Book Review: Behavior of North American Mammals

Behavior of North American Mammals (Peterson Reference Guides), by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com), 2011, 384 pages, $35.00

For the outdoorsman, an insight into ethology – the study of animal behavior – is one litmus test separating the amateur from the professional. To know that coyotes hunt ungulates (deer and elk), and to understand why coyotes target mule deer over white-tailed deer (mule deer are more likely to stand their ground, white-tailed deer are more likely to flee), is to experience two entirely different planes of the wild kingdom. So it was with eager arms that I peeled open the pages of Behavior of North American Mammals, the third title in a growing series of standalone reference books under the new Peterson Reference Guides series (see also Gulls of the Americas and Molt in North American Birds). Think of these as the companion volumes to your trusty field guides, offering information on the order of unabridged novels compared to the dust-jacket-blurb species accounts doled out in run of the mill guide books.

Each account for the 70-plus mammal species treated herein brings together a thorough and authoritative body of natural history into thoughtful, informative narrative about mammals’ daily lives and behaviors. For every species account, there are sections on daily/seasonal activity and movement, food and foraging, habitat and home range, communication, courtship and mating, development and dispersal of young, and intraspecific (same species) and interspecific (different species) interactions. The accounts are paired with top-notch wildlife photography and simple graphics illustrating specific behaviors, rounding out each entry with a wealth of wisdom.

Some of the things I learned?

  • Within the cat family, cougars (mountain lions) fall within the “small cats” – among other reasons, cougars can purr like small cats, but cannot roar like true big cats.
  • Cougars have a predilection for hunting porcupines.
  • Sea otter fur has 1,025,000 hairs per square inch.
  • Opossums are cannibalistic, and are resistant to rattlesnake venom.
  • Wolverines have been known to hunt caribou from trees, dropping on them from above.
  • Mexican free-tailed bats forage in the sky up to 1.9 miles high.
  • Before excavating a rodent burrow, badgers often plug the surrounding burrows with dirt, rocks, or debris to limit any escape routes.
  • Skunks roll toads in the dirt before eating them to remove any noxious toxins in the skin, and crack open large eggs by hurling them like a quarterback through their hind legs against a hard surface.
  • Coyotes have been observed hunting cooperatively with golden eagles, ravens, and badgers.
  • Dusky-footed woodrats stockpile California bay laurel leaves in their nests, and gnaw on them to release chemicals that repel ectoparasites.

The one shortcoming I noticed was the unexplained exclusion of select (or representative) species, like eared seals (sea lions, fur seals) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises), not to mention the one species whose absence first caught my attention – the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus). Understandably, not every North American mammal can fit between these covers; instead, many species are lumped together and treated representatively as familial allies, as in the bats and foxes. While I can understand excluding the ocean-bound cetaceans, worthy of a separate book in and of itself, among the North American pinnipeds the omission of the eared seals (family Otariidae) is noteworthy considering there is an account for seals (family Phocidae). Likewise, although it falls among the Procyonidae family with the raccoon, the ringtail was dismissed with only a passing remark (a note to the effect that the raccoon, also known familiarly as a ‘ringtail’, should not be confused with true ringtails). Some explanation why certain species made the cut while others didn’t would have gone a long way for the serious researcher.

That aside, Behavior of North American Mammals is truly a woodrat’s horde of natural history knowledge and a welcome addition to any reference library shelf.

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