From the Bookshelf; 'Bird' gives murrelet wings

Posted: Thursday, September 01, 2005


  "Rare Bird," by Maria Mudd Ruth

"Rare Bird," by Maria Mudd Ruth

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

By Maria Mudd Ruth

Published by Rodale Books

304 pages


$23.95 (hardcover)

The marbled murrelet is an obscure bird: small, rare and cryptically colored. One observer likened it to a baked potato with a beak. It is a pleasant surprise, therefore, to discover that writer Maria Mudd Ruth has created a compelling, full-length book about this shy creature.

In "Rare Bird," she tells us not only about this intriguing seabird, but also about the dedicated people drawn into its world. The murrelet becomes a symbol of wildlife endangered by people who do not yet realize their own lethal power in a world they barely understand.

"Would anyone actually miss this nearly invisible bird?" she asks.

Ruth makes a good case that we would. Or, at least, that we should.

She describes her personal journey into the world of the marbled murrelet. A writer of science books for children, she learned about these birds by chance through a writing assignment. Describing herself as a victim of "attention surplus disorder," she became so entranced by the murrelet's mysterious past and dicey future that she convinced her family to relocate to the West Coast so she could pursue its story.

Naturalists sailing the Alaska coast with Captain James Cook in 1778 introduced the marbled murrelet to Western science. Yet it remained so obscure that no one was able to prove where it nested for nearly 200 years. In 1970, the editors of "Audubon Field Notes" described the species as "a stubborn holdout" beyond the fringes of science and offered a $100 prize for the discovery of such a nest.

In 1974 a tree surgeon found a murrelet chick sitting on a limb 148 feet up a Douglas fir tree miles from the sea.

Since that discovery, marbled murrelets have been in the thick of environmental controversies throughout the Pacific Northwest.

No sooner had people learned the secret of their nesting habits than scientists and bird-lovers realized that the species was under siege from an array of human-generated forces: drowning in coastal fish nets, falling prey to unnaturally enhanced ravens and jays and, above all, losing nest sites due to the logging of old-growth forests.

In less than 20 years, the marbled murrelet went from virtually unknown to the subject of millions of dollars worth of research. In 1992, the U.S. government listed its populations outside of Alaska as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although most of Ruth's tale takes place in the Lower 48, she makes it clear that Alaska, now the home of nearly all marbled murrelets, is crucial to the species' survival. She notes that in addition to logging pressures throughout the Southeast coastal forest, the state's salmon gillnet fishery kills an estimated 3,300 of the birds annually.

Ruth takes us along on her personal quest to discover and understand the murrelet and its precarious situation. We join her in library archives, museum specimen rooms, inflatable boats on fog-bound seas and in predawn vigils in clearings. We sense her enthusiasm as she scans the skies for beating wings and strains to hear the faint but distinctive "keer" of a parent bird returning to its nest.

She writes eloquently of the creature's natural history and habits, as in this description of courtship: "Potential mates join closely together, extend their necks skyward, and point their bills in the air — a movement that lifts their marbled breasts out of the water and grants the pair a touch of avian elegance before they swim rapidly across the water together, two sets of webbed feet flapping and slapping as they go. The two dive, resurface in unison, and extend their necks again, making cooing sounds."

Ruth is equally adept at describing humans in action. Although the birds star in her narrative, a lively cast of people share their limelight. The author credits the hard work of professionals and amateurs in deciphering the murrelet's mystery and advocating for its survival. She deserves special kudos for her realistic and inspiring portrayal of field biologists and the often-difficult conditions under which they work.

Of such people, she says, "All recognized that quality that makes a thing worth protecting, saving, losing sleep over. They belong in my pantheon of heroes, of rare birds."

A few times Ruth gets so caught up in her story she cannot bear to leave anything out, burdening the text with extra details such as what clothes she wore to go birding and why. But she is a skilled wordsmith and, on the whole, her prose is buoyant and delightful.

Line drawings from a biologist's field notebook are a charming asset. But the book could have been improved by including an index, a map showing the birds' range and select photos.

Despite Ruth's excellent effort, general readers may find her topic of marginal interest. But for readers who adore birds or find fascination in nature's subtle charms, "Rare Bird" is a gem. All in all, it is a neat little book about a neat little bird and a tale well told.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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