A Chicago Birder Winter Reading List

When it comes to New Years’ Resolutions, there are many among us who probably set birding goals. Your goal might be to go birding more frequently or to check off over 300 species on your year list. I have made such goals in the past, but this year I made myself a slightly simpler resolution, which was just to read more books. Of course, since my life tends to revolve around birds, more than one of the books I selected was directly about or relevant to the topic of birds!

As 2018 is coming to a close, I selected from the bird-related books I read this year to make my top four recommendations for you to put on your own reading list. Here are a few choices to get you through the winter:

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker (2014)

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My bookshelves are lined with books that all share a wealth of general knowledge about our feathered friends. So much so, that when Noah Strycker came to speak at a Chicago Ornithological Society event, I swore to myself I knew I must have one of his books, but then somehow I was at a loss when trying to find it on my shelf. Strycker’s impassioned talk on his travels around the world (captured in his 2017 book, Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World) inspired me to take a second look and found that I indeed owned a copy of his 2014 book, The Thing with Feathers.

As I found out this past January, Strycker is incredibly engaging and witty, and fortunately, his personality definitely comes through in his writing. The Thing with Feathers is far from a dry compendium of bird facts - and I’ve read a few of those. The fun thing about this book is that for every interesting story Strycker tells about birds, he links each one back to our own human history and psychology. He also connects bird stories to his own birding adventures, from his home in Oregon to his journeys to Antarctica.

If you feel like you’ve already learned everything there is to know about how homing pigeons navigate, what makes nutcrackers have such great memories and why bowerbirds build courtship bowers, expect more of that, but with a little twist of introspection.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk W. Johnson (2018)

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Another book I read this year with feather in the title, which had less to do with the fascinating lives of birds themselves and more to do with actual feathers, was The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. It’s likely you have heard of it, since it made a pretty big impact in 2018 and was a popular book being read by birders and non-birders alike.

The Feather Thief is a true story about how one man became so obsessed with the art of tying perfect fishermen flies (made mostly from feathers) that it led him to raid the British Museum of Natural History’s bird collection. The story is told from Johnson’s point of view as an investigative journalist retracing the steps of the feather thief to uncover what happened to the missing specimens.

Bird lovers will find it easy to empathize with Johnson as he sets out on this quest for justice. True, the justice he seeks may be for a few dozen dead birds, but these were historically important dead birds and quite irreplaceable to the scientists who study them!

In addition to all the drama, you will certainly learn a lot about the Victorian art of fly tying, why certain flies are so appealing – and valuable, as well as a few important natural history lessons. To the bird enthusiast, this book certainly provides an eye-opening perspective on why non-birders might come to covet the same feathers that we do, albeit with slightly different intentions.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

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Repeatedly, I saw H is for Hawk appear on lists and in the bird section of my local bookstore and I kept ignoring it. I told myself, this book isn’t really about birds, it’s about falconry, which is totally different and it might even possibly be harmful toward birds? Nevertheless, my curiosity finally won out and I gave it a shot to see what all the hubbub was about.

H is for Hawk is about six months in the life of author, Helen Macdonald, as she trains a Goshawk as a falconry bird as a means to cope with and distract herself from the recent death of her father. The book seamlessly bounces back and forth between stories from Macdonald’s childhood, her grieving process, her progress with her Goshawk, Mabel, and stories from the life of another falconer/author, Terence H. White. White was more famous for writing The Once and Future King (1958) and maybe less famous as a former Goshawk trainer (as White described in The Goshawk, 1951).

In H is for Hawk, Macdonald lays her struggles bare while beautifully describing how she uses falconry and her connection to Mabel as an escape while simultaneously bringing herself back to earth. She contrasts her own trials with those of White, who also seemed to use falconry both to build himself back up out of his own sorrows and to tie himself back to his ancient roots.

My initial thought that this book isn’t “really about birds” definitely wasn’t true. Although there is a lot more going on within it than just bird behavior, this book brilliantly describes what can truly captivate us about birds, their wildness. This book will give you a lot to ponder on whether that “wildness” is truly unique and separate from our own human existence, and what it is that leads many of us to seek out that “wildness” when we commune with nature, however we choose to do so.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan (2017)

Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and now living in Chicago, I’ve lived most of my life along the Great Lakes. Yet, it’s easy to look out across Lake Michigan and not think about how these vast bodies of freshwater have shaped us or how humans, in turn, have permanently altered the lakes.

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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan is not exactly a book about birds but at the same time, it is, because of how birds are affected by the lakes. Egan details how the international shipping industry transformed the entirety of the Great Lakes with many unfortunate and unplanned biological consequences (namely, invasive species). Today we are fighting a losing battle against many of these consequences, all while not knowing what unforeseen threats might be working their way down the pipes. While reading The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, it quickly becomes clear that invasive species, such as zebra mussels and common reed, don’t just impact fish in the Great Lakes, but through various mechanisms they impact the entire structure and integrity of the food web, thereby affecting birds as well as people.

This book will provide Great Lakes area birders with a broader understanding for how environmental impacts in our area work their way up the food chain and affect all life touched by the Great Lakes. Because of the sheer volume of important information and historical context within this book, I highly recommend The Death and Life of the Great Lakes as required reading for anyone that lives in our region. It’s also a great read for the masses, no science degree required.

Further recommendations from my 2018 reading list:

· The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

· The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years by Jane Kim and Thayer Walker

· Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock by Derrick Z. Jackson and Stephen W. Kress

· Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

On my wish list, books I want to read next:

· The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Great Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson

· Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson

· The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World by Richard Prum

· The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris