NATURE BOOKS - SOUTH AFRICA
Books for Nature Lovers
Remarkable Birds of South Africa
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Review By: James Clarke - The Star 26 April 201

An old friend, Dr Peter le Sueur Milstein, one of this country's most eminent natural scientists, has produced an unusual book on South African birds. No, not another field guide of which we have, I suspect, more than any other country. 

Remarkable Birds of South Africa (Briza Publications) is written for those who have become swept up by "birding" but who'd like to know a little more about bird evolution and the different "orders" of birds such as the order Corachiiformes (Sub: this is correct selling). This order is divided into families containing our more colourful birds: the rollers, kingfishers and bee-eaters. And there's the order Columbiformes which includes pigeons and doves - and the dodo. 

There are dozens of short chatty chapters each filled with facts with which to regale ones fellow birders. 

He tells for instance of that spectacular summer visitor, the white stork (the one that brings the babies) and how it is declining in Europe where it rears its young in nests sometimes centuries old. Sadly many nests have been empty for years. One was in use from 1549 to 1930. 

Peter sharply criticises those who recently and quite arbitrarily changed the "official" names of South African birds, the dikkop becoming the thick-knee and Heuglin's robin becoming the white-browed robin-chat. The European swallow is now the barn swallow. 

The "toppie" whose name since the century before last has been the black-eyed bulbul is now the dark-capped bulbul. 

The terrestrial bulbul is now the brownbul while the five species of bulbuls with yellow colouring are now called greenbuls. 

Peter does not go too deep into bird song but I wish somebody would because I am intrigued by the various interpretations of bird calls offered in field guides. 

The latest Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa - the most authoritative of bird books but which has aggravatingly rearranged the order of birds - says the black-eyed bulbul goes, "quick-chop-to quick". Yet the previous edition said it went, "klip, klop, kollop" and the edition before that said it went, "Come back to Calcutta". 

Newman's Birds of Southern Africa says it goes "Wake up, Gregory!" 

Sasol Birds of Southern Africa says it goes, "cheloop cheep choop". I think the toppie says, seriously, "Wipe your feet Timothy!" 

Another old friend and scientist, Professor Mike Bruton, the ichthyologist whom I've known since he was a PhD student working on Lake Sibaya in Zululand, has also just produced a fascinating book - Great South African Inventions (Cambridge University Press) . 

Mike is the South Africa equivalent of Stephen J Gould who did so much to popularise science in the US. Mike is, the world authority on the coelacanth, operates in Africa and the Middle East arranging science exhibitions and his book gives an intriguing and colourful account of African inventiveness going back to the Stone Age. 

The world's earliest signs of man's controlled use of fire - a development that eventually enabled him to travel to the Moon - has been found in the Cradle of Humankind. Tools fashioned from stone have been found here millennia ahead of anywhere else on earth. 

Bruton's South African Inventions is richly illustrated and beautifully designed and pulls together dozens of recent South African inventions now used worldwide. 

The book is written with young readers in mind and is liberally scattered with illustrations and imaginatively presented titbits of information and thought-provoking questions. 

Apart from Pratley's Putty, the dolos (that protects our coastline), the wind-up radio, the Sheffel bogie that revolutionised train technology, Percy Amoils' cryoprobe that revolutionised eye surgery and the Kreep Krauly there are hosts of inventions that have improved mining, industry and commerce. Mike catalogues them all. 


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