The best books about birds and ourselves

Who am I?

I have been fortunate to be able to turn my childhood birdwatching into a career in ornithology. Scientists are sometimes accused of being cold and heartless, but most of the ornithologists I know are driven by a passion to protect and understand birds. At school, I only really liked biology and art. I hated history, but later in life I discovered the vast riches embedded in the history of ornithology and I am fascinated by how we know what we know about birds. This in turn has sparked ideas that have allowed me to discover and explore new areas of bird study. Above all, I love telling people about birds.

I wrote...

Birds and Us: A 12,000 Year History, from Cave Art to Conservation

By Tim Birkhead,

Book cover of Birds and Us: A 12,000 Year History, from Cave Art to Conservation

What is my book about?

Lockdown and a sense of impending doom provided the impetus for this book. People have interacted with birds — hunting, eating, painting, and worshipping them, since the beginning of time. There’s a temptation to assume that our current values are those of our parents’ generation. They are not. Our current concern for bird populations is fragile. My hope is that awareness will help to sustain our current values. I have focussed on particular themes in particular eras, and the breadth of this topic is reflected in the five books listed here. They range from the factual to lyrical to the decidedly quirky.

I have been fortunate to have watched and studied birds across the globe for over fifty years, and by recounting some of my own experiences, I hope I may encourage young people to think more about birds, to be amazed by them, and as result, to care about them. 

The books I picked & why

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Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

By Nick Davies,

Book cover of Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

Why this book?

Nick Davies and I conducted our PhDs at the same time, his on how birds forage, mine on guillemot (murre) behavior. Nick went on to spend several decades studying cuckoos, stepping in Darwin’s footsteps to unravel the array of wonderful adaptations that allow brood parasites, like cuckoos, to thrive. His Cuckoo is an emotive, engaging, and accessible account of that painstaking and ingenious research and a model of popular science writing.

Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

By Jeremy Mynott,

Book cover of Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

Why this book?

The history of ornithology is an extraordinarily rich topic and one full of interest and rewards. This book is a celebration of the beginnings of our ornithological knowledge. A classics scholar and ornithologist, Jeremy Mynott has translated all the numerous texts here himself, and in so doing providing a consistent, knowledgeable, highly readable text. One of the things that comes across so vividly in this book is how much of our knowledge about birds — including, for example, the fact that young birds, like the nightingale, acquire their song by listening to their father — were so well established so long ago! 

The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Great Ocean Voyagers

By Adam Nicolson,

Book cover of The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Great Ocean Voyagers

Why this book?

A seabird colony throbs like a beating heart. In the air, on the water, and on the cliffs or grassy slopes, you can sense the push and pull of the birds. I have studied common guillemots [known as common murres in North America] at one such colony — Skomer Island, Wales — each year for almost fifty years. I live and breathe seabirds, and no one has captured the wonder and remarkable biology of this specialized group of birds like Adam Nicolson. This beautifully written book is also a cry for help for seabirds whose populations have more than halved in the last seventy years.

Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World

By Philip Hoare,

Book cover of Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World

Why this book?

There are not many books where after reaching the end, I turn back to the beginning and start again. But this book is so fertile, so rich, so engaging, I simply couldn’t take in all of its wonderful richness in one go. Dürer has always been my artistic hero. Known for his portraits, of himself and others, I like the fact that he painted birds too, like his exquisitely observed European roller (both the whole bird and the separate wing). Philip Hoare’s sparkling text brings both Dürer and his birds to life.

The End of the End of the Earth: Essays

By Jonathan Franzen,

Book cover of The End of the End of the Earth: Essays

Why this book?

Compared with many of those writing about bird conservation, using his sabre-like pen, Jonathan Franzen, gets to the very heart of the issues. No one else comes close to opening up the obscene bloody thorax of Mediterranean bird-killing. In this set of essays, Franzen is the master surgeon, desperate to diagnose, expose and extract the cancer that permeates this entire region. Several million small migrant birds, such as golden orioles, bee-eaters, and warblers, are shot, trapped, and eaten here each year. These millions are from bird populations across Europe and Africa already decimated by a multitude of other things including climate change, cats, and habitat loss.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in birds, Germany, and Rome?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about birds, Germany, and Rome.

Birds Explore 117 books about birds
Germany Explore 262 books about Germany
Rome Explore 169 books about Rome

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Bob the Artist, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, and Twelve Dancing Princesses if you like this list.