The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 729/Notices of New Books
NOTICES OF NEW BOOKS.
This book is another evidence of the advance made in ornithological bionomics by the aid of Photography. It also inculcates a new method of "control," not by making a captive of the bird or nest, but by the displacement of the latter from its original position to one that affords a better field for observation.
"If the nest like that of an Oriole is fastened to the leafy branch of a tree, the nesting bough is cut off, and the whole is then carefully lowered to the ground and set up in a good light, so that the branch with the nest shall occupy the same relative positions which they did before. The nest, however, is now but four instead of forty or more feet from the ground." Other nests are treated on the same principle and brought within the vicinity of a green tent, "which effectually conceals the student, together with his camera and entire outfit." In fact, when the arrangements are successfully completed, the author and his camera are frequently not beyond an actual distance of about two feet from the nest. This transaction has produced a number of charming illustrations, and, what is more, these have portrayed many novel attitudes in bird life. The young Belted Kingfishers and their habit of walking backwards is a case in point, and for the probable origin of that procedure we must refer to the book itself. In the chapter on "The Force of Habit" are several singular records. In watching hour by hour the American Robins visiting their young, Mr. Herrick found that the male invariably came to the right side of the nest, while the female did not pursue that strange predilection. In "Taming Wild Birds without a Cage" the author has described many traits known to all of us who can, now and then, practise that difficult human feat of "keeping quiet." The rest in the woods when tired out has often shown us more than all our efforts and fatigues in search of bionomical observation, and this fact has been clearly recognized and made use of by our author. Why is it that in zoology the best and most patient observations are often made by ornithologists?
Most of us will call to mind the laconic answer given by Huxley to a controversialist of biological aspirations, "Take a cockroach and dissect it," and if we only studied animals by themselves first, and read the books afterwards, there can be little doubt of the vast advantage to our biological knowledge. To-day we too often only see what the books tell us to observe, while the books themselves are not unfrequently built up on other writings. Prof. Howes leaves no doubt as to his meaning. "Lecturing, which is mere recapitulation, in advance of facts to be later learnt by work in the laboratory, is useless, if not mischievous." This book is a guide to the Huxleyean "Type System," and the late Prof. Huxley, writing a preface to its first edition in 1885, observed: "No doubt the direct instruction of a teacher is very valuable; but with the aid of this Atlas, I think that an intelligent student, who is unable to obtain that advantage, will find no difficulty in working through 'The Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology' by himself."
Twenty-four plates are given, detailing the anatomy and physiological organs of Frog, Crayfish, Earthworm, Snail, Fresh-water Mussel, Fresh-water Polyp, and some Unicellular organisms. The student who, with these easily acquired animals, these plates, a very moderate dissecting apparatus, and a pair of fairly intelligent eyes, does not find a key to the mysteries of animal life must have mistaken his vocation.
Mr. Witherby has great opportunities, and, as an ornithologist, he certainly tries to make the best of them. He has visited the Bustards on the plains near the Guadalquiver, tried Russian Lapland, has just started on a Persian expedition, and in this small volume gives the principal incidents of a journey made "to add to our knowledge of the birds and beasts of the Soudan."
These pages have the merit of giving a very fair impression of the neighbourhood of the ancient river, with its modern railway, its sandy plains, its few trees, and apparently its limited bird fauna. To have reached this hunting-ground would have a few years ago been considered the work of a "traveller"; it will soon be only the starting-point for a journey to British possessions farther south, where the solitude of the green veld will be exchanged for the silence of the sandy desert. The author's greatest success appears to have been the acquisition of a rare and beautiful Goatsucker (Caprimulgus eximius), of which we read that up to that time only four specimens were known, but of which since that date the Rothschild and Wollaston party have discovered a spot where it is fairly common, and procured no fewer than some fifteen examples. A list of the birds collected and observed is appended, and also one of the mammals contributed by Mr. de Winton.
In our volume for 1897 (p. 486) we drew attention to the commencement of this excellent publication, as much a contribution of good work as of private enterprise in the cause of ornithology. We have now received the conclusion of the "Birds," with an intimation from the author that he does not intend publishing the memoirs of the other vertebrates, as he is doing that work for the Victorian History of the County. We hope, however, that in a few years Mr. Steele-Elliott will return to his self-imposed task, and give us the complete description of the fauna which he has so well begun. At all events, his present instalment affords a history of the birds of Bedfordshire.