Tales of fur and feathers

IF the children you know are hooked on TV, then you may think nature programs provide a good alternative to cartoons. But can you get the kids to read? Carolrhoda Nature Watch Books of Minneapolis may be able to offer some help. Three recent books in the series deal with wild horses, red foxes, and trumpeter swans, using magnificent photographs as riveting as TV film. The life cycles of the animals are related in almost cinematic form, using the pictures to fully complement fact-filled texts and highlighting the natural history vocabulary. Words of special interest are printed in boldface, defined, and included in a glossary at the back of each book -- an excellent idea.

Mustangs: Wild Horses of the American West, by Jay Featherly, most successfully integrates text and illustration, giving a ``you are there'' impression. It would be a good follow-up and review of material in recent TV shows on wild horses. It's fun to see what horses will do when left completely to their own devices.

On the Trail of the Fox, by Claudia Schneiper with photographs by Felix Labbardt, is translated and adapted from the original German-Swiss book. A few of the pictures are of the European countryside, but the rest apply equally well to the North American range of the red fox. If you should happen to catch a glimpse of a fox skulking in your suburban shrubbery, which seems to be happening here and there in the United States and in Great Britain, you will be able to learn what else it does for a living and gain some respect for it. There is an index and a glossary.

Ko-Hoh: The Call of the Trumpeter Swan, by Jay Featherly, needs a little more explanation of what is going on in the pictures than is given in the text, although it is otherwise on a par with ``Mustangs.'' Both books include range maps, which should help readers to understand where these animals are on the continent at various times of the year. ``Ko-Hoh'' explains what a swan's life is like when it is not menaced by human beings, and the necessity to protect the birds.

All three books present important concepts for nature study, are fact-stuffed, and are very attractive. Although the publisher aims them at ages 7 to 10, probably only older or more precocious children will breeze through the reading. There is little attempt to indicate the relationship between an animal's physical structure and its behavior, which is too bad. For instance, more information than is given about feathers would help to explain why swans must preen, why they molt, how they fly, and so on. The book on foxes comes off best on this score, with explanations of the functions of teeth, fur, and sense of smell that enable the fox to do what it does.

Peeping in the Shells: A Whooping Crane Is Hatched, by Faith McNulty, with illustrations by Irene Brady (Harper & Row, $10.95), takes quite a different tack from the Carolrhoda books. The illustrations here are drawings, rather than photographs, and the text is an account of a researcher's courting of a whooping crane and the subsequent incubation and hatching of the egg in the effort to encourage survival of the threatened species. The story is fascinating, but it may be too clinical for some readers and could confuse others who are not yet sure how animals propagate. Children ready for it will glimpse the sometimes unorthodox ways and satisfactions of scientific research and wildlife conservation.

An even better story, in some ways, is Jean Craighead George's One Day in the Prairie, with drawings by Bob Marshall (Thomas Y. Crowell, $11.95). This story has a plot, an exciting climax, fine narration, and a wonderful sense of the interrelatedness of everything on the prairie, from animals and grasses to weather and humans. And it has both index and bibliography, making it perhaps more valuable than the other books mentioned for adults who wish to encourage children to explore further -- or to do so themselves.

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