10 Great Books on Birds: A Big Year Reading List

By Hugh Powell
October 12, 2011
redhead Redhead by Team Hymas, via Birdshare

The Big Year movie hits theaters on Friday. We’re looking forward to it, and regardless of whether Owen Wilson, Jack Black, or Steve Martin really find what they’re looking for (hint: this is Hollywood, so I think we’ll find they’re searching for something bigger than birds), we’re taking this opportunity to review what bird watching has to offer the rest of us.

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Let’s start at our bookshelves. Birds appear in literature from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Mother Goose, from Athena’s owl to Harry Potter’s owl. If you’re looking for books on birds and bird watching, here are 10 great places to start (compiled with help from Cornell Lab staff and our Facebook fans).

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession: To bring you The Big Year movie, screenwriters adapted Mark Obmascik’s book about Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller. The book is a fast-paced trip from end to end of North America—from the extreme tip of the Aleutian Islands to the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Florida—exhaustively and engagingly reconstructed from the three participants’ field notes and interviews. (Amazon)

Wild America: This is the book that touched off the idea of a big year. In 1953 the father of American birding, Roger Tory Peterson, spent 100 days traveling America with British naturalist James Fisher. The two narrate their travels in a book that’s equal parts conservation story, travelogue, and lyrical nature writing. At the end, Peterson casually mentioned his list total for the year (572), and his readers’ minds started spinning. (Amazon)

Kingbird Highway: To set his Big Year record of 745 species in 1998, Sandy Komito spent about $50,000 on plane tickets, birding guides, rental cars, and meals at Denny’s. But in the early 1970s, Kenn Kaufman had gotten to 671 while hitchhiking and eating cat food. He spent less than $1000, and this is his heartfelt book about how he did it and what he saw along the way. It’s a great place to start reading about birding. (Amazon)

Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes: One of our greatest living nature writers, Peter Matthiessen, narrows his focus to cranes and travels the world to find 15 species and subspecies, reflecting along the way on their importance in the world and in human cultures. With paintings by the great wildlife artist Robert Bateman. (Amazon)

Life List: Possibly the only thing bigger than a Big Year is leading a life like Phoebe Snetsinger’s. The record-holder for the most birds seen in a lifetime, Snetsinger battled cancer for 18 years and traveled the globe tracking down more than 8,000 species before she died. Olivia Gentile tells the story with admiration and grace. (Amazon; our book review)

Living on the Wind: Scott Weidensaul’s book about migration was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Weidensaul brings to life much of the science behind bird migration, but what fuels the book is his constant amazement at the simple miracle of birds in flight. (Amazon; see also our review of Weidensaul’s history of bird watching, Of a Feather).

Songbird Journeys: The Cornell Lab’s own Miyoko Chu tours the seasons of the year and checks in with songbirds at each stop, following them as they spring across the Gulf of Mexico in one night, settle in summer forests, skip southward through woodlot and field in autumn, and resume their tropical lives in winter. Anything but tourists on their own big years, they’re perfectly at home at every stage. (Amazon)

Ravens in Winter: A scientist with an amazing touch for writing about nature, and the imagination to look inside his subjects’ minds, Bernd Heinrich’s books are fascinating investigations. His best-known book recounts a frigid winter in Maine getting to know the local ravens. (Amazon. Also see our review of Heinrich’s recent The Snoring Bird)

Lars Jonsson’s Birds: Paintings From a Near Horizon: Familiar to European birders from his field guide illustrations, Lars Jonsson is a master artist whose naturalist’s eye and impressionistic style combine to transform birds into exquisite art. This book is a sweeping collection of his work (read our full book review or see Amazon).

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson kick-started the environmental movement with her 1962 book about pollution’s toll. Even if you’re already 100 percent in favor of the Clean Water Act, read it for the passion and the natural detail. (Amazon)

For other Big Year related books, try The Feather QuestBig Twitch, Extreme Birder, Call Collect, Ask for Birdman, and if you get really inspired, 50 Places to Go Birding Before You Die. Okay, okay, I realize we’re way past 10 books at this point—but don’t miss our Book Review section on All About Birds for more great reading. And please, leave a comment to tell us what books you would put on your own list.


  • Cliff Hawley

    I completely disagree with your choice of Life List for the book of choice on Phoebe Snetsinger’s life and birding. Birding on Borrowed Time is far superior.

  • Elaine Talbert

    Happy to see your extended list includes “Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year” by Lynn E. Barber. A delightful book you’ll find very hard to put down.

  • Julie

    Leonard Nathan’s “Diary of a Left-handed Birdwatcher” (Graywolf Press, 1996, ISBN 1555972500) is a lyrical, funny, profound meditation on the lure and pleasure of looking at birds. From p. 7: “Running in a marsh is not an act of grace. And I wonder what this sixty-nine year old I call myself is doing here careening through the dark, chasing a mouse-like little bird, this… this… this Holy Rail.” The best thing I’ve ever read about the sheer joy of it. The epiphany.

  • Eileen Gunning

    What about “Feathers”! Fascinating, and all birds have them!

  • i have read at least 8 of these there are many more good books, kingbird highway has stayed with me a long time. wesley the owl is great , alex the african gray parrot is also so inspiring. i love all bird and animal related stories.

  • Claire Baker

    An amazing birder story is that of Connie Hager: A Texas Birder. It is a bio of the woman who showed the East Coast male ornithologists the wonderful Texas migration. Everyone who was everyone came down to her cottages in Rockport TX to be shown her birds. She started in the 30’s thru the 60’s, birding every day in a dress and matching jewelry, with her dog and a club for rattlesnakes!!!

  • A Supremely Bad Idea, by Luke Dempsey. I was laughing and crying at the same time, and that was just the first chapter.

  • Good list. I’ll add a couple of these to my reading plans. Another fun book is “A Supremely Bad Idea,” for fans of extreme birding.

  • Great list. And tough question. I’ll follow your lead and omit field guides and other identification-related books.

    Albatross: Their World, Their Ways – by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones, and Julian Fritter. Gorgeous book, and one of my favorite family books.
    Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival – by Carl Safina. One of the best-written books I’ve ever read, period.
    The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature – by Jonathan Rosen. My favorite book about birding.
    anything by Pete Dunne – really, anything

    Those are just some of my favorites from looking through the reviews I’ve done.

  • Diana Harbour

    I just read “Return of the Osprey” by David Gessner, and have recommended this book to so many people. It is informative and beautifully written.

  • Don’t forget The Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina

  • Noel Chadwick

    I would add : To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel and the little book: Last of the Curlews…it will bring a tear to your eye.

  • Kyri Freeman

    I loved The Big Twitch. It’s about an Australian Big Year and the humor is genuine (also, Australian birds have really cool common names).

  • My top 10 Books on Birds.
    Listing Books
    Life List Olivia Gentile
    The Big Twitch Sean Dooley (see above comment)
    Arrivals and Rivals -A Birding Oddity Adrian Riley
    The Biggest Twitch Alan Davies

    Birding from the Hip Anthony McGeehan
    Beguiled by Birds Ian Wallace
    Consider the Birds Colin Tudge
    Birders -Tale of a Tribe- Mark Cocker
    Bird News Vernon Laux
    Thorburn’s Birds James Fisher

  • Oh, how it warms my heart to see so many favorites here!

    I also loved On the Road with John James Audubon a travel/birding book by Mary Durant and Michael Harwood…

    …and also Gerald Durrell’s wonderful memoirs and nature/adventure books from the 1950s-’60s. They were only partly about birds, but they awoke in me as a child a love of nature that has never dwindled.

  • Jennifer Strand

    “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa” by Nichlas Drayson is a novel of love, bird-watching, and a wager to see which of two rivals can achieve the highest bird count in 7 days. Set in Nairobi and centered at the Asadi Club, this is a truly enjoyable story where the individuality of the characters is reflected in their approach to birdwatching and the competition itself. Throw in well-drawn supporting characters, Tusker Beer, flamingos, sunbirds, and a blue turaco and you’ve got an irresistible tale told in only 200 pages.

  • Marilyn Koenitzer

    “A Parrot without a Name, the search for the last unknown birds on earth,” by Don Stap, c. 1990, about Louisiana State Univ. ornithologists John O’Neill and Ted Parker’s search for tropical birds. Set in Peru. Unforgettable.

  • lydia schindler

    Very glad to see “A Parrot without a Name” making the list. Other additions: “Season at the Point” by Jack Connor, “Rare and Elusive Birds” by William Burth, and, more offbeat, “Illumination in the Flatwoods” by Joe Hutto.

  • Joanna Cabanna

    I love birds but I’ve never read a book with this subject. Seems like some of these titles are very interesting so I might give them a try.
    Songbird Journeys is a very interesting title so I think I’m gonna start with it…

  • Sue Hannon

    I have read 4 of the 10 on your list – going to have to get to work on the rest, I guess. In addition, I loved A Supremely Bad Idea, which is mentioned several times in the comments. Also Wesley the Owl, Alex and Me, Scott Weidensaul’s Of a Feather, and Hawk of Mercy – a wonderful biography of Rosalie Edge, the founder of Hawk Mountain. The earliest memories I have of bird-themed books (apart from the field guides that went along on every family trip or drive in the country) is of my mother reading Silent Spring when it was just published (I was about 3 or 4), and That Quail, Robert, not too long after. Both books are still on her shelves, and both are among my favorites.

  • Denise Brownlie

    “The Owl Papers” by Jonathan Maslow is as enchanting now as when it was first published in the ’80’s.
    “With a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s soul, Maslow pursues owls through history, literature and myth. A superb and utterly fascinating book.” (The New York Times Book Review)

  • John Nielsen

    I agree that Bird Without a Name belongs on this list.

  • Simchah Fastow

    I also love Gerald Durrell’s books. He inspired me to be an amateur amateur naturalist and forager. “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is another great bird book and movie. I think I’ll check out some of the books listed in the article and comments too.

  • Charles Mollenhauer

    Here Am I–Where Are You?: The Behavior of the Greylag Goose
    by Konrad Z Lorenze

  • John Nelson

    “The Peregrine” by J. A. Baker is unmatched for insight and powerful, evocative prose.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

10 Great Books on Birds: A Big Year Reading List