Wolves and hens and bears and owls and koalas — oh my! One of my favorite categories of books is nonfiction that combines the history and cultural foot(paw?)prints of a species alongside memoir, literary criticism, science, sociopolitical analysis, travelogue, ecological research.... really, any combination of the above. There are so many books that fall under this wide umbrella (including books by Sabrina Imbler! Ed Yong! and the inimitable Helen MacDonald!), but I wanted to bring five recent releases together as a starting point, in case you, like me, can’t get enough of these books about the animals we do not deserve and owe so much to.
The subtitle to Erica Berry’s recent release, Wolfish, says it all: “Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear.” Wolves have long been the “bad guys” in our fairy tales — the creatures blowing our houses down or hiding in our grandmother’s skins. In Wolfish, Berry follows OR-7, a legendary wolf wandering through northeast Oregon. From there, we travel with Berry from 17th century Europe to Berry’s grandfather’s sheep farm, from Little Red Riding Hood to the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Wolfish is a howling, compelling read.
Culture reporter Tove Danovich loves chickens. Her initial interest in raising some backyard chickens for their eggs quickly turned into an obsession with these strange, unexpectedly intelligent, domesticated birds. Under the Henfluence is an incredibly entertaining and informative look at the science and history of this species, as Danovich travels from hatcheries to poultry shows to chicken sanctuaries, from Ohio to Iowa to Kauai. BRB, about to go adopt some chicks of my own.
The title refers to the eight remaining species of bear remaining — and the fate of these eight species is hardly secure. Gloria Dickie, an award-winning journalist, writes about the challenges this predator faces in a world where humans have forced them into near extinction. Dickie travels across the world, looking into the history of bears, the various local mythos that surrounds the oft-villainized species, and what type of future they might have to look forward to (spoiler: the black bear is the only species that’s considered stable right now). Worrisome, heartbreaking, but never faltering — Eight Bears is sharp and clear-sighted.
What does an owl know?? With the help of scientists and researchers, author Jennifer Ackerman delves into the world of one of the more mysterious species of bird. What an Owl Knows is rich with new discoveries, examinations of the owl in culture and the superstitions surrounding them, and a look at the possible future of owls in a rapidly changing world (as well as what humans can and should be doing to ensure their survival). Wide-ranging and deeply researched — What an Owl Knows is a very satisfying look at an enigmatic bird.
It is a known fact that koalas are the cutest animal out there. They are cute and soft and silly — adorable. But, as this wide-ranging history of the species from author Danielle Clode shows, they are also so much more. Starting millenia ago and bringing the history and examination of the species up into the koala’s uncertain future, Clode shows us the evolutionary wonder of the species, which has proven resilient against threats of extinction (as well as the many threats posed by humans). Also, turns out that koalas have razor-sharp claws and strong teeth! So not quite as cute and cuddly as previously billed.