplishment. That it is so well done and enjoyable is a bonus.
From captive snakes in the lab to wild rattlers in the field, Levin paints a fascinating picture of an animal most people hope they’ll never encounter.
Along the way, readers will learn how climate change, habitat loss, and poachers pose a real threat to the survival of the species.
America’s Snake is filled with details about the natural history of these potentially deadly creatures, including the fact that they are peaceful, social, and long-lived.
But what truly put a smile on my face was the obvious affection and protective attitude the author and all who study timber rattlesnakes have for them.
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (2016, $28, Penguin Press) sets out to correct decades of misunderstanding about the intelligence of birds.
Being “bird-brained” is not a compliment. Ackerman defines “genius” as “the knack for knowing what you’re doing.”
Because bird brains are relatively small and their eyes relatively large, bird behavior has long been thought to be driven by vision and instinct.
Research over the last 30 years, however, has revealed that in some cases bird intelligence can rival that of primates.
In certain circumstances, some birds can count, deceive, eavesdrop, blackmail, use tools, and alert others to danger.
There is even evidence that some birds may grieve.
“BIRD!”: An Exploration of Hawkwatching by Brian Wargo (2016, $16, BMW) explains why one man travels to high mountain ridges each fall to watch and count hawks migrating overhead.
On hawkwatching days, Wargo rises well before dawn to reach his favorite perches.
He sits for hours, sometimes enduring high winds and frigid temperatures. It’s a similar compulsion that drives some fans to sit through wind, rain, and snow to watch football games.
He does it because he loves it, and he knows the information he collects adds to our collective knowledge of hawk migration.
If you’ve ever considered becoming a hawkwatcher, this is an excellent primer.
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