Birdy Literature

It’s getting to be winter birding season here in southern Ontario, which means the gulls are active, the ducks are looking resplendent, the owls are playing hard-to-get, solitary, vicious Northern Shrikes lurk in the tops of trees, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are due to arrive any day, and I’m already pining for my Bohemian Waxwing of the season. It also means that with the colder weather, I’m spending less time outside and catching up on my bird-related reading. Since the holidays are around the corner, I thought I’d post about some of my favorite bird books.

I recently had the occasion to reread Kenn Kaufman’s brilliant Kingbird Highway. I came across the book when I first started birding three years ago, and gulped it down as I raced alongside the author to the finish line: would he win his Big Year? On my second reading, I had a chance to savor the book, and time worked in my favor. I’ve improved a lot as a birder in the past three years (I started out with one bird on my list: a pigeon; one could really only improve from there), and not only are most of the birds Kaufman mentions familiar to me, but the thrill of birding, listing, and, most of all, learning to look closely is now a part of my life. This time, I could imagine myself participating in his incredible adventure, and I could close my eyes and see many of the birds he wrote about. A wonderful book and an indispensable part of any birder’s bookshelf.

See? Winter birding isn't all about the gulls. It's also about reading! Photo from here.

See? Winter birding isn’t all about the gulls. It’s also about reading! Photo from here.

Olivia Gentile’s biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, Life List, is a thrilling portrait of one of the most fascinating birders of the 20th century. Snetsinger had over 8300 birds on her life list – a world-record holder of her time. But the book does more than recount the story of a legendary birder; it’s also a riveting story of life-threatening obsession, extraordinary resilience, a life dedicated to the pursuit of avian knowledge, and a fascinating historical account of what it meant to be a scientifically precocious woman who was trapped in the role of a housewife in the 50s and 60s. Gentile’s biography is a beautiful companion piece to Snetsinger’s own autobiography, Birding on Borrowed Time, and helps fill in many of the blanks, which the latter deliberately omits.

Richard Crossley’s ID Guide to Eastern Birds and the brand new ID Guide to Raptors doesn’t disappoint. More coffee-table books than field guide, I find myself riveted by the photos. I consult the books after every birding outing, to revisit every species I’ve seen. Highly recommended (but not in lieu of a field guide). OK, I’ll be honest: Crossley has made me rethink raptors completely. I’m now hooked.

Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense delves into the complicated reality of what’s it’s like to really be a bird. The author tackles the way birds perceive and use their senses (the usual five plus emotions and birds’ magnetic sense). I’m making my way through the book and learning new things on every page.

Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind is an indispensable primer on bird migration. Written in an accessible tone, with plenty of anecdotes, the book makes us rethink the very concept of migration. More than anything, Weidensaul’s enthusiasm for birds, and his sheer belief in the magic of avian creatures is contagious. The book also forces us to come to terms with critical conservation issues and the fragile reality of migratory birds today.

And, on the more literary front, Canada’s very own Don McKay happens to be one of the most evocative and brilliant nature poets around. An avid birder himself, many of McKay’s poems shed new light on bird song and flight. I recommend the following collections: Paradoxides, Another Gravity, and Apparatus. He’ll change the way you look at birds!

Have any favorites you want to add? Let me know in the comments!

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