Take a bird’s eye view of summer reading

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Whether on a beach, a cabin back porch, or even a hammock at home, nothing beats relaxing with an entertaining book on summer vacation.

For the last 20 years I’ve favored mysteries and thrillers with conservation themes. It began with “Gator Aide,” the first in a series of wildlife mystery thrillers by Jessica Speart that I discovered almost 20 years ago.

Over 10 years (1997-2006), Speart’s heroine, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Rachel Porter, investigated crimes involving endangered species, from parrots to grizzly bears to tortoises. And most investigations involved a murder or two. What makes these books so compelling is the time Speart spent in the field with real wildlife agents to prepare for each book. This series taught me a lot about wildlife law enforcement, and I’m still hopeful that someday one of them might be made into a movie.

After retiring Rachel Porter, Speart turned her attention to nonfiction. “Winged Obsession: the Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler” (2011) is a riveting account of how a rookie U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent goes undercover to catch the world’s most infamous butterfly smuggler. If the story wasn’t true, it would make a great Rachel Porter mystery.

Birder mysteries

Recently I Googled “birder murder mysteries,” hoping to find some authors who combined two primary areas of interest. The results overwhelmed me, but they led me to Jan Dunlap’s “Bob White Murder Mystery Series.” The titles alone hooked me — “Murder on Warbler Weekend,” “A Bobwhite Killing,” “A Murder of Crows,” “Falcon Finale,” “Swift Justice” and the soon-to-be published “Kiskadee of Death.” Bob White, the perfect name for a sleuthing birder, is a high school counselor and avid birder with a penchant for finding dead human bodies. These are light, fast, fun reads — perfect for summer vacation.

The most recent birder murder mysteries I’ve come across is exactly that — a “Birder Murder Mystery” series by Steve Burrows. “A Siege of Bitterns” (2014, Dundurn) features ex-pat Canadian detective/birder, Domenic Jejeune, working as a detective in an East Coast English town. He connects the murder of an environmental activist to birding. And we get lessons in the differences between birding in America and Britain.

“A Pitying of Doves,” the second in Burrows’ series, was published in May. This time the victim is the director of a bird sanctuary.

Old favorite

Another author I’ve been reading for years is Nevada Barr. Her “Anna Pigeon” series follows the adventures of a National Park Service law enforcement agent who solves murders that are usually related to conservation issues. Barr draws on her experience as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service.

The first of the series, “Track of the Cat,” was published in 1993 and received an Agatha Award for “Best First Novel.” Subsequent Anna Pigeon novels have taken readers to Yosemite, Isle Royale, Big Bend and Glacier National Parks, to name just a few.

Head to the mountains

For readers who might prefer more of a Marlboro Man type hero, I suggest C. J. Box’s “Joe Pickett” novels. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden doing his best to thwart poachers and killers. In addition to telling great stories, Box paints vivid descriptions of the mountain west. The most recent in the Joe Pickett series, “Endangered,” was published in March.

Nonfiction

If your tastes run to nonfiction, even while on vacation, try “Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation” (2015, Texas A&M University Press) by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carroll Henderson. Using a decade-by-decade approach from the late 1800s, the authors trace the rise of backyard bird feeding from a casual activity to a multi-billion dollar annual business.

One of the book’s many take-home lessons is how America’s love for nature spawned a new industry. This is by far the best and most thorough summary of bird feeding as both a pastime and a business.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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