The best books about natural history

Who am I?

I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and spent many weekends hiking, camping, and fishing with my parents. Identifying and understanding the plants and animals around me was always interesting, and this love of nature has stayed with me as an adult. I now live near Lake Michigan and am an avid hiker, birdwatcher, and an Indiana Master Naturalist. I take endless inspiration from the natural world in my illustration work and believe that co-existing with, respecting, and preserving the natural world is central not just to the integrity of our planet, but to our very humanity.

I wrote...

Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects: Step-By-Step Realistic Line Drawing - A Sourcebook for Aspiring Artists and Designers

By Melissa Washburn,

Book cover of Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects: Step-By-Step Realistic Line Drawing - A Sourcebook for Aspiring Artists and Designers

What is my book about?

Featuring more than 600 sketches depicting a vast array of beautiful winged forms, Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects is a visual reference for students and aspiring artists, or anyone else seeking to improve their realistic drawing skills.

This step-by-step guidebook demonstrates fundamental art concepts like proportion, anatomy, and spatial relationships as you learn to draw a full range of winged creatures, all shown from a variety of perspectives. Each set of illustrations takes you from beginning sketch lines to a finished drawing.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Why did I love this book?

This book details the life of sixteenth/seventeenth-century naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian. A woman incredibly ahead of her time, her detailed illustrations and hand-painted etchings depicted the life cycles of insects and animals in their habitats she encountered both at home and in her travels to Dutch Surinam. Her early contributions to the field of entomology are recognized to this day and reading about a woman of that era traveling independently, undertaking scientific study, and publishing her work is both fascinating and inspiring. Merian’s work is exquisite, and I definitely consider her unique work as inspiration for my own. I had the opportunity to see some of her large hand-painted etchings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on a trip to Washington, DC a few years ago.

By Kim Todd,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Before Darwin, before Audubon, before Gilbert White, there was Merian. An artist turned naturalist, known for her botanical illustrations, Maria Sybilla Merian was born in Germany just sixteen years after Galileo proclaimed that the earth orbited the sun. But at the age of fifty she sailed from Europe to the New World on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis - an unheard-of journey for any naturalist at that time, much less an unaccompanied woman. When she returned she produced a book that secured her reputation, only to have it savaged in the nineteenth century by scientists who disdained…

Book cover of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

Why did I love this book?

This book investigates the case of a British college student who, in 2009, broke into a suburban London museum and stole over 100 rare bird skins. The tale of how he pulled it off, the intrigue that ensued, the strange underground world of exotic fly fishing ties, and the implications for research and the loss to science of the violation of this collection, are absolutely riveting. How contemporary scientists are still learning new things from century-old bird specimens, the inner workings of museums, and the profound scope of bird extinction in the 20th century are just some of the things this book touches on. Beautifully written, I didn’t want it to end.

By Kirk Wallace Johnson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Feather Thief as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As heard on NPR's This American Life

"Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." -Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." -Christian Science Monitor

A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin…

Book cover of The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

Why did I love this book?

This book is a fascinating look at ornithology through the ages, from mythology and legend to the evolution of our scientific understanding of birds today. It includes beautiful illustrations from medieval monks to early naturalists through the 20th century. Even the most casual birdwatcher will learn something fascinating from this book; I read it slowly, digesting a section at a time, and it’s one I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.

By Tim Birkhead,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For thousands of years people have been fascinated by birds, and today that fascination is still growing. In 2007 bird-watching is one of the most popular pastimes, not just in Britain, but throughout the world, and the range of interest runs from the specialist to the beginner.

In The Wisdom of Birds, Birkhead takes the reader on a journey that not only tells us about the extraordinary lives of birds - from conception and egg, through territory and song, to migration and fully fledged breeder - but also shows how, over centuries, we have overcome superstition and untested 'truths' to…

Book cover of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Why did I love this book?

Cephalopods are about as close to alien life as you’ll find on planet Earth. Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy and the history and philosophy of science, explores the natural history of octopuses and their close relatives in this book. It’s a fascinating look at our evolving understanding of their unique evolutionary path and implications for our own ideas of consciousness. If you’ve seen the documentary film My Octopus Teacher and want to learn more about the inner workings of our eight-legged friends and their kin, I highly recommend this book.  

By Peter Godfrey-Smith,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Other Minds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Brilliant' Guardian 'Fascinating and often delightful' The Times


What if intelligent life on Earth evolved not once, but twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter?

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, tells a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself - a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared.

Tracking the mind's fitful development from unruly clumps of seaborne cells to…

Book cover of Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom

Why did I love this book?

This book is probably my favorite among natural history reading I’ve come across. A chance encounter at the library, I ended up buying a copy for myself as well as gifting it to several friends. Barnes weaves together short vignettes about science, observation, and personal encounters with nature organized from the tiniest life forms to some of the largest. Biologist JBS Haldane once said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.” This book proves it with memorable anecdotes and a wonderful sense of kinship and compassion for life both like us and completely unlike us.

By Simon Barnes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Life on Planet Earth is not weirder than we imagine. It's weirder than we are capable of imagining. Ten Million Aliens opens your eyes to the real marvels of the planet we live on.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in natural history, Germany, and animals?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about natural history, Germany, and animals.

Natural History Explore 51 books about natural history
Germany Explore 390 books about Germany
Animals Explore 175 books about animals

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Bad Blood, Beyond Words, and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? if you like this list.