Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Birds and Bird Identification

Migrating birds are in great danger: if the habitat of any part of their migratory route is degraded, the species is in peril. Climate change also offers challenges to all migrating animals, disrupting carefully calibrated evolutionary solutions to feeding themselves, protecting themselves from predators and having safe havens for birthing and training their young.

We’re fascinated by birds. They may be the single category of wild animal most accessible to all of us. Even Wall Streeters are enthusiastic and curious about the raptors that choose to nest among their tall buildings. Many birds are able to make their livings in cities and suburbs, so it’s easy to imagine that all the birds are doing okay. That would be a misconception, as many songbirds in particular have suffered steep declines in their populations as pesticides, deforestation and urban sprawl have taken a toll.

The books recommended here are fine examples of combining scientific accuracy with engaging storytelling. Learn more about the fascinating lives of the tiny animals you see flying just outside your window!

Recommended Books and DVDs on Birds and Bird Identification

Atlas of Bird MigrationAtlas of Bird Migration: Tracing the Great Journeys of the World's Birds
Jonathan Elphick, ed.

The photos and illustrations in this large, illustrated volume are so beautiful that one is tempted to skim the text, but that would be a mistake.The first section is a primer on bird migration and habitat usage patterns, including the evolution of migration, the mechanics of flight and birds' navagational methods. Succeeding sections examine different families of migrating birds according to geographical distribution, and each has carefully designed maps that show birds' seasonal ranges and migratory routes. A beautiful and functional text. 2011, Firefly Books

Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages DVDAttenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages (2 DVD Set)

Travel with Sir David Attenborough on some of his favorite journeys: witness the magnificent birds of paradise in New Guinea; see the Bowerbirds - the only animals who in nature create works of art - in the Australian rain forests; learn about the history and purpose of musical communication in the natural world, with humpback whales and songbirds. Throughout, Attenborough brings his lively intelligence and entertaining manner to investigating fascinating mysteries of Nature. 2007, BBC Warner

BBC Atlas of the Natural World - Land of the Eagle DVDBBC Atlas of the Natural World - Land of the Eagle (2 DVD Set)

This four part history of North America shows its transition from home to Native American peoples to the present day, combining the bracing facts of animal extinctions, deforestation and habitat loss with the BBC's remarkable cinematography of wolves, grizzlies, snakes, beavers, birds and other animals in the wild. 2006, BBC Warner

BBC Atlas of the Natural World Western Hemisphere and anarctica DVDBBC Atlas of the Natural World
Western Hemisphere and Anarctica (6 DVD Set)

Learn of the natural history of Central America in the 4-part Spirits of the Jaguar; see the eye-opening ecological history of North America in Land of the Eagle (4 parts); enjoy the dazzling nature photography in the 4-part series Wild South America; and tour Antartica is the 6-part series Life in the Freezer. 18 hours viewing time. 2006, BBC Warner

The Beak of the finchThe Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Jonathan Weiner

On a desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago, where Darwin received his first inklings of the theory of evolution, two scientists - Peter and Rosemary Grant - have spent 20 years proving that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. For among the finches of Daphne Major, natural selection is neither rare nor slow: it is taking place by the hour and we can watch. In this dramatic story of ground-breaking scientific research, Johathan Weiner follows these scientists as they study Darwin's Finches and come up with a new understanding of life itself. The Beak of the Finch is an elegantly written and compelling masterpiece.
Winner of the Pulitizer Prize for Non-Fiction, 1995
1995, Vintage

David Burnie and Ben Hoare

Unrivaled in scope for a single-volume reference work, this visual guide to every bird order and family profiles more than 1,500 species, photographed in their native environment by photographers around the globe. Authoritative, comprehensive, and completely up-to-date, this is a must-have reference for anyone with even a passing interest in the world's birds. 2008, DK Publishing

Bird MigrationBird Migration: A General Survey
Peter Berthold

The question of how birds migrate over enormous distances with apparently minimal guidance continues to excite both professional and amateur ornithologists. Berthold carefully explains the evolution, genetic basis, extent of bird migration, and the history of its study. He then turns to the many types of migration known, and the physiological bases and control that allows migration to happen. The concluding chapters address the depressing reality of decline in migrant populations and future threats. This book is an inspiration to bird watchers, naturalists and ornithologists alike. 2001, Oxford University Press

The Bird of LightThe Bird of Light
John Hay

In Bird of Light Hay writes about terns. Relatives of gulls, these birds are unbelievably buoyant, graceful fliers whose food is small fish, caught by plunge-diving head first into water. Set in Cape Cod, Hay's book centers on the spring arrival of terns, their courtship, breeding, feeding habits, fall departures, and winter life. For Hay, the world of terns is an effective microcosm, good for musings and philosophy on the health of the biosphere, the state of the world, and the human condition. 1993, W.W. Norton

BirdologyBirdology: Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds
Sy Montgomery

Birdology is a collection of stirring avian encounters. Montgomery assists a hummingbird rehabilitator in the delicate raising of two tiny orphans, and meets the “most dangerous bird on earth,” the enormous, razor-clawed cassowary in Australia,. She writes from unexpected perspectives about falcons, crows, pigeons, chickens, and parrots, each intriguing tale illustrating one of the “seven essential truths about birds,” and all revealing fresh insights about birds, interspecies communications, and environmental concerns. 2011, Free Press

Bird songsBird Songs: 250 North american Birds in Song
Les Beletsky

Here are splendid color illustrations of 250 species - water birds, forest birds, woodland birds, and open country birds. With each illustration is a description of the bird's range in the U.S. and Canada and its ecology and behavior. Each species' vocalizations - both songs and calls - can be heard on the CD accompanying the book. This fascinating book will be useful to bird watchers and everyone who loves birds. Editors' Choice - Top 50 Books for 2006
2006, Chronicle Books

The Birds of Heaven
Short List
Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
Peter Matthiessen

National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen, a self-professed "craniac," has been studying birds most of his life, but his pursuit of cranes is closer to a spiritual quest than a naturalist's exercise. These majestic, mythic and notoriously shy birds, capable of soaring at heights of 20,000 feet, are often fond of remote and rugged places. Matthiessen's search for cranes has taken him to hidden corners of Siberia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sudan, and Australia. Matthiessen observes that the cranes serve as an ecological warning: "Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species - and ours too - must ultimately depend for survival." 2001, North Point Press



Birds of the WorldBirds of the World
Myriam Baran-Marescot and Billes Martin

In this beautiful volume nature photographer Giles Martin offers a breathtaking collection of images of some of the world's most charasmatic birds, from Peru's Toco Toucan, to Australia's Blue-winged Kookaburra, to the U.S. Bald Eagle. Structured around 12 major themes that enable readers to better understand the evolution, migratory habits, and survival techniques of birds, as well as their place in the world, this thrilling and informative journey is as essential volume for animal and photography lovers alike. 2005, Harry N. Abrams

Emperors of the Ice DVDEmperors of the Ice (DVD)

In the frozen wilderness of Antarctica, where oceans ice over and just staying alive is an achievement, one creature has perfected the art of survival - the Emperor penguin. Emperor penguins are sublimely built to conquer the cold, but in a world threatened by climate change, can they take the heat? Using Crittercam, scientists take a virtual ride under the ice with the Emperor penguin to study the impact of climate change on the penguin's world. 2007, National Geographic

EquinoxEquinox: Life, Love, and Birds of Prey
Dan O'Brien

He wanted to finally "do falconry right." Writer Dan O'Brien had a chance, with his physician wife leaving their South Dakota ranch on a year-long fellowship, to devote himself to training hunting falcons. O'Brien writes passionately about living close to nature, and provides a detailed and fascinating look at a very unusual avocation. Equinox is a lyrical tale about the revelations of life, a story we haven't heard before told in crystalline prose. 2010, Bison Books

Eye of the AlbatrossEye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival
Carl Safina

In this dazzling volume, Safina, a MacArthur award recipient, recounts his travels to remote portions of the northwest Hawaiian Islands to witness albatross breeding season, during which parent birds fly across entire oceans as much as 25,000 miles to hunt sufficient food to nourish their single chicks. This book eloquently tells a story of struggle and hope and the power of sheer persistence and life's resilience.
Winner, John Burroughs Medal for Natural History
2003, Owl Books

The GoshawkThe Goshawk
T. H. White

"Sports such as ferreting and falconry show the extent to which people are prepared to risk pain and injury in order to enter the world of other species. The arduous experience of training a falcon to accept a person as a perch forms the character both of the bird and its keeper. The experience has been vividly described by TH White in The Goshawk and no reader of that book can doubt that country sports are as unlike human games as wine is unlike water. They do not satisfy some ordinary need for exercise and diversion, any more than wine quenches thirst. They answer to a deeper yearning and intoxicate us with the scent of other worlds. They open a door into the natural life of species: not the pretend life that is imposed on the domestic pet, but the real life that was ordained by nature. Hence the ritual and hence the joy. These sports are genuine rites of passage, which guide us into the world of other animals and help us to know it from within, as a world of instinct, awe and miracles." --The Observer 2007, NYRB Classics

Great Journeys DVDGreat Journeys (DVD)

This entertaining look at animal migration studies the migration patterns of a large number of species, showing how and why these great journeys take place. Hunting, survival habits, and mating behavior are shown in beautiful cinematography. 1999, Sling Shot

Hope Is the Thing with FeathersHope Is the Thing with Feathers: A personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds
Christopher Cokinos

In recounting the histories of six extinct North American birds, along with stories of the people who killed them off and those who tried to save them, Cokinos transforms each extinction into a deeply disturbing tragedy--both for the species itself, and for human civilization. Relentless, wanton hunting, more than ecosystem pressures, obliterated the Carolina Parakeet; the hardy Passenger Pigeon, flying in endless flocks before it vanished around 1900; the exquisite Labrador Duck; and the Heath Hen, a holdout on Martha's Vineyard until 1932. Cokinos weighs the "fantastically remote" possibility of using DNA cloned from extinct birds to resurrect these vanished species, but the real hope engendered by this extraordinary saga lies in its insistent plea to restore ecological sanity. 2009, Tarcher

Kingbird Highway

Nature and Environmental Book Review

Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder
Kenn Kaufman

In Kingbird Highway,“the story of a natural obsession that got a little out of hand,” ornithologist Kenn Kaufman recounts his quest in 1973 to capture the record for most bird species spotted in a single year. 19 years old, armed with binoculars and notebook and a few dollars in his pocket, he hitchhiked from Alaska to Florida and back again, racking up a lifetime’s worth of adventures on the road. He sighted 666 species, just short of the record. 2006, Houghton Mifflin



The Last Flight of the Scarlet MacawThe Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird
Bruce Barcott

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw is the dramatic story of one woman's struggle to save the scarlet macaw in the tiny country of Belize. Sharon Matola, an eccentric American who directs the Belize Zoo, learned in 1999 that a Canadian power company planned to build a dam that would destroy the habitat of the 200 scarlet macaws remaining in Belize. Helped by native Belizeans and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Matola mounted a six-year campaign against the dam, But the combined forces of a determined corporation and a corrupt government were unrelenting. Barcott's compelling narrative is suspenseful right up to the last moment. 2009, Random House

The Life of Birds (DVD set)
short List

The Life of Birds (3 DVD Set)

The definitive series on the most colorful, popular and perfectly adapted creatures on earth, The Life of Birds traverses the globe, covering 42 countries and examining over 300 different species. Pushing filming technology to the limits, new behavior is brought to the screen in staggering detail. Infrared cameras find oilbirds deep in pitch-black caves; ultra-slowmotion film unravels the complexities of bird flight; and ultraviolet cameras reveal the world from a bird's point of view. Ten hours viewing time. 2002, BBC Warner


The Life of the SkiesThe Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
Jonathan Rosen

In this eloquent book, Rosen meditates on the fact that technology enables us to preserve wildlife and at the same time contributes to its demise. He laments that no sooner had he discovered bird-watching than he realized that nature has become a diminished thing. Everywhere he looks—from a Louisiana swamp to the Israeli desert—he finds a paradox: we are attempting to preserve nature at the same time that we are destroying it. Birds sing back to us an aspect of ourselves, Rosen says, harking back to Audubon, and he confesses that this is why he came to bird-watching, making it even more poignant that so many birds are close to disappearing forever. This beautifully written book is an elegy to the human condition at a time when wilderness is becoming a thing of the past. 2008, Picador

Living on the windLiving on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds
Scott Weidensaul

"At whatever moment you read these words, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies of the western hemisphere, migrating." With helpful supporting maps, Weidensaul describes the migrating habits of many bird species and considers the intriguing question of how they do it. The heart of this compelling story is a plea for the conservation of habitats to keep these miraculous creatures circling the earth. 2000, North Point Press

Made for Each OtherMade for Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines
Ronald M. Lanner

Lanner presents a documented account of the obligatory mutualism that exists between those species of pines having wingless seeds and birds such as nutcrackers and jays. He explains how the food dependency of the birds on the pines has interacted with the tree's reproduction to result in the coevolution of both, with the birds being the directing force. The importance of this bird-and- pine association in the plant and animal communities is discussed, as are the environmental threats that may destroy it. 1996, Oxford University Press

The Magic of CranesThe Magic of Cranes
Carl-Albrecht von Treuenfels

Cranes, long-necked and long-legged birds who mate for life, have fascinated many cultures - as symbols of longevity, happy marriage, and messengers of wisdom. This beautiful volume includes maps depicting migratory routes; guides to where cranes can be seen in their natural habitats; striking photographs of these handsome birds; and detailed information on how they live, their elaborate and noisy courting dances, how they nurture their young and how they migrate each winter. 2007, Harry N. Abrams

March of the PenguinsMarch of the Penguins (DVD)
Luc Jacquet, director

This wildlife classic captures the life cycle of Emperor penguins in Antarctica. The film focuses on a colony of hundreds of Emperors as they return, in a single-file overland march of 70 miles or more, to their frozen breeding ground, far inland from the oceans where they thrive. We see the intensity of the penguins' breeding cycle, and their treacherous task of protecting eggs and hatchlings in temperatures as low as 128 degrees below zero. A marvel of wildlife cinematography, showing us a wild and beautiful world and the incredible survival skills of these animals. 2005, Warner

Mind of the RavenMind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
Bernd Heinrich

Biology professor Heinrich has observed startlingly complex activities among ravens, including strong pair-bonding, use of tools, elaborate vocal communication, and even play. Ravens are just plain smart, and we can see much of ourselves in their behavior. They seem to be affectionate, cranky, joyful, greedy, and competitive - just like us. Mind of the Raven offers inspiring insight into both the lives of ravens and the mind of a truly gifted scientist.
John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing, 2000
2007, Harper Perennial

National Geographic complete birds of North americaNational Geographic Complete Birds of North America
Jonathan Alderfer

Essential, comprehensive, and easy to use, this book is an astonishing resource that covers every bird species in North America, as well as all the migrants that fly through. Each separate bird entry includes illustrations and information on behavior, habitats, nesting and feeding habits, and migration routes. A definitive, must-have resource! 2005, Nationa Geographic

On Watching BirdsOn Watching Birds
Lawrence Kilham

On Watching Birds will appeal not only to those who share the author's avian enthusiasm, but to all who thrill at the chance to observe the behavior of any wildlife in its natural habitat. Dr. Kilham is a patient and detailed observer, and has observed many previously unknown behavior patterns, even in common species. For instance, he repeatedly saw nuthatches vigorously sweeping the immediate area around their nesting sites. After many observations, he learned that their preferred "brooms" were blister beetles which exude an oily irritant. The probable purpose of this housekeeping, he believes, is to keep away their chief competitors: tree squirrels. He encourages the investigation in depth of what is readily at hand as opposed to seeking the rare and accumulating a long list of sightings.
John Burroughs Medal for distinguished Nature Writing 1989
1997, Texas A & M University Press

Franklin B. Gill

This encyclopedic compendium of knowledge of everything ornithological is filled with intriguing, delightful and thought-provoking information, including explanation of avian behavior, intelligence, biology, sensory abilities, and navagation. 2006, W.H. Freeman

The Passenger PigeonThe Passenger Pigeon: Its History and Extinction
A. W. Schorger

In Passenger Pigeon, first published in 1955, Schorger painstakingly reconstructed its life history - behavioral characteristics, feeding methods, traveling and roosting habits, nesting – and the various stages of the species encounter with man, from utilization by the Native American to extinction at the hands of white settlers. The passenger pigeon, once probably the most numerous bird on the planet, traveled in flocks a mile wide and up to 300 miles long - so dense that they darkened the sky for hours and days as the flock passed overhead. Total populations may have reached 5 billion birds and comprised up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America. No appreciable decline in their numbers was noted until the late 1870s but, thereafter, their destruction took only twenty-five years. The immense roosting and nesting colonies invited over-hunting. The last bird died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. 2004, The Blackburn Press

The PeregrineThe Peregrine
J. A. Baker

From fall to spring, J.A. Baker set out to track the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of eastern England. He followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, in pursuit of their prey, making a kill, eating, and at rest, activities he describes with an extraordinary fusion of precision and poetry. And as he continued his mysterious private quest, his sense of human self slowly dissolved, to be replaced with the alien and implacable consciousness of a hawk. It is this extraordinary metamorphosis, magical and terrifying, that these beautifully written pages record. 2004, New York Review Books Classics

The Shorebirds of North AmericaThe Shorebirds of North America
Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen, a self-taught naturalist, produced this authoritative compendium of these interesting birds early in his career. Chapters covering the history, physiology, and habits of the “wind birds” are written in his customary elegant and precise prose. Illustrated with paintings by Robert Clem. 1967, Viking

Silence of the SongbirdsSilence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World's Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them
Bridget Stutchbury

Prof. Stutchbury paints a complex picture of the current condition of songbirds and their habitats. Songbird populations are decreasing due to industrialization and development. In their tropical winter homes, habitat is shrinking from deforestation. In their North American breeding grounds, invasive cowbirds sneak into their nests and replace songbird eggs with their own, house cats kill millions every year and logging threatens the birds' boreal forest homes. During their long, always treacherous migrations, they encounter many 21st-century perils: city lights that distract from guiding stars, and perilous radio towers and wind turbines. The good news is that we can help the birds survive, by buying shade-grown coffee and turning out city lights at night, among other ways. 2007, Walker & Company

The Singing Life of BirdsThe Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong
Donald Kroodsma

Professor Kroodsma shares what he's learned from more than three decades of recording and analyzing the songs of birds in this intriguing, instructional book. Using sound spectrograms, he illustrates the songs of 30 birds from the familiar American robin to the exotic three-wattled bellbird of Costa Rica. He considers how birds acquire their songs, what makes the songs unique, what functions they serve, and how they've evolved. No two species sound alike; groups of birds within each species have their own dialects; and individual birds have their own repertoires as well. This warm and encouraging guide to the world of birdsong includes a CD of the birds' songs discussed.
John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing, 2006
2007, Houghton Mifflin

Winged Migration DVDWinged Migration (DVD)
Jacques Perrin, director

The viewer enjoys an astonishing bird's eye view as camera crews use ultralight planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons to fly alongside, above, below and in front of their subjects - a rich variety of bird migrations through 40 countries and each of the seven continents. This is a film of staggering beauty and consuming interest. 2005, Sony Pictures

World of Raptors DVDWorld of Raptors (DVD)

This intimate guide to American birds of prey portrays the majestic power and beauty of North America's falcons, hawks and eagles in all their wild glory. Filled with spectacular aerial photography, World of Raptors follows internationally renowned bird authority, Morley Nelson, on an odyssey of natural discovery. Narrated by Joanne Woodward. 2003, STS Media

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