Review: Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer & Build;  Peter Goodfellow, Princeton University Press, 2011

… it is then
without doubt the sharpness of male need that,

perpetuates the species (which, truly, might
better be left alone):

The poet A. R. Ammons wrote these words in his adopted persona of a grumpy old man. His poetic quip is funny because he wrote it in the throes of musing on his occasionally re-emerging need and because it was written from a distance that was far enough to allow the poet to forget the infinite details and extreme demands of parenting which are the preoccupation of younger generations. Those who survive to old age miss the urgency. Few miss the details.

But – once the need is satisfied, it’s all details. Tending the nest. Brooding eggs. Warding off predators. Feeding and fledging chicks. Teaching them what they will need to know to survive as adults. These details rule the lives of parents and the lives of biologists who study parenting and illuminate the whys and hows of continuation for the rest of us. Bernd Heinrich’s “The Nesting Season.” (see the complete review in this blog) is, perhaps, the best exploration of the seemingly infinite and complex strategies employed by birds to perpetuate their kind. Heinrich treats the subject of nests from the perspective of their placement, concealment, and defense, but he left a discussion of architecture to others.

Now, Peter Goodfellow, in his newly published “Avian Architecture,” sharpens the focus to explore nests only from the perspective of their architecture -- their form, function, construction materials, how they are made, and by whom. Goodfellow discusses each of a dozen distinct types of nests with a full set of blueprints for each. The blueprints – rendered like an architect’s blueprints for a building – reveal the intricate details of the nest construction and materials in ways that you would never see unless you were patient enough to watch birds in the act, at close range, and then stole the new construction and carefully disassembled it. The conceit of presenting details in this way is that they lead the reader (at least this reader) to speculate that nests could not have been constructed by an animal not possessed of discursive thought and a rich self-awareness. In pouring over Goodfellow’s blueprints I had to continually remind myself that the real plans exist only as firmware coded somewhere in the avian DNA. “Avian Architecture” is rich in well-presented detail that includes, besides the blueprints, a good introduction to each nest type, a spread (for each nest type) called “materials and features,” and an excellent selection of case studies which offer more detail abou the construction process.

Nests are an excellent perspective from which to explore of the subject of mating and parenting because they are (relatively) easy to find and because they seem so wondrous and so unlikely. Even the most casual bird watcher among us loves finding nests because they are , at once, so intricate and so simple. Simple in their fragility and exposure to elements. Complex in their construction. Finding a piping plover nest , for example, is a delight that will make you wonder how such a simple scrape in the sand can be the nursery of so many generations of piping plovers. At any known nesting beach you will find a crowd of birders huddled around a forest of spotting scopes oooing and aaahing over a piping plover nest straining to find the chick. Although the nest is right there in plain sight we all feel lucky to have found it.

It’s the same with all nests. Last season Holly and I were birding the “Beanery” in Cape May, NJ when we were approached by a fellow birder – a stranger -- who asked if we wanted to see a hummingbird nest, an offer we could not refuse. We stood there for about a half-hour watching a female brooding eggs in an espresso-cup- sized nest made of lichen and spider silk, occasionally leaving and returning. Like the fellow before us, we made sure that everyone who approached us saw the nest – the discovery of which made everyone smile. Yes, nests need watching – by bird parents and by birders.

We love finding nests but rarely pay attention to how they are built. “Avian Architecture” will magnify your sense of wonder. The book is chockablock full of detail presented in a very accessible way.

But fair warning is in order here. Once you delve into the subject of nests you will want to know more. Specifically, you will want to know what you are looking at when you do find a nest. One of my favorite reference books is “Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds,” by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison, Princeton University Press, 2005) which is richly illustrated with drawings of nests, but even more appealing is the array of illustrations of features that you will almost never see including eggs and chicks of many species.

Anyone who loves looking at and thinking about birds will want both of these volumes.

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