Books for beginning and avid birdwatchers alike

Alison Walker on September 09, 2020
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Books for beginning and avid birdwatchers alike

During the past six months, many of us have spent more time at home, looking out our windows onto balconies, trees, porches, and vistas of all kinds. We have caught ourselves staring a little more intently at the birds that pass by our windows, and we can’t help but wonder at tiny beaks and feathers and at the screeches and coos that greet us through our window screens. We’ve also begun to be inundated with articles extolling birdwatching as the HOT NEW PANDEMIC HOBBY, which may be overstating things a bit, but also still holds a kernel of truth as we continue to watch birds out our windows as a small sign of hope.

I’ve been birding since I was an awkward 10-year-old with a pair of my dad’s oversized binoculars, so I heartily support the unlikely PR campaign that birdwatching has received. It’s a hobby that requires a willing eye or ear and not much else. Birding is a study in slowing down, being quiet, and observing the tiniest of details. My favorite birds, from the family Empidonax, are notoriously difficult to tell apart and require years of experience to identify one species from the next.

For those just starting a new birding hobby to those who want to expand their birding life list, here are four indispensable guides.


The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition by David Allen Sibley

In this day of apps and instant information, field guides are still the most important part of a birder’s arsenal, with The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition as the most comprehensive and user-friendly book to be kept next to those trusty binoculars at all times. Bird apps are fine things, and I use them frequently, but The Sibley Guide gives one the context that apps fail to provide. Take those Empidonax flycatchers, for example. Even when I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a Dusky Flycatcher, I still thumb through all the surrounding pages in my guide to compare the bird I’m watching to similar species.


What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

For those of us who care little whether the bird is a Dusky or Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, but love the intricacies of birds in general, Sibley’s What It's Like to Be a Bird is a wonderful entry into bird behavior. It's written for the layperson but still contains enough detail for the seasoned birder. With most common species represented in life-sized renderings and answers to some of the most pressing bird-related questions, this book is perfect for paging through over coffee or sharing with curious children.


The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman

For a deeper glimpse into bird behavior, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way investigates the intricacies of what makes birds unique within the animal world. Ackerman combines personal stories with the latest science on birds, creating a narrative that is at once entertaining and also ornithologically rigorous. After reading this book, one begins to evangelize on topics ranging from bird navigation and flight paths to particular bird songs and calls over Zoom chats with friends. It’s a wonderful book to give people who love science writing and especially those who are curious about the wide world of bird behavior.


The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht

For anyone who likes their birding with a dash of humor, I would be remiss if I did not include Matt Kracht’s The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America in this list, since it’s perhaps the most hilarious bird book I’ve ever come across. Kracht turns traditional bird identification guides on their heads as he renames common bird species, including the Western Meadowjerk (Western Meadowlark). Complete with drawings and descriptions that are as humorous as they are factual, this book is snarky, hilarious, and even a little informative. It’s the perfect book to keep by your desk to page through during long conference calls on Thursday afternoons. Just make sure you’re on mute before you read the entry for the Scarlet Teenager (Scarlet Tanager).


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