“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
So wrote JM Barrie in The Little White Bird. The author was to expand on his theory as there are flying humans everywhere in Barrie’s Peter Pan – but that’s another story.
The last few years have seen a run of books that beautifully capture the magnificence of birds and we have round up a few of them here, along with a couple of classics.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston and Neil Gower (2017)
This lovely book, replete with illustrations and snippets of poetry, combines the authors’ passion for birds with meaningful literature (perfect for those who love both). Described by Tom Holland as ‘a magical book: an inimitable fusion of ornithology, literary anthology and autobiography’, it’s a joyful read that will make you look at our feathered friends in a richer, more appreciative way. Buy here.
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree (2018)
This new book, published by Picador this year, is a must-read for anyone interested in how we can all feel more in touch with nature. The author and her husband Charlie Burrell created a project in which 3,500 acres were left to animals and plants to take over – and the book traces the extraordinary changes that followed in the decade that followed. Many rare bird species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, and lesser spotted woodpeckers now nest at the Knepp project. Combining memoir with interesting facts about Britain’s ecology, it’s a book full of hope for rewilding projects and the ability of nature to bounce back. Buy here.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (2018)
Another new release this year, this true-crime adventure traces the story of the 20-year-old American man whose obsession with Victorian salmon fly-tying led him to steal hundreds of invaluable bird skins – many of them collected 150 years earlier by contemporaries of Darwin – from the Tring Museum near London in 2009. This fascinating, curious novel sees its author follow the trail of the beautiful feathers and their thief, while taking a long, hard look at the destructive human desire to possess and control nature. Buy here.
Skomer: Portrait of a Welsh Island by Jane Matthews (2011)
It’s amazing to think that on the tiny islands of Skomer and Skokholm, some of the most westerly points in Wales, over 149 species of bird have been recorded. Skomer contains the largest colony of Atlantic puffins in southern Britain, plus has its own unique animal: the Skomer vole. Remarkably, over half the world’s Manx shearwater population nests here, too. Full of fantastic photographs and tips for setting up your equipment on Skomer (overnight visitors can stay in the island’s hostel), the picture painted by Jane Matthews of this small, delightful island is likely to ignite excitement in birdwatchers anywhere. Buy here.
The Peregrine by J. A. Baker (1967)
This classic of ornithology was written by an author who confesses his interest in birds came later in life. J. A. Baker is not concerned with the competitive tradition of falconry covered by other books; his is rather an inquiry into the daily life of a bird that was quite close to extinction at the time of his writing (thankfully, it is not so threatened now). The Peregrine takes the reader beyond conventional imagery of falcons and deep into Baker’s imaginative descriptions of the animal he observes and writes about, as he cycles after it on his bike. Buy here.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir by Chris Packham (2016)
Beloved television presenter Chris Packham, who is on the autistic spectrum, writes movingly about his first brush with grief in his memoir from a few years ago. He tells of his befriending a kestrel which became the first thing he loved – and ultimately lost – giving him an understanding of the pain that accompanies the pleasure we take in the animal kingdom and securing his passion for the natural world for ever. Buy here.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (1970)
Coming in at under 150 pages, this novella has long been noted for its spiritual insights and was a huge bestseller at the time of its original publication. In it, a seagull, Jonathan Livingston, is weary of his daily life and petty squabbles, and flies off in search of something more meaningful. In his quest for a higher life, he reaches a state of greater self-awareness that holds lessons for us all about the difficulties and rewards of following your own path. Buy here.
The Conference of the Birds or Speech of the Birds by Attar of Nishapur (1177)
Celebrated as a Persian literary masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds was written by the poet known as Attar of Nishapur and contains such lines as: ‘Which matters more, the body or the soul? / Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.’ This symbolic tale sees all the birds of the world – each representing a human flaw – gather together to discuss who will be their sovereign leader. In doing so, they undertake a lyrical exploration of spirituality, beauty, and self-image. Buy here.
Bird Sense: What it’s Like to be a Bird by Tim Birkhead (2013)
What is it like to be a bird? None of us can ever know, really, but Tim Birkhead’s book does a wonderful job of bringing us closer to the experience. Using our own bodies as a template, we can think about how bird bodies function, and the amazing abilities they have – for example, the enhanced hearing of certain types of owls. The author even ventures into bird lovemaking, and bird emotions. It’s a comprehensive, informative read for anyone interested in bird species. Buy here.
Strong Words is a great new print magazine. For details on how to buy individual copies or subscribe, go here.