In the first of a new series, the ‘founder’ of the BOU’s Desert Island Book Club kicks us off with some of his favourite books which have defined his personal and professional lives working in the bird world.
British Trust for Ornithology, UK
Recently, I reviewed a book for BTO News that I thought was flippin’ brilliant, which caused me to reflect on just what my favourite bird book was. Of course, I couldn’t choose just one and, within a minute or two, I had half-a-dozen serious contenders. However, as all travellers to desert islands know, such lists typically come in eights; so here’s mine (in no particular order):
Beak of the Finch
Jonathan Weiner (Jonathon Cape, 1994)
One of the best popular science books of any kind (with a Pulitzer prize to prove it); a remarkably clear account of how natural selection works and Peter & Rosemary Grant’s team’s amazing long-term work on Darwin’s Finches in the Galápagos.
Ralph Steadman & Ceri Levy (Bloomsbury, 2012)
A feast of delightful caricatures of real and imaginary birds, but also a sober reminder of the rate at which the world’s unique biodiversity is being lost.
The Stonor Eagles
William Horwood (Country Life Books, 1982)
A haunting and deeply moving imagining of the last of the sea-eagles of Skye linked to the story of an artist’s journey through life, and one I have returned to many times over the years.
Ravens in Winter
Bernd Heinrich (Summit, 1989)
An account of the author’s fieldwork investigating how this iconic species thrives in the harsh Maine winter. His beautifully transparent prose brings you alongside him and perfectly captures the intelligence and character of his subjects; the perfect antidote to the heat of a desert island!
The Birds of Siberia
Henry Seebohm (John Murray, 1901)
I am always astonished by the perseverance and skill of naturalists of the 18th and 19th Century and the conditions they took for granted. Seebohm’s epic search to be the first to find a Grey Plover’s nest is a tribute to a different age, but one not so long past in the scheme of things.
Population Limitation in Birds
Ian Newton (Academic Press, 1998)
One of the books that is closest to hand on my desk, it contains pretty much everything you want to know about how bird populations tick, and has informed a lot of my thinking in my professional life.
Humphrey Dobinson (Viking, 1977)
Reading this book (a chance find at a jumble sale) as a fledgling birdwatcher opened the door to how much you could achieve by recording birds and also introduced me to a mysterious organisation called the BTO. I joined as a member soon after and haven’t looked back . .
Aig an Oir (At the Edge)
Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) (Langford Press, 2005)
Books from Langford Press are always a joy, but this one reminds me of childhood holidays in some of the world’s scarcest, and most fragile, habitat, Scotland’s Atlantic oakwoods. Martin Ridley’s Two crows passing is one of the most evocatively accurate paintings I know.
And I can’t resist a plug for the book that started this off, The Ascent of Birds by John Reilly (Pelagic Publishing, 2018) a dense, but cleverly constructed, journey through the life of birds and how they evolved that I am sure I will return to many times.
So, there you have it, eight books, with many more that almost made it (sorry David Quammen, Lars Jonsson, . . .). Some you will probably not have heard of, in which case I encourage you to track them down. Some you will have read, and think have no place on such a list; in which case I encourage you to share your own. Mine, perhaps predictably, has a scientific slant; hopefully those of others will be tilted towards art, literature, fieldcraft, or something else.
In these increasingly ephemeral days of social media, sitting down and reading an actual book is, to my mind, one of the great pleasures in life (and no, audiobooks don’t count). You get the local field guide and regional handbook of your choice, but which are the eight bird/natural history books that most influenced, inspired, or had an impact on you that you would take to a desert island? There must be some hidden gems waiting to be shared, and discovered . . .
Tell us about your desert island books!
We’d love to hear about the books you’d take with you to your desert island. Format exactly as above. So send us your eight books (title, author(s), publisher, year; max. 50 words on each book; a short biography (max. 100 words) and photo of yourself. We’ll source the cover images. Email your contributions to the BOU Office. Contributions from BOU members will be considered for our BOU member newsletter.
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