Birds & Birding

A Birder’s Bookshelf: Essentials for the Well-read Avian Enthusiast

Bird counters from the Audubon Society at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Reserve. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Kevin Arnold)

I’ve never met a field guide that I didn’t like.

I have three separate volumes on shorebird identification, even though my short attention span and lack of a spotting scope renders the whole lot of them exceptionally irritating. I have guides to the birds of Southern Africa, India, and Brazil … three lovely places that I’ve never been. Guides on rare birds and warblers, on bird behavior and hawks in flight … the list goes on.

But as a lifelong bibliophile and voracious reader, I know that there should be more to a birding library than field guides. Like any long-lived and healthy subculture, birding has its own rich literary canon to explore.

So read on for our literary list of essential reading for the bird-brained bibliophile, and leave your own suggestions in the comments.

  1. The first non-field guide book on your shelf should be this one. While it may have “Field Guide” in the title, Kaufman’s book is a guide on how to bird well. Birding is not so much about memorizing what every species looks like, but learning how and what to pay attention to when you’re looking at birds.

    Does the bird perch upright or at an angle? Is it foraging through the canopy or scratching in the undergrowth? How far does its tail extend beyond its wingtips? How does it hold its wings in flight? Are its wing beats slow and steady, or frantic and hurried?

    Quickly registering all of these details — and more — are key to successfully identifying birds when the lighting is poor, you’re fumbling with your binoculars, or when you’re on the highway blazing by raptors at 70 mph. That’s why Kaufman’s guide is a fantastic resource for both new birders looking to up their game and veteran experts wanting a quick refresher.

  2. I’m often asked to recommend “popular science books” to family and friends who just don’t quite know where to start. And the beautifully written The Beak of the Finch is always the first thing I suggest.

    Weiner follows the careers of two Princeton University biologists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, as they spend two decades banding, measuring, and watching Darwin’s finches on an inhabited Galapagos Island. The finches of Daphne Major evolve so rapidly that the Grants are able to observe evolution unfold in their lifetimes, something possible in few other places on earth.

    Aside from the significance of the science, Weiner’s compact, Pulitzer-winning book combines exceptional journalism with groundbreaking science in a nearly mythical landscape. (Also, birds.) It just doesn’t get any better.

  3. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if birding culture is just like that Steve Martin movie … Let’s just say I’d be able to fund my own Big Year.

    Whether you love or hate the film, Mark Obmascik’s original volume is well worth a read. Unsurprisingly, the narrative on the page is more complex than what was translated to the screen. It’s also darker, adding a double-meaning to the subtitle description of “fowl obsession.” To undertake a Big Year really does require an obsession with birds, but as readers will learn that obsession is far from healthy.

    But that’s not to say that there’s no humor in this book: lovers of the film version (of which I count myself one) will still be laughing in delight (and sympathy) along the way.

  4. The next time you watch a robin singing outside your window … thank Australia.

    Tim Low’s new, science-packed volume explores how recent genetic studies have revealed that three of the world’s major bird families — parrots, pigeons and passerines (songbirds) —  actually evolved in Australia and radiated outwards to the rest of the planet.

    But there’s more to Australian avifauna than their role as the evolutionary cradle for birdlife, and Low delves into the weird and wonderful world of Aussie birds with the ease that comes with decades spent in the field. Readers will learn why Australia is the only continent where nectar-feeding birds are the dominant pollinators, why many of its species — like pedestrian-terrorizing magpies — are so violent, and what lyrebirds can teach us about ancient passerines.

    Low has a penchant for odd sentence structures — at least to my editorial eye — but the book is fascinating nonetheless. You’ll never look at a songbird the same way again.

  5. Birding Americana at its finest. Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway is the birder’s version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, with a healthy portion of 1970s American bildungsroman.

    A 16-year-old Kaufman drops out of high school to hitchhike across North America in search of birds. He funds his wanderlust with itinerant labor and living cheaply, sometimes sleeping under bridges and going hungry. (And, in one memorable moment, eating cat food.)

    But what started as yet another Big Year quest changed, as many of them do, with Kaufman’s realization that his monomania had consumed and hijacked his love of birds. Driven by momentum he birds on, discovering (or perhaps re-discovering) that a life filled with birds is not defined by one’s life list.

  6. Feathers and flight are what define birds. Now yes, the ratites and penguins are absolutely awesome. But if you’re trying to explain birds to a 5-year-old, you’re going to go with “things that fly and have feathers.” (A and throw in a reference to dinosaurs for good measure.)

    But there’s more to feathers than even a birder ever imagined. In Feathers, Thor Hanson covers feathers in their entirety: from their early evolution, to their role in history and culture, and even into modern-day nanotechnology and engineering.

    How and why did evolution move from scales to slightly fuzzy dinosaurs to rump-shaking birds of paradise? What do feather-bedecked Vegas showgirls teach us about the tradeoffs between display and function? And what can birds teach the aviation industry about efficient wing design?

    The answers to these questions, and just about everything you’ve ever wondered about feathers, lies ahead.

  7. Strycker’s volume plays on the differences and surprising similarities between bird and human behavior. The volume is comprised of 13 essays, each centered on a specific bird family or species. Owls, hummingbirds, Turkey Vultures, starlings, corvids and albatross all take center stage in a book that is fast-moving but packed full of good stories.

    Stryker’s book isn’t thematically groundbreaking, but it hardly matters. He’s a talented storyteller, and his ability to weave together odd facts and keen personal observations in beautiful prose makes The Things With Feathers a wonderful read.

    And if you’re thinking that the author’s name sounds familiar, you’re right. In 2015, Strycker broke the World Big Year record … traveling across 41 countries and seven continents to see a staggering 6,042 species of birds. (Even more incredibly, that record didn’t last more than a year.) Keep your eye out for Strycker’s next book about his World Big Year experience.

  8. It’s in migration that flight is at its most incredible.

    A finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, Living on the Wind covers miraculous feats of migration across the globe, from tiny warblers winging their way across the Gulf of Mexico to the unbelievable bar-tailed godwits, which ride the winds from Alaska to New Zealand across 11,000 kilometers of ocean in a single, non-stop flight. He explores why different species migrate, what triggers their movements, and how this global web of bird movement is irreparably torn by habitat loss, hunting, and other threats.

    The only downside to Weidensaul’s volume is that the science of bird migration has advanced considerably in the two decades since publication. Even so, it’s a classic and wonderful read for all birders.

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative fieldwork and research conducted by Conservancy’s scientists around the world. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine has battled swarms of mosquitos, steep trails, and the wilds of the Papua New Guinea rainforest — all for a good story. When not writing about conservation science, she enjoys having far-flung adventures, long hikes, and waking up at dawn to bird. More from Justine

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18 comments

  1. Leonard Nathan’s “Diary of a Left-handed Birdwatcher”! Beautifully written, wry, funny, he gets at the emotional hook of the “epiphany” of finding birds… And anyone with a nemesis bird will find a kindred spirit.

  2. Really? You couldn’t think of at least one female author? Like Julie Zickefoose, Laura Erickson, Jennifer Ackerman, Lynn Barber?

    Apparently men can only write worthwhile books.

  3. What the hell? Where are all of the great female avian writers represented? Ever hear of any? Rachel Carson? Julie Zickefoose? Frances Hamerstrom? Phoebe Snetsinger? And there are many more! These “guys” are great but wow ? Two thumbs down on your lack of fair representation. Shame on you for not representing women in your article. Booooooo.

  4. These are certainly some great suggestions Justine, although these authors all belong to the white male demographic (as do I). Now more than ever, I feel it’s important that those with an interest in understanding birds and developing a conservation ethic hear from other voices as well, and in that light I’d suggest these works:

    Refuge – Terry Tempest Williams
    Birding on Borrowed Time – Phoebe Snetsinger
    The Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places – Dudley Edmondson
    Rachel Carson – Silent Spring
    H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

  5. The Genius of Birds:
    – Jennifer Ackerman

    Learn just how intelligent birds are. Great book.

  6. Flying Dinosaurs by John Pickrell. It will change the way you think of birds.

  7. The big twitch Sean Dooley. In the top 10 of all books for me.

    Also, The tribe. can’t think of the author’s Name.

  8. Great list! I would add WV author Katie Fallon: Vulture, the private life of an unloved bird, and Cerulean Blues. Wonderful writing, lots of natural history, conservation, and birds!

  9. Red-tailes in Love by Marie Winn and The Falconer of Central Park by Donald Knowledge. Both good NYC/Central Park birding tales.

  10. “To See Every Bird on Earth”. I forget the author. Biography of one man’s quest, and how his personal history drives his somewhat obsessive behavior.

  11. All great books for bird-loving readers. Another favorite of mine is Luke Dempsey’s A Supremely Bad Idea.

  12. Buller’s birds of New Zealand – At nearly 150 years old some of the ecology is a bit dated but the colour plates remain some of the best illustrations of NZ birds. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/bullers-birds
    Buller is also infamous for simultaneously saving the huia for science while accelerating their extinction but if movies are allowed then Hunt for the Wilderpeople based on Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, has to feature for resurrecting the huia.
    Dawn Chorus – The legendary voyage to New Zealand of Aesop, the fabled teller of fables
    written and illustrated By Ray Ching (for the illustrations) http://artisgallery.co.nz/duplicator-02/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/A-Concert-for-Aesop1.jpg
    Beak of the Moon by Phillip Temple

  13. Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (my all-time favorite)
    The Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena by Louis J. Halle
    Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher
    The Ecology of Bird Communities by John Wiens
    Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Christopher Cokinos
    Blackbirds of the Americas by Gordon Orians and Tony Angell

  14. I’m currently reading “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. Her prose is delicious and she goes into great detail on Goshawks.

    Also, I just finished Neil Hayward’s “Lost Among the Birds,” which is also a beautifully written memoir of his “accidental” Big Year. I was sad when it ended–I just didn’t want the book to end.

    And while there are a couple of mentions of Phoebe Snetsinger and her book, I highly recommend, “Life List,” the biography of her life written with care by Olivia Gentile–a well-research book.