During each of the spring semesters in my second and third year at Cornell, I took an advanced biology course that focused on one big group of vertebrates that I’ve always found both interesting and beautiful to study both in and out of school: birds and ‘herps’, or reptiles and amphibians. In the university setting, there is a half-joking rivalry between biologists who study these groups, leading to this type of crude but funny cartoon that can be seen on the office doors of at least one professor in Cornell’s Corson-Mudd Hall, home of the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department.
I like animals, so learning more about these major taxa gave me a better understanding as to the behavior, life history, and evolutionary origins of dozens of species that I had encountered previously around the world. Although the hundreds of notecards that I made to memorize the Latin species, genus, family, and order names were not exactly a pleasure to experience, they did manage to burn some useful facts and figures into my memory that allow me to recognize or at least educatedly hypothesize where most birds, reptiles, and amphibians fall in a family tree.
Ornithology class took place, as one might guess, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where twice a week a good twenty to thirty of us would spend two hours learning about bird families from around the world and examine specimens from the Lab’s Museum of Vertebrates collection. Last week, the Lab’s quarterly Living Bird magazine featured a fantastic article on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a very cute but even more endangered bird in the Russian tundra, and also posted some wonderful videos — some of it first-time footage of the extremely rare species’ behavior and life history — one of which I’ve embedded below. Watching the chicks scurry around and forage for a meal, I was struck by the incredible pattern formed by their feathers. The adult’s plumage was beautiful and camouflaged in the manner we expect from sandpipers anywhere, and maybe I just haven’t seen enough hatchling shorebirds before, but the little splashes or dustings of creamy white on their heads and backs looked just like scattered sand, so much so that at first I thought perhaps the young birds were covered in bits of eggshell or dirt from the nest.
Having read earlier during the day that my herpetology professor, Harry Greene, recently wrote a new book, titled Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art, I saw what he sees in the sinuous sand-patterns of a sidewinder in the spoon-billed hatchlings, made even more exciting by the fact that Gerrit Vyn, the Lab scientist who filmed the birds, had captured a nest of the species on film for the first time in history.
Here are some excerpted paragraphs from the review of Greene’s book in the Cornell Chronicle, by Linda Glaser:
The book is woven around two central themes: coming to terms with the destruction of habitat and the loss of biodiversity, and the “twists and turns of my personal quest for wildness,” writes Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. He explores how nature eases our existential quandaries and how natural historians transform curiosity into science and help save species from extinction.
The book is shaped by what Greene calls his “peculiar life,” beginning with his childhood curiosity about the natural world. “I was a real snake nerd,” he says. “When I got to college I’d already published three papers but I’d never gone out with girls.”
Greene is passionate about the need to make biological diversity and conservation interesting to nonspecialists. Believing that people care more, pay more and will sacrifice for things that they understand, he is committed to promoting biological diversity, ecology, behavior and conservation as among the core components of scientific literacy. As an additional benefit, he writes, “The practice of natural history fosters peace of mind.”