Good birding reading

A friend suggested that this post might be best put as a page so that visitors can see it and might perhaps be inspired to try one of the titles recommended. I’ll add to the list of titles as things occur to me.

I do enjoy a good book although I’m resigned to losing the physical in favour of the electronic for some tomes. I suppose you could be a bit like King Canute and stick your fingers in the socket to stop the tide of eBooks but it might sting a bit if you did. Technological progress aside, the purpose of this post is to list what I consider to be eight good birding reads. Why eight you might ask, simple, I can’t think of ten!

The crux of a good birding book is that it has to capture your imagination in some way. It needs to engage you on some level, whether with a story line, familiar theme or fill a niche in your knowledge. For that reason the books are a mixed bag but each in its own way an important part of my birding education. They are listed in no particular order and each one is a subjective choice. If I inspire you to try just one and you like it then the 40 minutes spent composing this post were worth it.

Bird identification guides generally revolve around an illustration and then a limited amount of text that gives you very basic detail. In Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion you get a birder telling you what the bird is like. He tells it simple and straight and captures the essence of what you are looking for. Few birders will be familiar with every bird and so when detail not included in field guides is presented in one book, then it is a no-brainer to own one.

Bill Oddie is a British birder who just happens to be famous for a TV comedy trio, The Goodies. He writes too and has a few titles to his name but the best is his first, ‘Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book’. The humour is there as is poignant detail about birding and birders. I’d recommend the book to new and seasoned birders, there is lots in there to enjoy no matter where you are from.

Some people get all upset about listing, my advice them is to get out more. Listing is a natural part of birding and anyone who thinks that watching a sparrow to see how many times it pecks or defecates is purer in any sense is an idiot. There are lots of books out there, some good, some indifferent, some inaccurate and some downright awful. The next four books are listing books of a sort and all four have the ‘can’t put down’ quality that marks the excellent from the mundane.

I never met Phoebe Snetsinger but I know people who did and they only had good things to say about her dedication to birding. I doesn’t spoil the ending if I say that, in ‘Birding on Borrowed Time’ she dies while birding. We all die eventually and I’d prefer to go with my bins in my hands rather that gasping in some hospital bed. Her later life was birds and birding and she worked for them too. To be the World’s biggest lister for some time tells you all you need to know about her tenacity. Read the book.

Australia is a big and mostly inhospitable country. The outback will fry you and, if you are a Brit, the majority of the human population will be quick to let you know how bad your cricketers or rugby players are! As a place to bird the options are tremendous. I’ve not been there (yet) but I can live the birds vicariously through Sean Dooley’s ‘The Big Twitch’. Written the best way, with humour and pathos, Sean careers around ‘Aus’ seeing birds and places and just being a crazy birder, much like the majority of us. It is a fun book to read and he doesn’t die so high-fives all round.

When the man who is considered to be the father of the field guide does a big year, then you know it can’t be a sin! In ‘Wild America’ Roger Tory Peterson inspires through his own immersion in birds and birding. Reading about Peterson’s travels with James Fisher fills you bones with a wanderlust that few of us will ever satiate. We know that North America is big and diverse but by presenting it as doable, Peterson sets you up for a life time of disappointment. Only a small percentage of birders will experience a truly wild America, instead we will see it piecemeal over a number of years and the sum total of our travels will be the stats in eBird. When you are flagging a bit, read Wild America again and then go out and give it a go as best you can.

As you get older, your birding requirements change and, where once you might have rough-camped or used a cheap hostel, you now prefer a little luxury if at all possible. Few people would consider dried cat food as a viable meal option, in fact few cats do too, so when Kenn Kaufman dined regularly on such a feast, as he hitched his way all over North America in pursuit of the year list record in ‘Kingbird Highway’, you have to admire the dedication. True it is a listing book, but it also reflects the core of a birders motivation. Wanting to see more, to learn more and to fit more life into a year of birding than the average folk manage their own life time is fundamental to being a birder. I read the book about once every three years, and after I have finished it a part of me wants to spend time on the road going places, seeing birds, doing a big year. Then I remember the cat food and I know deep-down that I’ll only do a big year if I share it with my wife and we can stay in places with an en-suite!

Obsession can be a damaging force. People become obsessed with money and never have enough to be satisfied. others obsess about trivia and it whittles away at their soul making their one shot at life something of a misfire. Obsession can be a good thing and can drive people to great deeds such as helping the sick and needy or saving old horses. A better obsession is revealed in the pages of ‘The Jewel Hunter’ by Chris Goodie.  I have seen some pittas and I’ve heard others. They are all beautiful birds but they all seem to have one characteristic that you can understand would drive an obsession – they don’t particularly want to be seen. Pittas are birds of the far east although you could argue for far west if you reside in California or adjacent areas. They largely live in jungles and some choose to be in places that are pretty difficult to get to. Apart from that, finding them is a doddle and Chris goes about satisfying his obsession for pittas by setting out to see the lot. On the way through is quest you learn about where they live, what they do and how to make a real cup of tea!

Some writers capture the essence of a thing and in Mark Cocker’s ‘Birders, Tales of a Tribe’ you find yourself identifying with many of his birding experiences. His grounding took place in the UK but the principle applies to anywhere. We, that is birders, are part of a culture that outsiders often struggle to understand. We have a collective love of birds and how we go about shaping our lives around that passion is what the book is all about. I know of people who say “birds, I just don’t get it” then they go off to the gym for weight-lifting sessions or Flamenco classes or learn Swahili. We all have our tribal affiliations n some description, in this book Cocker gives ours a public airing.

So there you are, eight books that you could put on your Christmas present list or even just borrow from a library, if such a thing still exists. I hope that you don’t mind me detouring from the usually picture laden posts that I normally do, I just felt like writing about writing and it’s snowing like anything outside.


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