A Passion for Birds, Far and Near

THE RULING PASSION OF JOHN GOULD: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE BRITISH AUDUBON By Isabella Tree, Grove Weidenfeld, 248 pp., $22.95.

DANGEROUS BIRDS: A NATURALIST'S AVIARY By Janet Lembke, Lyons & Burford, 179 pp., $21.95.

BIRDS are dangerous? Yes, to settled habits of mind. These books explain why.

Charles Darwin, home in England from his voyage on the Beagle and planning to take up a career in the church, found his beliefs to be in danger when John Gould observed his collection of finches from the Galapagos Islands. Isabella Tree tells about the encounter in "The Ruling Passion of John Gould."

Gould, an expert taxonomist, was able to show Darwin the connection between the Galapagos birds and those on the mainland, as well as significant differences, which sparked Darwin to think about evolution. Apparently Gould never capitalized on this information himself. His interests lay elsewhere.

He made a marvelous success of publishing more than 40 bird books that included some 3,000 lithographs. A difficult man, his talent was for business deals, for inspiring colleagues and employees, for being first off the mark in competition. John James Audubon, his American rival, usually came in second place in the publishing game.

Gould's ruling passion was his love of birds. Dangerous it was at times, for he went off to Australia and covered a large portion of that largely unknown continent. He made friends with aborigines, who led him to his prizes of hitherto unknown birds. But others in his employ were not so fortunate in their encounters with that wilderness. Tree's biography is a clear-headed appraisal of Gould's achievements and failings.

Since Gould's day, the danger of birds has turned from that of the discovery of species to their care and conservation. Janet Lembke, author of "Dangerous Birds," a collection of essays on birds and birders, states some of these concerns succinctly in an essay by the same name. "The very smallness of the here today, gone tomorrow human mind may well be the largest problem faced by anyone who'd promote an agenda for conservation and respect for other life," she writes.

In the same essay, she relates dangers to neighbors and herself from backyard birds. How are robins and blue jays dangerous? Their presence evokes excessive reactions in her neighbors, who eat robins or shoot blue jays along the Neuse River in North Carolina, and she reacts to these depredations. In the end, she is made aware of some of her own follies by her efforts to come to grips with the problem: "Beware of robins and jays, mullet, shrimp, blue crabs, and even mosquitoes.... First and foremost, bewa re of self," she says.

Lembke delves into the problem of determining a bird's worth, how to shape "a viable response to every living thing that is not human," how to find a balance: "... some sapient equilibrium amid a protean swirl of animals and plants - not an easy feat of acrobatics, for it involves standing on a teetering board and juggling at least three slippery balls: aesthetics, ethics, and utility."

Some of these essays simply express her enjoyment of birds. But many, such as "The Musical Shuttle," a delightful essay about the mockingbird, explore various aspects of the problem from the viewpoint of the author as enthusiastic birdwatcher, classical scholar, and poet. The prose verges on purple at times but is redeemed by flashes of bittersweet orange.

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