If you enjoyed Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, with its loving depiction of the British countryside and British bird-fanciers, or have delved into classic British bird books like T.H. White’s The Goshawk and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, you might sometimes feel that birding is, well, British. But with the approach of the U.S. celebration of Father’s Day and our very own Independence Day, we decided to focus on birding books that are distinctively American in authorship and in spirit. Any of these books would make an excellent gift for a father or a friend—or perhaps someone who is a bit of both.
Noah Strycker, an Oregon native who, like Helen Macdonald, grew up with a photographer father, is just 31 years old but has already written three extraordinary books on birds and bird life. The first of these was Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, in which Strycker was dropped by helicopter into one of the least human-friendly environments on earth to study penguins in their natural habitat. In The Thing with Feathers, Strycker looks at the ways in which people and birds behave similarly—collaborating like fairy-wrens, for instance, or establishing “pecking order” hierarchies. “He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet,” one reviewer said in The Wall Street Journal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish Birding without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World in October. Strycker, who is nothing if not intrepid, traveled to 41 countries to see how many kinds of bird he could identify in a single year. With another witness at his side to verify his records, he encountered 6,042 species—the most ever. He’s said his favorite is the “underappreciated” turkey vulture. What could be more American than that?
John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes
In this acclaimed biography, first published by Knopf in 2004, Rhodes (a Kansas native) tells the story of how Audubon, the Haitian-born illegitimate son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, travelled to America as a teenager to escape being drafted into Napoleon’s army. After a failed start in business, this painter and naturalist began the large-scale series of paintings which became the basis for Birds of America. The ruinously expensive project required him to raise money in America and Europe and spend years away from his beloved, enterprising wife, Lucy, who supported their family as a teacher. In a review of this book in The New York Times, Jonathan Rosen wrote, “Rhodes—whose classic book about the making of the atom bomb won a Pulitzer Prize—possesses tremendous technological and historical mastery, but it is his novelistic evocation, based on what feels a near complete identification with his subject, that gives his book its uplifting energy.”
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley
Just as John James Audubon did in the late 1700s, David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of this monumental work, began drawing birds as a young boy in the early 1960s. That childhood obsession became a vocation. Sibley, who was born in Plattsburgh, New York, has published many other books about birds, but his Guide to Bird Life and Behavior is absolutely essential for readers who want to do more than just identify what they see through their binoculars—or out the kitchen window. Here he and contributing authors Chris Elphick and John B. Dunning Jr. address questions about what, why, and how birds do what they do. The guide includes essays on bird evolution, a North American bird-identification checklist, and 796 full-color paintings.
In Listening to a Continent Sing, published last year by Princeton University Press, Donald Kroodsma, a 56-year-old professor at the University of Massachusetts, travels across the continent with his 24-year-old son, David, who at first doesn’t “get” his father’s fascination with birdsong. “A bicycle trip across the country will renew your faith in the human spirit,” Kroodsma writes, and his delight in attending to the history and settings of the places the two pass through will leave readers listening better, too—and not just to birdsong. A dedicated website offers audio clips so readers can hear the birds speak for themselves.
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