BOOKS: Behavior of North American Mammals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2012:

Behavior of North American Mammals
by Mark Elbroch & Kurt Rinehart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (22 Berkeley St.,  Boston,  MA  02116), 2011.  374 pages,  hardcover.  $35.00.

“Behavior of North American Mammals,”  says the publisher’s flack sheet,  “is a guide not for identifying mammals,  but to understanding what they do,”  including “information on seasonal activity,  food and foraging,  home range and habitat, communication,  courtship,  and mating,  development and dispersal of young,  interactions with their own species,  and interactions with other species.”

Fifty-one chapters cover the mammals that wildlife watchers in North America are either most likely to see,  or most likely to want to see.  Most chapters discuss several closely related species, typically regional variants.

Though Behavior of North American Mammals is not a field guide,  each chapter includes most of the information found in field guides,  with additional notes that mostly put field guide data into context.  Behavior of North American Mammals might be used either to gain a more thorough understanding of an animal one hopes to observe in the wild,  or to confirm and clarify observations of whatever one has seen.

As with field guides,  few people are likely to sit down and read Behavior of North American Mammals straight through.  It is designed to be used more like an encyclopedia.

The referential rather than narrative approach is realistic in the present day,  when most people with an interest in wildlife are likely to have accumulated a great deal of information from electronic media before ever picking up a book to expand their knowledge further.

Yet this is not the only way to present the material that Behavior of North American Mammals offers.  Such ancestral works as Hornaday’s American Natural History (1904),  by Wildlife Conservation Society founder William T. Hornaday,  and Wild America (1955),  by pioneering field guide editor/illustrator Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher,  were meant to be read straight through.  Though somewhat obsolete in some of their information content,  these narrative texts remain engrossing.

Ironically,  Hornaday and Peterson espoused and led the trend toward nature books which emphasized fact over anecdote,  away from story-telling that often emphasized the atypical,  rather than normal animal behavior,  and came to be known as “nature-faking.”  But Hornaday and Peterson remembered the value of story-telling itself, largely discarded by later authors of nature reference works.

Behavior of North American Mammals represents a halfway step back toward references that enable users to understand the stories that animals themselves tell,  rather than just reciting biological data.

Having shelves sagging with wildlife references,  to which I refer much less often than to narratives by informed observers such as Farley Mowat and Hope Ryden,  I am inclined to believe that most of us who wonder “What is that animal doing?” might still spend more time with a narrative giving some sense of the animal’s personality, given the choice,  than with an objectively written summary of facts.

Thirty-six chapters of Behavior of North American Mammals discuss species I have watched in the wild.  Most of the remaining chapters cover animals I have seen often in captivity.

For about three months I kept Behavior of North American Mammals within reach as I worked,  comparing day-to-day observations of Pacific Northwest species with those of authors Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart.

I did not observe much,  if anything,  that Elbroch and Rinehart do not explain.  I will be shelving Behavior of North American Mammals alongside the three most used wildlife references in my collection:  American Wildlife & Plants:  A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits,  by Alexander C. Martin,  Herbert S. Zim,  and Arnold L. Nelson (1951);   Animal Tracks,  by Olaus J. Murie (1954);    and Guide des Mammifres Terrestres du Quebec,  de l’Ontario,  et des Maritimes,  by Louise Beaudin and Michel Quintin (1983),  which is unique in that Quintin personally photographed in the wild every species included,  even when he had to hike hundreds of miles inside the Arctic Circle to do it.

Behavior of North American Mammals does not include as much detail as each of these individual works about what animals eat,  or their tracks,  or include range maps and strikingly original photos, but it does connect the more specialized information in my other favorite wildlife references into a comprehensive introduction to each listed species.        —MC

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