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The other day I was working at the kitchen table. It was a sunny afternoon, the autumn air cool and crisp. As I often do when the weather is so agreeable, I raised a couple of the kitchen windows and delighted in the fresh air, and the sounds of the breeze whistling through the trees in my backyard. More… “Oh, Give Me a Home . . .”

John Gifford is a writer and naturalist from Oklahoma.
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Presenting your news!
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If you haven’t seen the photos of Pluto, go look at them. If you have, go look again. The NYT has packaged them beautifully.

Also: how Pluto changed how we saw the solar system, and why we’ve never lost our enthusiasm for space travel.

Collector’s Weekly on the existential conundrum (and history) of the American waste-paper basket.

Gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman’s portraits of birds on the verge of extinction.

Nabokov said there is no reading, only rereading. Tim Parks doesn’t quite agree, but thinks he’s found the key to an illuminating reread, practicing with The Waste Land and Mrs. Dalloway. •

Diane Pizzuto is the art director and managing editor of The Smart Set.
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The last passenger pigeon

In the last years of her life, Martha began to lose her feathers. Sol Stephan, General Manager of the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha spent most of her years, began collecting the feathers in a cigar box without much idea of what he would do with them. Martha lived a sedentary life at the zoo. Her cage was 18 feet by 20 feet — she had never known what it was to fly free. When Martha’s last friend George (who was also named for a Washington) died in 1910, Martha became a celebrity. She watched the people passing by, alone in her enclosure, and they watched her. Martha ate her cooked liver and eggs, and her cracked corn, and sat. On the outside of her cage, Stephan placed a sign announcing Martha as the Last of the Passenger Pigeons. Visitors couldn’t believe that Martha really was the last. They would throw… More…

The purple-throated hummingbird

Some hummingbirds are no larger than a thumb, and the smallest among them are the very smallest birds in existence. Yet it’s hard to avoid superlatives when talking about these tiny creatures. With their often magnificent jewel-like colors, they glimmer like finely wrought works of art. In fact, they are miracles of nature: extremely agile, fast-moving animals that take the characteristics of birds to their utmost limit. Combining dynamism, fragility, and a surprising degree of fearlessness, hummingbirds can be found in the most diverse environments: in tiny front yards in North, Central, and South American cities; on the high plateau of the Andes; and in the dense Amazon forests.

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives… More…

If you're eating from a feeder, possibly.

 

Give a bird a seed, you feed it for a day. Give a bird a bird feeder, and you start driving its evolution. Who knew?

Scientists didn’t, at least not until they started studying the migratory patterns of Central European blackcaps in southern Germany and Austria. The small gray birds that summer there traditionally winter on the Iberian Peninsula, fleeing the nutritionally sparse region for the lush olives and fruits of sunny Spain every year. But in the 1950s, a small part of the population began overwintering on the British isles instead of Spain. It seemed like a case of different strokes for different songbirds, until German scientists discovered in 1992 that a genetic basis for the behavior had developed. The light cues that send the birds back to Germany each year come earlier in… More…

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It doesn’t take a scientist to know that an ostrich and an oriole cannot mate. The two may share common traits: Each is covered with feathers, and eats through a beak, and lays eggs. But the average person knows it takes a lot more for two animals to get down to the birds and the bees, so to speak.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. 352 pages. W.W. Norton & Co. $27.95.

Anyone can look at these animals and see two species that are simultaneously related and distinct. And most know the reason behind such duality — it’s evolution, stupid. But while it’s easy to recognize evolution’s delineated products — the tiny, fast, and orange-breasted oriole; the bulky, flightless, and long-necked ostrich — the process itself is trickier to glimpse.

But consider the Monarch flycatcher…. More…

Good or bad?

 

I’ve always been suspicious of the birds. Maybe it’s because they are always spying on us from above. The ancients understood that the birds were in cahoots with powerful forces. They poked about in bird entrails trying to find messages from the heavens, omens from hell. They wondered whom the birds were working for. Poor Prometheus was punished for the simple and humane act of giving fire to mankind. It is no accident that he was punished with the torture of an eagle eternally feasting on his liver. The birds will always sell us out for a pittance.

Our latest humiliation at the hands of our feathery friends comes in the unexpected realm of art criticism. The birds, it seems, enter any arena if there is the chance of making us look like fools.

Here’s what happened. Shigeru… More…

Real birds get caught in six-pack rings, wooden ones in prizes!

 

To most of the American public, chicanery is pretty gauche right now: Bernie Madoff, risky bank investments, torture memos, Blago. Yet some deception is just too ingrained in our heritage to easily dismiss. Which is why competitors from around the world recently gathered in Ocean City, Maryland to celebrate and compete in the only American art form grounded in trickery. The Ward World Championship is the annual meet-up of wildfowl carvers, those artists with centuries-old ties to the decoy makers who carved birds not to decorate shelves or long tables of a small town’s convention center, but to attract and kill birds that migrated along the nation’s shores.

To be fair, this is trickery targeting not the human world, but the animal. Still, Ocean City is an oddly appropriate setting for such a celebration. It’s one of the… More…

The Peterson vultures.

 

The golden age of large-mammal discovery has long since passed. Maybe that’s why the recent news that a police offer and car salesman from Georgia had found the body of Bigfoot was met with both predictable skepticism and a bit of discreet excitement. Nobody’s ever identified a Bigfoot before, so nobody knew exactly how to prove that what the men had was one, but the California-based Searching for Bigfoot, Inc., was willing to take a crack at the problem.

The determination, it turns out, ended up being relatively simple. After buying the frozen “corpse,” the group initially observed that the fur “melted into a ball uncharacteristic of hair.” Further thawing revealed that the head was “unusually hollow in one small section.” An hour later, in the final and most conclusive test, an examiner touched the foot and discovered… More…

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Given the state of the natural world right now, it’s hard to get through a book of nature writing without getting depressed. It’s not about documenting these trees, this stream, that coastline. It’s these disappearing trees, this dying stream, that polluted coastline. The most optimistic nature writing in the last several years was Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which assured humans that once we are wiped out by the plague or manage to kill off one another, the world will restore its balance. The damage is not permanent, as long as we disappear one way or another.

This state of the world is reflected in the title of Jonathan Rosen’s The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen writes, “Birds bring news of this [man-diminished world] like nothing else — they are like… More…