Essential Reads

Field Guide to Owls of California and the West
California Natural History Guides
Hans Peeters
UC Press, 2007, $50 cloth, $19.95 paper

Owls are all the rage: they’re making a comeback on greeting cards, jewelry, and chatchkes galore. California vintners and other growers put up owl boxes, realizing that the big birds bring big pest control benefits—bye-bye gophers. The city of Berkeley even named the barn owl as city bird recently, to honor its ghostly denizens. If you are an owl-ophile, Hans Peeters’ new book will only fuel your obsession.

Fortunately for Westerners, all of the nineteen North American owl species can be found in the West, and every county in California has at least two or three species of owls. Peeters starts with the basics of owl phylogeny (a few surprises here: owls are more closely related to nighthawks than to raptors), and moves through owl anatomy, senses, and vocalizations: owls not only hoot, they “scream, screech, moan, purr, chuckle, bleat, yowl, cackle, hiss, and tick like a grandfather clock.” Chapters on predators of owls contain more surprises: snakes, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, other owls and raptors, bobcats, and (sadly) the occasional human.

A chapter is devoted to human attitudes toward owls, both past and present. Despite the lasting “wise old owl” stereotype, humans have often been ambiguous or negative about these creatures of the night. The Greeks thought of owls as both evil omens and portents of victory while many Native Americans had elaborate superstitions and rituals involving owls. Owls are no longer persecuted as they once were; however, in some Mediterranean countries, they continue to be shot from the sky, as are raptors, and in China, owl soup is a delicacy.

Peeters is not only an engaging and captivating writer; he also is an artist, and the book includes color plates of each species, including a rather comical page of chubby owl nestlings. The book also has many gorgeous and unusual photos of owls perched, nesting, and flying, and of their habitats.

Importantly, Peeters includes a chapter on threats to owls—primarily human destruction of habitat and other human-caused problems like car strikes, secondary poisoning from rodenticides, fence entanglements, or (in the case of burrowing owls) nests being plowed under for parking lots. Even birders—who play owl call recordings to lure owls into range so they can see them—can cause great damage by harassing the owls, sometimes to the point where they fail to breed. Peeters describes the conservation status of each species of owl: six of the nineteen included in the book are endangered, threatened, or species of concern. Species accounts are given for each, detailing their ranges, distribution, and habitat and their daily activities and feeding patterns, along with tips on identification. In some urban areas, barn owls in particular are making a comeback, and when given even a tiny piece of open field, burrowing owls will try to make do (although it’s often not enough). But as Peeters describes, owls need all kinds of habitats, from forests to grasslands to oak woodlands. In a modest strip of oak riparian woodland along a tiny seasonal stream, he found eight barn owls, a pair of great horned owls, and a pair of western screech owls. If we want to keep hearing their nighttime hoots (or bloodcurdling screams), we need to leave them some space.

—Lisa Owens Viani

Current Controversies in the Biological Sciences
By Karen F. Greif and Jon F. Merz
MIT Press, $25

Every day, the media bombards us with news about health, food safety, emerging diseases, and cures in the offing. Since Merck’s Vioxx scandal in 2004, a clutch of drug safety problems has come to light; most recently, GlaxoSmithKline’s Aventis, for patients with Type II diabetes, has been found to increase risk of heart failure. Elsewhere we hear that alcohol, obesity, or even under-wire bras increase the risk of breast cancer, and we are asked to vote on euthanasia and genetically modified crops.

Should you go out of your way to feed your child genetically unmodified food? How can we predict the long-term effects of new technologies on the environment, and who is responsible for those predictions? For those who want to develop an educated opinion and a context in which to understand the increasing role of biochemistry in our lives, Greif and Merz’s book offers an excellent overview.

A collection of loosely related essays explores many topics, including boundaries of research, intellectual property, reproductive technologies, the role of the FDA in drug safety, forensic testing and the legal system, cosmetic surgery, the public health response to anthrax, media coverage of science, scientific misconduct, public misunderstandings, environmental toxins, organ transplants, and the right to die. The scare over silicone breast implants is discussed, the debate over genetically modified organisms is critiqued, and Terri Schiavo’s story is retold.

Although the book overlaps a class I took a class at UC Berkeley a few years ago, I learned something new in every chapter, such as legal precedents, historical background, and details I hadn’t gleaned from the news. Each section gives legal and biological background in easily accessible, functional language and includes references. If your interest is truly piqued by a debate, Greif and Merz provide an annotated list of reading suggestions.

—Vivian Choi

Trees of the California Landscape
A Photographic Manual of Native and Ornamental Trees

Charles R. Hatch
University of California Press, 2007, $60

This hefty tome ought to become a new bible for aspiring landscape designers, botanists, and obsessive amateurs compelled to learn the identity of every tree they see in California whether native or introduced. Author Charles R. Hatch does an exuberantly thorough job of identification; he employs over a thousand of his own excellent photographs. Each tree listing includes a photograph of a medium- sized specimen (the size most likely to be encountered), close-ups of the tree’s bark and its foliage (flowers and fruit included when noticeable), and for deciduous trees, a photo of the bare tree. Descriptions are precise and technical. Hatch’s taxonomy chapter is the best explication of plant identification and terminology I’ve encountered, with one page of text and over thirty pages of illustrations (mostly leaf photographs).

A detailed chapter on trees in urban landscape design positions the book as a must-have textbook in the field, while the overview of California topography, geology, climate, and plant communities will make it useful for students of California ecosystems. Identification keys can be used by any reader strong enough to carry the book around outdoors (or smart enough to photocopy the relevant pages).

—Gina Covina

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