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Welcome to the Jungle

A review by Rob Fergus

The New Neotropical Companion, by John Kricher

Princeton University Press, 2017

432 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14727 or Amazon.com

The American tropics host some of the world’s most beautiful and charismatic birds.  But birding there can be tough. Dazzling looks at radiant displays of iridescence may come only after long birdless drives on winding mountain roads or exhausting treks across muddy and difficult terrain. Poorly heard calls and briefly glimpsed shadows tantalize birders unfamiliar with new biomes and hundreds of new bird species. Birding in the Neotropics is by turns breathtaking, exhilarating, bewildering, challenging, and boring. This new introduction to the region and its ecology by John Kricher, professor of biology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, will help natural history enthusiasts better understand and appreciate what they can expect to experience there.  

The New Neotopical Companion is the third and much expanded iteration of Kricher’s now familiar handbook. What started out as “the little green book” that travelers could easily pack on a trip has now become a large, heavy tome perhaps best appreciated at home, before or after the journey. The earlier versions—subtitled “An Introduction to the Animals, Plants, and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics”—have grown into a compendium of information with the even more ambitious intention “to teach you how to spot patterns, to observe, to see, and to understand a tropical ecosystem as an ecologist does” and to do so in a “user-friendly and generalized treatment.“ Kricher describes his offering as “a general book for nonacademically focused readers and travelers… written in a reader-friendly, colloquial style that [the author has] attempted to keep relatively free of technical jargon and embedded annotations and citations.” Such a task is not easy to pull off, and The New Neotropical Companion is an apt reflection of its alternately exhilarating and challenging subject. The strengths and weaknesses of this work, more than just reflecting Kricher’s skill as an author, bring into focus the opportunities and difficulties inherent in natural history publishing in the early twenty-first century.

A major selling point for this latest Companion is the addition of 782 full-color photographs of plants, animals, and tropical landscapes, allowing readers to see—and not just read about—the wonders of the tropics. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these mostly well-reproduced photos are equivalent to a full visual encyclopedia of the region’s highlights, including 331 photos of over 250 bird species. Perhaps the most enjoyable way to experience this book is to merely flip through the pages, admiring the photos and reading the brief captions.  There is much to enjoy, including close-ups of many species that are otherwise difficult to see well (or at all) in person.  

But the allure of digital photography can be something of a trap for natural history authors and publishers, as well as an obstacle to true understanding in the reader. We still need the words, if not necessarily a thousand for each picture, to help us really understand what we are seeing. More than ever, authors need to provide those words, publishers need to edit them, and readers need to take the time to fully read and comprehend them. None of this is easy—like climbing a muddy mountain in the dark to see a cock-of-the-rock lek at dawn.

In this case, guiding us on our introductory hike through the New World tropics are actually two companions. One, whom I will call Our Buddy John, is the colloquial and informal guide we would all love to hang out with in the field. The other is Professor Kricher, who really wants to take us to the next level of ecological understanding, but at times struggles to make complex concepts comprehensible to his nonacademic audience.  Both companions have their merits, and while sometimes the text switches back and forth between the two in a jarring fashion, it is worth listening to what both have to say, and to put in the time to understand what Professor Kricher is trying to convey. But that takes more work than merely ogling photos. Professor Kricher can help, but it is up to the reader to climb this particular mountain.

The bulk of The New Neotropical Companion is organized into 18 chapters addressing five major topics. Our tour begins with an introduction to the Neotropics and an explanation of the region’s physical geography. There is a lot of important ground to cover here, and it can be a steep climb.  For readers accustomed to beautiful infographics, better maps and figures could have aided the ascent. For instance, a map might better help geographically challenged Americans visualize the region, its geographical extent outlined here as from Central Mexico south through much of South America (excluding that continent’s temperate southern cone). Readers are never given that overall map, and the seven maps we do see are mostly repurposed from other publications; the worst of them are inscrutable.  

Similarly, the ten explanatory figures scattered throughout the introductory text are mostly taken from more technical publications. They are often not up to current design standards, and will be a challenge for many nonacademic readers to appreciate and understand. The journey through the text would be greatly eased by additional, professionally designed infographics intended for a lay readership. It is fascinating, for example, how the Earth’s rotation influences the climate and weather patterns that create tropical ecosystems, but this is difficult to understand from the figures we are given.

A glossary might also help the reader keep up better with Professor Kricher. Some of the vocabulary and concepts in this book may sail over the heads of non-specialists. Well-educated birders may find the jargon and concepts easier to handle, but as of 2015, a general readership in the United States consists of the 88 percent of adults who have graduated from high school or received their GED, 59 percent who have attended some college, and only 33 percent who have a college degree.  A glossary, like handrails on a muddy mountain trail, can help most of these general readers make the ascent to higher understanding.

In spite of these shortcomings, The New Neotropical Companion provides a valuable cognitive map outlining the lay of the land and the marvels to be sampled as Our Buddy John and Professor Kricher lead us on our jungle adventure. Readers put off by poor infographics or specialized vocabulary should look for online tools to help them get through any challenging spots in this introduction or elsewhere in the text.

After the geography lesson, our guides introduce us to rain forest plants, forest dynamics, finding animals in the jungle, soils and chemical cycles, and forest disturbance.  While the information here is less confusing than the physical geography chapter, the ordering of the subjects sometimes obscures how topics relate to each other, so now instead of getting lost in the weeds of jargon, we are at risk of going a little astray in the larger forest of ideas.  A more logical arrangement might have led from tropical soils to plants and forest dynamics and disturbances. The section on finding animals seems out of place here—which is too bad, because it features the companionable and colloquial Our Buddy John at his best, taking us on a guided nature walk in Panama and offering a top-ten list of tips for getting the most out of such a walk and a primer on trail etiquette for participants.  

The next ninety pages feature Professor Kricher diving into what is clearly his passion—evolutionary theory and ecology. The explanations here are full of engaging examples drawn from the most recent studies in evolutionary ecology, such as speciation among tropical flycatchers and bats, various hypotheses about species diversity, and the evolution of ecological interactions between various animals and plants, including mutualism and coevolution.  

After these field lectures, Our Buddy John and Professor Kricher join forces to lead us through a series of tropical biomes—rivers, mountains, savannas, and dry forests.  Lavishly illustrated with photos, these excursions are often more like jaunts than tough climbs. I would like to have seen coverage of additional areas in this section, and perhaps this is the time to note that while the Caribbean islands are included in the geographical definition of the Neotropics, they are notably absent in this survey of biomes, and only rarely and obliquely mentioned elsewhere in the text.  

The next hundred pages feature an encyclopedic treatment of Neotropical animals, starting with the major bird families and followed by everything else from monkeys to arthropods.  Frustratingly for birders, the bird entries deviate from taxonomic order, with birds of prey and Neotropical migrants discussed after all the others. The accounts are well done, though necessarily brief—for example, the section tackling 374 parrot species spans three and a quarter pages, roughly two pages of photos (eleven photos—including three of Hyacinth Macaws and two of Scarlet Macaws) and one and a quarter page of text. The treatment is visually stunning, though perhaps somewhat verbally stunted. Although photos of two todies accompany an earlier passage in the text about evolution, the neglect of the Caribbean continues in this section; there is no mention here or elsewhere of the other six endemic Caribbean bird families, which include the Palmchat, Cuban warblers, chat-tanagers, and spindalises. 

For over a hundred years, authors and publishers have struggled to incorporate audio recordings into print publications, and we are still searching for the best way to include multimedia materials. In this case, Professor Kricher advises readers to search out YouTube videos of lekking manakins and of displaying Screaming Pihas, cotingas, and Bearded Bellbirds. These recommendations are useful, but they raise the important question of how proprietary or public online media could be better integrated to expand upon the written word. Recent textbooks often feature QR codes linked to streaming instructional videos. Mobile apps and ebooks featuring multimedia content are increasingly common, challenging the reading space once exclusively occupied by print.  In an increasingly audiovisual culture, we have a long way to go to satisfy an audience of both readers and viewers.

After hundreds of beautiful shots of birds and other animals, our journey wraps up with a look at tropical human ecology and the future of the Neotropics. This thought-provoking section touches on several important environmental concerns, including subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture vs. corporate commercial farming, but the treatment is somewhat cursory, and does not fully address the vast diversity of cultures and cultural ecologies in Central and South America.  

In a final “but that’s not all” section, travelers are warned about the hazards posed by mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, botflies, sand flies, bees, and wasps; venomous snakes are treated earlier in the text. It is somewhat puzzling that nowhere are we told about such dangerous tropical plants as the manchineel tree, Hippomane mancinella, which can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions serious enough to cut short a trip.

This guided tour with Our Buddy John and Professor Kricher is at times bumpy and confusing, just like a real Neotropical bird trip. And just like a real Neotropical trip, there are hundreds of visual and intellectual delights to relish, making the journey well worth taking for anyone preparing for their first birding adventure in the region or those hoping to better appreciate what they may already have tasted on previous visits.

– Rob Fergus has a Ph.D. in urban bird conservation from the University of Texas at Austin and is the former Executive Director of the Travis Audubon Society and Senior Scientist for Urban Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society. He currently birds full time in Delaware County, Pennsylvaina, while teaching geography courses at Rowan University and at Northampton Community College.

Recommended citation:

Fergus, R. 2018.  Welcome to the Jungle [a review of The New Neotropical Companion, by John Kricher]. Birding 50 (6): 66-67.

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