Birders have their own language, a shorthand way of speaking to each other speckled with lingo finely tuned for only their flock to understand. We use acronyms in our field notes, evidence of a quiet madness bubbling up to the surface. We have running totals of all the birds we’ve seen, our “Life List,” and try every year to one-up each other (and ourselves) with a “Big Year.” A Big Year is a challenge to identify as many birds in one calendar year as possible. I live in two universes with these lists, one for my skybound friends and another for the imaginary and true ones I encounter in the pages of some of my favorite books. Here are some books to read to achieve your own literary Big Year.
Adrian Mandrick is addicted: to deceit, alcohol, drugs, and finding the extremely rare (most say extinct) ivory-billed woodpecker he swore he spotted once as a child in the swamps of Florida. The combination of Chris White’s nuanced birder language and eye for detail, and the psychological drama of Adrian’s downward spiral, make this a read that will satisfy birders and non-birders alike.
BIRDS, ART, LIFE is a reflection on how applying birding principles to different aspects of your life can remedy the daily disconnect we all feel living in a modern world. By exploring how the micro joys we overlook impact macro and larger themes of our humanity, this unconventional field guide for living and birding ultimately shows us how nature is a perennial source of inspiration and strength.
Nell Zink’s THE WALLCREEPER is a zany, clever novel that forces us to look at how and why good intentions like wanting to conserve and protect nature can get skewed, misaligned, and become destructive. Peppered with lyrical and beautiful descriptions of birds, forests, and the emotional underpinnings of radicals, this wild book will have anyone entertained and engaged.
FREEDOM is an epic American family saga that chronicles the members of a dysfunctional family lead by Walter Berglund, a liberal suburbanite hooked on the plight of disappearing songbirds. Jonathan Franzen’s love and devotion to birds and birding is so evident on these pages, but essentially it’s his keen eye for observing how life is equally tragic and comic that makes this novel a literary gem.
Freedom follows Walter and Patty Berglund as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world. This award-winning novel comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty, the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, and the heavy weight of empire.
THE BEAK OF THE FINCH is the story of scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant, who conduct research on an island in the Galápagos archipelago. For more than twenty years, they have studied and observed generations of Darwin’s finches to witness natural selection happen before their very eyes. Told in an excellent documentary tone, this informative and interesting look into ornithology, biology, and evolution will make any birder appreciate the inner workings of our natural world.
A book about polyamory? In a list for birders? This deep dive is an illuminating look into a very specific subculture that reshapes our notions of what our cultural understanding of romance, love, and relationships are. Told with a sociological bent and with explanations of animal and ultimately human behavior, this thought-provoking book will influence how you observe the natural world.