The best books on encounters with wild animals

Leigh Calvez Author Of The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature's Most Elusive Birds
By Leigh Calvez

Who am I?

When writing stories about animals, I love to seek out wild encounters with the animals I’m writing about. I love to observe their wild ways and witness their lives, even if only for a moment. To write the owl stories for The Hidden Lives of Owls, I followed scientists into the wilds of Montana, searched the Alaskan tundra, and trekked through the soggy, green forests of Washington. My journeys to watch whales around the world led to The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants. My animal stories have also been published in American Nature Writing: 2003, Smithsonian Magazine, High Country News, The Ecologist, and The Christian Science Monitor among others.

I wrote...

The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature's Most Elusive Birds

By Leigh Calvez,

Book cover of The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature's Most Elusive Birds

What is my book about?

“In the dim light of evening, you step out of the forest. A sudden movement startles you, as a large bird on silent wings flies in front of you. Your heart pounds in your chest, not in fear but with the thrill of seeing a wild owl. You are owling…”

Join naturalist Leigh Calvez as she explores the secret world of owls, from owl-watching to avian science—often in the dead of night. These creatures have a certain mystery about them, which is just part of what makes them so fascinating. Calvez relays scientific facts and observations in entertaining, accessible ways while also exploring questions about the human-animal connection, owl obsession, habitat, owl calls, social behavior, and mythology.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Journey of the Pink Dolphins

Why did I love this book?

Journey of the Pink Dolphins was the first of Sy Montgomery’s many wonderful books that I read. I was captivated by Montgomery’s encounters with the mysterious pink river dolphins and other Amazonian creatures. As she wove together the history of the Amazon with the mythology of the land and its animals and people, I loved how her adventure unfolded. I realized that this was the kind of nature writer I wanted to be. Sy Montgomery’s narrative style helped me find my own nature writing voice.

By Sy Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Journey of the Pink Dolphins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the acclaimed author of The Soul of an Octopus and the bestselling memoir The Good Good Pig.

When Sy Montgomery ventured into the Amazon to unlock the mysteries of the littleknown pink dolphins, she found ancient whales that plied the Amazon River at dawn and dusk, swam through treetops in flooded forests, and performed underwater ballets with their flexible bodies. But she soon found out that to know the botos, as the dolphins are locally called, you must also know the people who live among them.

And so in Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Montgomery-part naturalist, part poet, part…

Last Chance to See

By Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine,

Book cover of Last Chance to See

Why did I love this book?

In this rollicking, wildlife adventure Douglas Adams takes a break from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to come back to Earth in this important non-fiction work about some of the world’s most endangered animals. I loved the humor and sensitivity this fiction writer brings to the natural world, showing us just how important each being is in the grand scheme of this planet.

By Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Last Chance to See as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Descriptive writing of a high order... this is an extremely intelligent book' The Times

Join Douglas Adams, bestselling and beloved author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and zoologist Mark Carwardine on an adventure in search of the world's most endangered and exotic creatures.

In this book, Adams' self-proclaimed favourite of his own works, the pair encounter animals in imminent peril: the giant Komodo dragon of Indonesia, the lovable kakapo of New Zealand, the blind river dolphins of China, the white rhinos of Zaire, the rare birds of Mauritius island in the Indian Ocean and the alien-like aye-aye of…

Book cover of What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World

Why did I love this book?

I first encountered this book while taking a wildlife tracking class that Jon Young had a hand in creating. I was awe-struck by the stories Young tells in What the Robin Knows. He has learned from years of patience and still observation to find animals in the forest and to know how each animal like an owl, hawk, coyote, or the neighborhood cat, is moving on the landscape by listening to the vocalizations and watching the behavior of local birds, like the ubiquitous Robin. This is a perfect book to read if you are longing to re-create your connection with nature, even in your own backyard.

By Jon Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What the Robin Knows as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning naturalist and author Jon Young's What the Robin Knows reveals how understanding bird language and behavior can help us to see more wildlife.

A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Jon Young is guided by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds’ companion calls and warning alarms are just as important as their songs.

Deep bird language is an ancient discipline, perfected by…

Book cover of Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

Why did I love this book?

Without this book by Maria Mudd Ruth we may never have known about the captivating life of the Marbled Murrelet. This little seabird depends on the health of both the inland old-growth forest for its home and the distant Pacific Ocean for its livelihood. In this natural history mystery, Ruth tracks what we know and when we knew it about the Marbled Murrelet. From what she managed to uncover, we now know that if we lose the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, we will lose this avian piece of the natural puzzle. I admire Ruth’s tenacity in her deep research and brilliant telling of this little bird’s story.

By Maria Ruth,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Compelling…  engaging."--Library Journal

"Rare insights into the trials and joys of scientific discovery."--Publisher’s weekly

Part naturalist detective story and part environmental inquiry, Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet celebrates the fascinating world of an endangered seabird that depends on the contested old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest for its survival.

“This chunky little seabird stole my heart.” So confesses Maria Mudd Ruth, a veteran nature writer perfectly happy to be a generalist before getting swept up in the strange story of the marbled murrelet. This curiosity of nature, which flies like a little brown bullet at up…

Book cover of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Why did I love this book?

Whenever I read a book about animals, I always enhance my craft by paying attention to how the writer expands and deepens our knowledge about each particular species, especially when the species seems to be as uninteresting as a jellyfish. But, as it turns out, jellyfish are anything but uninteresting. Juli Berwald takes this little-known creature and enlivens its presence with us here on earth through her in-depth discussions on such topics as jellyfish reproduction, encounters with wild jellyfish, and an investigation into just how they may impact life on land. She even manages to blend in bits of her own personal story. I was charmed by Spineless

By Juli Berwald,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Spineless as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A book full of wonders" —Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk

"Witty, insightful. . . .The story of jellyfish. . . is a significant part of the environmental story. Berwald's engaging account of these delicate, often ignored creatures shows how much they matter to our oceans' future." —New York Times Book Review 

Jellyfish have been swimming in our oceans for well over half a billion years, longer than any other animal that lives on the planet. They make a venom so toxic it can kill a human in three minutes. Their sting—microscopic spears that pierce with five million…

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