The best books on birds and life

Elizabeth Gehrman Author Of Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction
By Elizabeth Gehrman

Who am I?

I never had a particular interest in birds until I heard about David Wingate and the cahow; I’m just a reporter who was smitten by a compelling story. I often write about science and the environment, as well as travel and other topics, for publications including the Boston Globe, Archaeology, and Harvard Medicine, and while working on Rare Birds I got hooked on these extraordinary creatures and the iconoclastic obsessives who have become their stewards in the Anthropocene era. You don’t have to care about birds to love their stories — but in the end, you will.

I wrote...

Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction

By Elizabeth Gehrman,

Book cover of Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction

What is my book about?

Rare Birds is a tale of obsession, of hope, of fighting for redemption against incredible odds. For more than 300 years the cahow, or Bermuda petrel, was believed extinct, but by the early 1900s, tantalizing hints of the birds’ continued existence began to emerge, and in 1951, two naturalists mounted a last-ditch effort to find them, bringing 15-year-old David Wingate along for the ride. When the stunned scientists pulled a blinking, docile cahow from deep within a rocky cliffside, it made headlines around the world—and showed Wingate what he was put on Earth to do.
Starting with just seven nesting pairs of the birds, Wingate devoted his life to giving the cahows the chance they needed in their centuries-long struggle for survival, battling hurricanes, invasive species, DDT, the American military, and personal tragedy along the way. It took six decades of ardent dedication, but Wingate has seen his dream fulfilled as the birds have reached the 100-pair mark and returned to Nonsuch, an island habitat he hand-restored for them, plant by plant, in anticipation of this day. His story is an inspiring celebration of the resilience of nature, the power of persistence, and the value of going your own way.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Why Peacocks?: An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World's Most Magnificent Bird

Why did I love this book?

GQ writer Flynn and his wife and two kids are minding their own business on their surburban Durham “faux farm” when a friend calls to ask if they want to add a peacock to the two chickens that wander their yard. They end up with three of the kaleidoscopic birds, and Flynn’s chronicle of the family’s first year with Carl, Ethel, and Mr. Pickle takes readers on an implausibly relatable journey from the bird’s place in history, culture, and myth through its evolutionary biology and breeding habits to its endangered status in the wild, offering sardonically hilarious and harrowingly poignant life lessons along the way.

By Sean Flynn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Peacocks? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An acclaimed journalist seeks to understand the mysterious allure of peacocks-and in the process discovers unexpected and valuable life lessons.

When Sean Flynn's neighbor in North Carolina texted "Any chance you guys want a peacock? No kidding!" he stared bewilderedly at his phone. He had never considered whether he wanted a peacock. But as an award-winning magazine writer, this kind of mystery intrigued him. So he, his wife, and their two young sons became the owners of not one but three charming yet fickle birds: Carl, Ethel, and Mr. Pickle.

In Why Peacocks?, Flynn chronicles his hilarious and heartwarming first…

Book cover of The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession

Why did I love this book?

If you saw the disappointing-at-best 2011 film based very loosely on this book, don’t let it color your opinion; if you haven’t seen it, buy the book instead. It follows three birders as they traverse North America during 1998’s “big year,” an informal, self-reported 365-day competition in which bird-spotting junkies chase down as many species as they can. It’s an engrossing peek into a fascinating, quirky subculture that will sweep you along on an irresistible armchair roadtrip-with-a-purpose.

By Mark Obmascik,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Big Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Each year, hundreds of people set out across North America determined to set a new record in a spectacularly competitive event. Is it tennis? Golf? Racing? Poker perhaps? No, it's bird-watching, and a contest known as the Big Year - a grand, gruelling, expensive (and occasionally vicious) 365-day marathon to identify the most species.
THE BIG YEAR is the rollicking chronicle of the 275,000-mile odyssey of three unlikely adventurers who take their bird-watching so seriously it nearly kills them. From Texas in pursuit of the Rufus-capped Warbler to British Columbia in search of Xantus' Hummingbird, these obsessive enthusiasts brave roasting…

Book cover of The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human

Why did I love this book?

Packing a huge amount of research onto every page, Strycker, who in his 2015 big year logged a record-setting 6,042 bird species, engagingly analyzes the biology and behavior of penguins, magpies, hummingbirds, albatrosses, and more to explore how the lives of birds are simultaneously incredibly alien to and indelibly intertwined with those of humans in activities and emotions as diverse as altruism, dancing, seduction, and fear. His insights, delivered with a light touch, may well change the worldview of those who think that humans are somehow more worthy than any other animal on the planet.

By Noah Strycker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Thing with Feathers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"[Strycker] thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet." -- Wall Street Journal

An entertaining and profound look at the lives of birds, illuminating their surprising world—and deep connection with humanity.
Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As we learn more about the secrets of bird life, we are unlocking fascinating insights into memory, relationships, game theory, and the nature of intelligence itself.

The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the…

That Quail, Robert

By Margaret Stanger,

Book cover of That Quail, Robert

Why did I love this book?

Originally published in 1966, this charming illustrated tale continues to sell briskly. Written by the neighbor of a Cape Cod doctor who finds a quail egg abandoned in his yard and warms it with a table lamp until it hatches, it tells of how Robert, as the bird (later discovered to be female) is dubbed, imprints on “his” adopted family, who quickly realize that “far from having a bird in captivity, we were helplessly and hopelessly ensnared and enamored.” What follows is an interspecies love story between the “highly sociable,” housetrained, telephone-answering, sauerkraut-devouring fluffball and the humans she never ceases to beguile.

By Margaret Stanger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked That Quail, Robert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The acclaimed story of the little bird that won the nation’s heart

He’ll never live, the neighbors all said. But Robert, the abandoned quail chick would prove them wrong. Born on a kitchen counter in a house on Cape Cod, raised in a box surrounded by a lamb’s wool duster and a small lamp, Robert’s life began auspiciously.

Book cover of Aloft: A Meditation on Pigeons & Pigeon-Flying

Why did I love this book?

Pigeons are the Rodney Dangerfield of birds. But these docile “rats with wings,” as they’re often called, have hidden depths, including a long and varied history with the human race, which domesticated them 10,000 years ago — around the same time as dogs. As a child, Bodio took up what would become a lifelong passion: training and racing homing pigeons, and this 1990 memoir-slash-natural history reveals why in practical and poetic detail. It’s a great companion to Andrew Blechman’s sweeping 2004 survey Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. Together the two books say as much about the insular community of pigeon fanciers as they do about the pigeons themselves.

By Stephen Bodio,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aloft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The humble pigeon is anything but "common" to those who know the true nature of these birds. This bird is so enamored by some that, for over six thousand years, people have devoted themselves to the art of pigeon flying and pigeon breeding. Across the world, from the cities of America to China, enthusiasts have lovingly nurtured their flocks, creating thousands of breeds from small to large, and admired their beauty in every shape and size: pigeons with crests and frills, those who fly and those who can't.

Stephen Bodio draws readers in with resounding prose and a captivating portrayal…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in birds, Cape Cod, and birdwatching?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about birds, Cape Cod, and birdwatching.

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