Audubon Magazine

In each issue of Audubon, the editors review a mix of narrative nonfiction titles, as well as art books and children’s books about nature. For ease, we’ve compiled the fantastic works we reviewed in 2012 in one place, and we’ve added a few additional books we covered online.




In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides

By Thomas R. Dunlap

Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $34.95 (Buy it)

Thomas Dunlap traces the history of field guides from the days when the best birding technology was opera glasses to modern times. He makes clear in his new book that field guides and birding developed together, determining how each evolved over time. “In text and pictures [the guides] said what was important, told how to practice the craft, even what to call the birds,” Dunlap writes. “In the field they served, as much as binoculars, as a member’s badge and an introduction.”—Frank Graham Jr.


Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird

By Tim Birkhead

Walker & Company, 288 pages, $25 (Buy it)

Tim Birkhead’s new book is endlessly interesting. Nearly every page provides insights into how birds experience the world—from how they navigate to what they see to their long-unappreciated sense of smell—and reveals how much more we have to discover about these incredible creatures. A must-read for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like to be a bird.—Alisa Opar



How to Be a Better Birder

By Derek Lovitch

Princeton University Press, 208 pages, $19.95 (Buy it)

By paying attention to, among other things, radar maps, enthusiasts can take what Lovitch calls the “whole bird and more” approach: looking beyond the individual animals, focusing instead on their surroundings. The former avian researcher assumes readers have a basic knowledge of birding terminology and at least minimal skill. His language is easy to digest, making confusing groups like sparrows seem manageable to ID. Becoming a better birder requires practice, but Lovitch provides the tools for those willing to put in the work to be the best they can be.—Michele Berger


Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

By Thor Hanson

Basic Books, 352 pages, $15.99 (Buy it)

Beginning with the evolution of birds, Hanson, a biologist, explains competing theories with ease, and unfolds the human fascination with feathers in terms of science, commerce, tools, folklore, art, and aerodynamics with panache. Anecdotes infuse the fascinating survey.—Amber Williams



City of Ravens: London, The Tower and Its Famous Birds

By Boria Sax

Duckworth Overlook, 208 pages, $22 (Buy it)

In 1554, after the death of England’s Lady Jane Grey—executed for treason when Mary I, or “Bloody Mary,” assumed the throne—ravens at the Tower of London supposedly pecked the eyes out of her severed head. In City of Ravens, historian Boria Sax debunks this and other deliciously macabre legends, suggesting that the birds were actually first brought to the Tower in the 19th century as pets, not corpse eaters. Ever since, the black birds have resided at the Tower. The author delves into the true history and cultural importance of these massive corvids.—Anna Sanders


The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds on the Southeastern Shore

By John Yow

University of North Carolina Press, 256 pages, $26 (Buy it)

John Yow’s The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal masquerades as a glorified guidebook, with 28 bird profiles spanning five seasons. Yet through enchanting descriptions and personal anecdotes, Yow makes characters—the villainous ruddy turnstone, the “drunken” reddish egret—out of his subjects, carefully highlighting each species’ subtleties.—Michele Berger




Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind

By Richard Fortey

Alfred A. Knopf, 332 pages, $28.95 (Buy it)

What do you do at a horseshoe crab orgy, when the ancient creatures throng beaches to reproduce in the spring? Richard Fortey takes notes. And so begins this beautiful book about horseshoe crabs and other species that have endured mass extinctions, sea-level changes, ice ages, and other hurdles to survive to the present day.—Justin Nobel



Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World

By Stefan Bechtel

Beacon Press, 254 pages, $26.95 (Buy it)

Personal salvation through taxidermy—this was the bizarre philosophy that carried a God-fearing, gun-toting Midwestern farm boy named William Temple Hornaday into the most colorful career in American conservation history. Shoot, stuff, and exhibit the mortal remains of slaughtered game for the public’s admiration and education. Hornaday shot the first crocodile recorded in Florida. He killed a tiger in India, and in Borneo ended up with 43 orangutans—shot, skinned, and suitably resurrected Later in life a passion drove him to save the remnants of American wildlife. Hornaday’s blemishes were mostly a reflection of his violent time, his undoubted virtues the product of a conflicted but unique man.—Frank Graham Jr.


Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific

By Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pages, $25 (Buy it)

Remote lands populated by cannibalistic natives and poisonous snakes set the stage for biologist Tim Flannery’s latest book, Among the Islands. The renowned author delves into his 1980s and ’90s expeditions to catalog unique, elusive species, like a red-gray tree-climbing mouse and a monkey-faced bat. He bounces from the Solomon Islands to Fiji to Bismarck’s Isles, falling into a sinkhole while trying to set a mist net and trudging through thigh-deep guano to get a closer look at an insect-eating bat. Part travel diary and part field notebook, Among the Islands is a rollicking good adventure-science read—something like what you’d get if Charles Darwin starred in an Indiana Jones flick.—Susan Cosier



Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned

Backyards Into Battlegrounds

By Jim Sterba

Crown Publishers, 368 pages, $26 (Buy it)

Jim Sterba explores how, ironically, many Americans are living closer to nature than ever before—and how ill-equipped we are to deal with it. After centuries of uncontrolled hunting and clear-cutting devastated ecosystems, the environmental movement inspired people to try to restore some kind of natural balance. While conservationists have unquestionably made incredible strides, Sterba argues that, close to home, we’ve overcompensated, paving the way for wild creatures to live in our lushly landscaped environs—with plenty of food and protection—but not in harmony.—Catherine Griffin


When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

By Terry Tempest Williams

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $23 (Buy it)

In When Women Were Birds, Williams once again weaves together personal history and the natural world through her eloquent prose. Over 54 taut chapters—her mother was 54 when she died, as was Williams when she wrote this book—Williams takes the reader on a remarkable journey. She traces her life, from her Mormon upbringing through her days as a science teacher in a religious school and on to her inspiring involvement in national policy and international human rights.—Susan Cosier



The Black Rhinos of Namibia: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $25 (Buy it)

The story of the black rhinoceros is also a story of the desert, and Bass’s writing submerges readers in “the oldest unchanged landscape on earth,” a blistering horizon of basalt and heat. Through his journey Bass pulls apart the layered relationship between rhinoceros and desert, land and history, past and future. “Big animals, with the broad strokes of their movements and lives, can show us the world,” he writes, “and with those broad strokes lead us further into imagination.”—Justine E. Hausheer


The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea

By Callum Roberts

Viking, 405 pages, $30 (Buy it)

Despite its beauty and wonder, disaster looms beneath the ocean’s surface. Year after year, fish populations decline and the oceans become more polluted. In recent decades we’ve treated it as a dumping ground and heedlessly exploited its resources. Callum Roberts’s new book is a call to action. A marine scientist and author, he describes in vivid detail how the ocean’s stores are rapidly declining and how its very makeup is changing.—Catherine Griffin


Decade of the Wolf, revised and updated edition: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone

By Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson

Lyons Press, 256 pages, $16.95 (Buy it)

Between harrowing helicopter rides, firing dart guns, and handling gray wolves up close, working on the recovery of Yellowstone's top predator isn't for the faint of heart. Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, teams up with award-winning nature writer Gary Ferguson offer readers a compelling, intimate look at restoring wolves to Yellowstone.—Alisa Opar



The Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination

By Kelly Enright

University of Virginia Press, 200 pages, $29.95 (Buy it)

Enright investigates explorers, writers, and scientists who shared their enchantment with the jungle through books, essays, and film. From the poetic “wild hot continents” John Muir explored to the “unbelievably rich flora” ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes saw in the Amazon, Enright delves into the origins and evolution of American views of the jungle and, later, the rainforest. “—Anna Sanders


Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death

By Bernd Heinrich

Houghton Miffl in Harcourt, 256 pages, $25 (Buy it)

When a friend with a severe illness expresses to Bernd Heinrich his desire for a green burial “because human burial is today an alien approach to death,” it compels the renowned biologist and author to contemplate how the natural world deals with the end of life. The result is a moving examination of what Heinrich calls “animal undertaking.” In Life Everlasting he delves into happenings largely invisible to us: carrion beetles burying mice; the astonishing transformation of marine plankton (microscopic plants) into chalk; the persistence of ravens in chipping meat off of a frozen carcass mid-winter and their stealthy exploits to hide their hard-earned meal.—Alisa Opar



What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses

By Daniel Chamovitz

Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $23 (Buy it)

Judiciously manipulating similes with dashes of anthropomorphism, Chamovitz introduces each of the vital human senses (all except taste) and explains its meaning for humans as contrasted with its function in plants. There are no noses or eyes as such in the plant world, but there are organs and responses that mimic our physiology. The author recounts, for instance, how willows, attacked by caterpillars, send airborne pheromones to neighboring willows. Warned by these gaseous signals (or “smells”) of a nearby infestation, the neighbors begin manufacturing increased levels of toxic chemicals to render their leaves unpalatable to the caterpillars.—Frank Graham Jr.


How Not to Be Eaten: The Insects Fight Back

By Gilbert Waldbauer

University of California Press, 240 pages, $27.95 (Buy it)

For the 900,000 known insect species, about 75 percent of the known animal species on earth, staying alive by any means necessary requires a variety of defenses. In his new book, Gilbert Waldbauer, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Illinois, uses a plethora of studies from scores of researchers to show that whether they walk, swim, or fl y, insects are unparalleled in their ability to eat plants and other insects, parasitize mammals and transmit disease (thus helping to keep populations in check), and function as a sanitation corps by recycling and redistributing nutrients from dung and dead plants and animals.—Susan Cosier


The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

By Jim Robbins

Spiegel & Grau, 240 pages, $25 (Buy it)

“Imagine a world without trees,” writes journalist Jim Robbins. It’s nearly impossible after reading The Man Who Planted Trees, in which Robbins weaves science and spirituality as he explores the bounty these plants offer the planet. They feed oceans, clean air, release anti-cancer compounds, and affect the water cycle. Robbins also tells the story of David Milarch, who, after nearly dying from kidney and liver failure in 1987, has dedicated himself to saving trees.—Daisy Yuhas



By Nicholas P. Money

Oxford University Press, 201 pages, $24.95 (Buy it)

Blood-foot, stinkhorn, and the deadly webcaps are just three oozing, putrid, or poisonous species among the wide array of fungi described in botanist Nicholas P. Money’s vivid new book, Mushroom. Money delves into the science behind their spore-spewing and hallucinogenic properties, exploring their place in nature and culture. The book is littered with references to individuals who have made their mark in mycology, clarifying the seemingly mystical properties of fungi, the least studied and least understood kingdom of life.—Susan Cosier


Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

By Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $27 (Buy it)

In Love, Life, and Elephants, her touching new memoir, Daphne Sheldrick gracefully chronicles decades of living with and working to conserve the creatures of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. While in her mid-twenties, she falls for (and eventually marries) the park’s wildlife warden. Together the two also fall for creatures facing hard fates. Most of all, Sheldrick adores Tsavo's elephants—a species whose population in Kenya plummeted in a mere 16 years from 167,000 to 16,000 due to the ivory trade.—Michele Berger


How to Walk a Puma: And Other Things I Learned While Stumbling Through South America

By Peter Allison

Lyons Press, 200 pages, $16.95 (Buy it)

Peter Allison recounts his 18-month journey across South America, over glaciers and through jungles, in search of another wild cat, the jaguar. This is no Eat, Pray, Love–style memoir. Allison embraces the oft-omitted travel truth that sometimes expectations exceed reality, seeing this as all the more reason to laugh at life’s surprises.—Daisy Yuhas



The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

By Richard Conniff

W.W. Norton & Company, 464 pages, $26.95 (Buy it)

Award-winning writer Richard Conniff charts a course through an era of intense discovery (nearly 200 years, starting in 1735), honoring the naturalists and scientists who achieved “something like immortality” (Charles Darwin and John James Audubon, for example), as well as the lesser-known (or unfairly credited) ones. In pursuit of new species and theories, they experienced great joys as well as great losses—of fame (to competitors), specimens (in shipwrecks), or life (to disease). In the end these adventurers helped shape the course of history, changing the way we understand species, their origins, and how humans fit into the picture.—Julie Leibach



The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives

By Diana Reiss

Houghton Miffl in Harcourt, 288 pages, $27 (Buy it)

Reiss’s research with mirrors has demonstrated that dolphins, like great apes, have the capacity for self-recognition and, potentially, empathy. This book brings readers into her laboratory. She walks through her work from its begnings, sharing unforgettable moments like a dolphin's sly deception or beautiful bubble play. What Reiss reveals about dolphins and humans is often brilliant, at times brutal,

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