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Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the…

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet (2005)

by Maria Mudd Ruth

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I got a copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. Thanks!

Rare Bird is a rare treat. I am not a birder. Never been, never will be. I have never heard of a murrelet before, let alone a marbled one. I do not have any passion towards birds, just a general interest in animals. But one thing that I am is a scientist. Despite the fact that I do not have any passion for birds or birding in particular, I found Rare Bird fascinating. The mystery of its nesting site, which took two centuries to figure out (in the scientific sense, meaning with proof and documentation and some understanding of how), the mystery of its nesting and fledging behavior, the lives of all the naturalists, birders, rangers, scientists, and the conservation and recovery efforts of the red wood forests as an ecosystem as well as the marbled murrelets as a species along the west coast were all discussed in detail and with vivid passion. The author has a lot of passion not only for the birds and their habitat, but also the efforts the scientists put into research. To some, this may seem like too much effort into understanding one little thing in all of life, but that us how science in general works. We spend out lives trying to learn everything about one thing (this is not always advantageous for knowledge, but rather a way that somewhat works for someone to do so much work, specialize, so that they can actually make a career out of their studies.)

The book can be divided into three: the mystery of the murrelet's nesting site (it is a very strange waterbird, indeed!), the mystery of how chicks are fed and eventually fly off the nest, and the conservation and recovery efforts, all with the scandals, court struggles, and politics of loggers vs. bird/forest. Ruth does a very good job of presenting both sides. She has one very interesting interview with a representative of the logging company, one that I hope all campers, nature lovers, anti-loggers read. The story in general is an ode to how anyone can contribute to research as a naturalist.

As a scientist, Ruth's constant surprise at the scientific method, its difficulties, and its triumphs was fascinating. She has a genuine interest in how science is done, and does a very good job of explaining the science in lay terms (I know, because all this bird stuff is completely new to me.) At some point, Ruth cites a sentence from a scientific paper to illustrate the difficulty of reading these papers for the lay audience, and I had to laugh, because I did not find this sentence difficult at all. But I know if she had not done a good job explaining the surveying methods, for example, I would have been lost.

Recommended for those who love long-lasting, beautiful wood furniture, lumberjacks, fluffy chicks, and carrots.

( )
  bluepigeon | Dec 15, 2013 |
As usual I received this book for free from a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kindness I will give my candid opinions below.

To begin, it's important to understand what this book is exactly. By my math the text works out to be about 10% history, 20% science and 70% biography of the people involved in studying it. As I reader I was disappointed by this split and expected something much more scientifically detailed. While we do get a fair amount of data on the species the focus is less on the bird and more on the people involved with it.

Moving on to the standard positive/negative bits, the positive centers around the author's obvious passion for this animal. Rarely have I seen any book so determined to tell the story of something so specific. Ruth's writing is abundantly well executed and immaculate in detail. For those who care about this animal as much as she does, this a veritable Bible, a feast of information and ideas.

To the negative, the book seems to want to cross genres and be alluring even to those who don't have a grand passion for birding but this it utterly fails to do. Unless you're already a fanatic, this book is just too much in the specific. It gently adopts this rather oddball bit of ornithology but doesn't quite convince me as personally as to why I should care about this one species more than all the others that are threatened by ecological changes. I get the message but even after reading this tome I'm more interested in saving the forests themselves than I am this specific piece of nature's grand puzzle. I won't say that I came away thinking, "so what?" but I did not find myself infected with the author's obvious frenetic interest in this bird.

In summary, a marvelous book to pick up if you're already thoroughly infected with the bug for bird-watching but this will be a far too heavy a work for the marginally interested outsider. It is wondrous to see such passion from an author but at the same time rather wearying as well. I applaud the work but do not claim it as my particular cup of tea. ( )
  slavenrm | Oct 19, 2013 |
Ruth falls in love with the marbled murrelet, and this affair causes her to re-think her whole life in order to find out more about the bird. The bird lives out here in the Northwest, nests in old-growth forests, and is naturally, threatened by logging. The tone of the book is upbeat, the author's enthusiasm is catching, and the stories are interesting. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
The landowner proclaims that the government can’t tell me what I can’t do on my own property. The company launches a battalion of lawyers to overturn and delay enforcement of endangered species laws and regulations. We remember the Spotted Owl battle on the West Coast. At the same time, but lesser known, a similar battle was being fought to save the nesting habitat of the Marbled Murrelet.
The Marbled Murrelet (MM) is a member of the Alcid family of birds, which live their entire lives on the ocean except to breed. The MM resides in ocean waters from Alaska down to Northern California. It’s small, about robin-size, and breeds in the trees of old forest regions of the Pacific coast, the region of giant redwoods and Douglas Firs. But it took nearly two hundred years to establish the fact that it nests in trees, unlike any other member of the Alcid family. Captain Cook in his third voyage to discover a Northwest Passage brought back the first MM specimens, which were taken in 1788 from Alaskan coastal waters. The first confirmed nesting was discovered on a limb 148 feet in the air on a Douglas fir tree at in the Big Basin Redwoods California State Park in 1974.
Maria Mudd Ruth chronicles the story of the many attempts to detect MM nesting colonies on the rocks of the coastline to the gradual growing realization in the twentieth century that the MM was a tree nester high in the Redwoods and Douglas Fir trees of the coast line.
The MM only nests in the old growth coastal forests that are rapidly being lumbered out of existence. In addition the MM in its saltwater feeding grounds is killed by oil spills and gill netting. As well, the depletion and reduction of areas of old forest increased the predation of Corvids (Ravens, Crows, and Jays on the eggs and nestlings. The MM was listed as an endangered species in 1992 and a recovery plan put into action. Many conflicts ensued between the various interests.
Ruth describes the process of scientific discovery and data collection that is required to establish a species to be endangered, as well as describing in layman’s language the public process to declare an animal to be endangered and liable to become extinct. It is from this data that protected areas are established. She not only did library searches and personal interviews, she qualified to do field work: she went out into the dawn cold to count MM; she went out on Puget Sound in the darkness of the night to assist in the capture and banding of MMs; she traveled incessantly.
If you are interested in the outdoors and the nature of the conflict between economic issues and preservation issues, this is the book to read. ( )
  waltser1 | Aug 1, 2010 |
Maria Mudd Ruth understands what it is to be crazy about an auk. In the course of writing this book, she moved her family across the continent, almost died while hiking up a mountain, and got up at four in the morning for experiences a lot like those that Laura recounts here. Yet she never veers into letting the account become more about her than her subject.

Her subject is, of course, the Marbled Murrelet; but it’s also the biologists, conservationists, and other folks who first struggled to understand Brachyramphus marmoratus and now struggle to save it in the face of threats on all sides...

More ( )
  teratologist | Feb 29, 2008 |
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