Valentine’s day is coming up, and you may be panicking over what to get the bird lover in your life. With only two days left, you may be perusing websites, horrified by the cost of purchasing new, superlative optics. Maybe a Tilley hat? Too obvious, and impersonal.
I can help. Here is a list of books that will thrill any birdy person in your life:
The Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth. This is a conservation-literature classic and also, appropriately for Valentine’s Day, a love story. Bodsworth’s book brilliantly follows the last Eskimo curlew’s migration path from the Canadian Arctic to the southern tip of Argentina, year after year, in search of a mate. The curlew’s own story is interspersed with scientific data and documentation about the terrifyingly rapid disappearance of the species, largely at the hands of humans. Be prepared to weep a little.
Life List, by Olivia Gentile. A riveting biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, who set the world record for number of bird species seen, with a life list over 8,000. It’s a story of how a sighting of a blackburnian warbler ignites Snetsinger’s transformation from a traditional 1950s housewife (and mother of 5!) into a colossally knowledgeable birder and wild adventurer on a remarkable quest. It’s also a story about the power of obsession and the limitless thrill of birding, even in the face of death.
Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, by Graeme Gibson. All birders will want to linger in this gorgeously illustrated book full of mythological poems, essays, enticing images from folk art, medieval bestiaries, and natural science histories. A wonderful writer and birder, Gibson prefaces each chapter with a short essay that speaks to the transformative power of birds and why humans are drawn to them.
How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. Warning: whoever receives this book won’t be able to put it down. Readers may laugh ferociously and read excerpts to you constantly. It’s excellent because it’s so funny and true. It’s also a book about the beauty of being a beginner.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman. For the fiction lover in your life: a wonderful collection of stories about family, mother-daughter relationships, a quest for love, the fragility of our world. Birds are everywhere in this lively collection.
The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik. The book that inspired the 2011 movie with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. A delightfully suspenseful account of a 1998 Big Year competition, peopled with quirky, obsessively competitive characters and spectacular birds. Obmascik does more than follow the frenetic travels of men on a quest to find the most birds: he also delves into the history of ornithology and North American birding.
Who knows, you may just end up buying one of these for yourself while you’re at it; the prose may entrance you, and you’ll realize that perhaps you’re ready to grab a pair of binoculars and head out into the field after all!
Do you have other bird book ideas? Feel free to add to the list!
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.