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.