The best books about the history of British birds

Lesley Adkins Author Of When There Were Birds
By Lesley Adkins

The Books I Picked & Why

Book of British Birds

By Drive Publications

Book cover of Book of British Birds

Why this book?

The Book of British Birds is one of several comprehensive reference books produced around half a century ago for the Reader’s Digest. They were written without jargon and have become classics. The illustrations in this bird volume are excellent, with bird-by-bird descriptions, followed by a range of fascinating topics, such as how birds care for their plumage, camouflage, how they sleep, and courtship displays. Some information is now itself history – who would have thought (for example) that the ubiquitous starling is now on the Red List of UK birds?


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects

By David Callahan

Book cover of A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects

Why this book?

The author was one of the earliest (if not the earliest) to write a history of a subject using a specific number of objects. In this book, he describes the development of observing birds through the medium of 100 objects, of which a surprising selection is presented, all well illustrated, from prehistoric paintings to more recent technology.  Possibly the most curious is a stuffed extinct dodo at the Horniman Museum in London. It was actually a deceptive piece made by a leading taxidermist using plaster casts, chicken wings, and swan, goose, and ostrich feathers.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Birds Britannica

By Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey

Book cover of Birds Britannica

Why this book?

This is a glorious bird-by-bird book, filled with photographs and lots of information and first-hand accounts, including folklore and history, with copious endnotes and references. It was first published in 2005 and reissued in 2020. The book is divided into different bird families, starting with the Diver family, the Grebe family, and the Albatross family, so it can be read systematically or by dipping in and out. Birds Britannica perhaps deserves the name ‘coffee-table book’ – being so heavy, it is almost impossible to read unless seated (with a coffee) at a table. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Birds of Devon

By W. S. M. D'urban

Book cover of The Birds of Devon

Why this book?

Numerous books were compiled in the 19th century on birds of specific counties, which are now historic documents. My favourite is The Birds of Devon, first published in 1892 by William D’Urban and Murray Mathew, who had known each other since childhood. It has wonderful, evocative descriptions of landscapes and of the immense numbers of birds that could still be seen and heard then, though the authors do give warnings about landscapes being destroyed, in particular by the railways and by the drainage of marshes and moors. Readers today may want to skip their numerous lists, but their descriptions depict a vanished world.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Birds of Shakespeare: Critically examined, explained, and illustrated

By James Edmund Harting

Book cover of The Birds of Shakespeare: Critically examined, explained, and illustrated

Why this book?

Also known as The Ornithology of Shakespeare, James Edmund Harting published this book in 1871 as a detailed analysis of all the references to birds in Shakespeare’s plays. He shows that to Shakespeare and his audience, birds and field sports were second nature. His book starts with Shakespeare’s general knowledge of natural history and then tackles different types of birds, such as those with song and the owl and its associations. Harting was an extremely knowledgeable ornithologist and hawker, and his book is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand Shakespeare.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.