I absolutely adore reading about nature, and have found such solace when reading detailed accounts about avian residents and visitors in our skies. I wanted to collect together six of my favourite books about birds, in the hope that you too, dear reader, enjoy true stories of our feathered friends as much as I do.
1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.
In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’
2. The Swallow: A Biography by Stephen Moss
‘With around 5.3 million breeding pairs, the swallow is one of the most common birds in Britain. Known for living close to human settlements, including rural and urban areas, it is also one of the most-sighted. But how much do we really know about this bird?
In The Swallow Stephen Moss documents a year of observing the swallow close to home and in the field to shed light on the secret life of these extraordinary birds. We trace the swallow’s lifecycle and journey, from its arrival in the UK in Spring to its epic winter migration to warmer climes, and how the swallow takes its place in popular culture and literature across the centuries.
With beautiful illustrations throughout, this captivating year-in-the-life biography reveals the hidden secrets of this iconic bird that lives right on our doorstep.’
3. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett
‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’
4. Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer
Taken from my own review; you can read all of my thoughts here
‘Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len. Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty. In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds. From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books. With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’
The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden. When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual. It feels as if someone is strangling me.’ We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music. As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.’
5. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt
Taken from my own review; you can read my thoughts on the book here
‘In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’
In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.”
6. Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington
Taken from my own review; you can read my thoughts about Owl Sense here
‘The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia. We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’ Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species. In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’ She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.
Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild. In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence. What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?”