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Manitobans take flight in naturalists volume

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There is a significant Manitoba connection among the 22 North American naturalists profiled in this welcome book, one that shows, among other things, some of the links between one generation of naturalists and the next.

More Than Birds, by San Francisco-based former Winnipegger Val Shushkewich, also illustrates how ornithology has evolved over time.

In a section titled Thirst for Knowledge, she details the life of Hans Albert Hochbaum (1911-1988).

He first came to the Delta Waterfowl Research Station at Delta Marsh on Lake Manitoba in 1938. He later became its research director, a position he held until his retirement in 1970.

"Hochbaum spent a lifetime studying waterfowl and describing their actions in books and drawings," writes Shushkewich, whose previous book was The Real Winnie: A One-of-a-Kind Bear.

Shushkewich also devotes a chapter devoted to well-known Winnipeg ornithologist Robert W. Nero, whom she extols as having "a unique blending of scientific field study of unsurpassed excellence, with the eloquence and poetic expression of what this study means."

Nero’s extensive field studies of the life histories of the great grey owl (Manitoba’s official bird) and the red-winged blackbird were published as The Great Grey Owl: Phantom of the Northern Forest (1980) and Redwings (1984) by the Smithsonian Institution.

"Nero’s enthusiasm and passion for natural history studies is infectious and is passed on to everyone he encounters personally, as well as through his writing and poetry," writes Shushkewich.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, much of North America was a great unknown, and there was an emphasis on documenting the species and conditions of this vast new world.

"There was a great deal of drive and activity among the many naturalists who were in the process of describing and cataloguing the species that exist on the continent," she points out.

Some of the pioneers Shushkewich writes about include Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Robert Ridgway (1850-1929).

These early naturalists saw Eskimo curlews, Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons in abundance.

Now, due to overhunting and human-made changes in the landscape, the passenger pigeon is extinct and the Eskimo curlew nearly so, Shushkewich observes.

Each of the chapters can be considered separately or the book can be taken as a whole, with, as the author says, the common thread being the passion these individuals have for studying nature, and the connections between them.

The book focuses on the involvement of these people in advancing bird studies, although many of them have diverse interests in natural history. All of them are exceptional observers of the natural world and detect things to which most other people remain oblivious.

"They are all also excellent communicators and describers of what they have observed," says Shushkewich.

"They are great success stories and show what good people can achieve when they pursue their passion."

This serviceable book might inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Martin Zeilig is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

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