Summer Reading: Great Books for Birders and Nature Lovers

This year’s book list includes climate-change thrillers, sweet love stories, captivating adventure tales, and more.

With summer just around the corner, you may be on the lookout for a great book—or two or three—to read on vacation. We’ve pulled together a fabulous mix of new narrative nonfiction titles, as well as a few of our favorites from years gone by. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re in the mood for an engrossing memoir, a true adventure story, or descriptive tales of the wondrous and curious lives of birds. Books are in no particular order. 



The Homing Instinct
By Bernd Heinrich
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $27

In naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s latest book, he explores the mysteries of migration and the homing instinct. From his own home in Maine, which houses many a non-human inhabitant, to the annual return of a pair of sandhill cranes in Alaska, to the enormous communal nests that sociable weaverbirds build to survive boiling summer days and freezing nights in the Kalahari. In this richly crafted book, Heinrich serves as a sometimes funny, always capable guide into the marvelously diverse ways that animals the world over find and make their homes. READ AN EXCERPT HERE


By McKenzie FunkBy McKenzi Funk
Penguin Press HC, 320 pages, $27.95

Windfall is written on a premise we’re all familiar with: If there’s a way to make a buck, someone somewhere will figure out how. Climate change, journalist McKenzie Funk argues, is no exception. Funk does an excellent job in conveying the realpolitikof environmental upheaval. From slick American speculators buying up water rights in the Australian Outback anticipating global water shortages, to the Canadian government’s expanded military presence along shipping routes newly opened by melting Arctic ice, the scramble to decide who will be the winners and who the losers when chaos finally sets in, Funk says, is well underway. This a smart, well-observed primer on the new world order climate change is already shaping. READ AN EXCERPT HERE 

The Thing with Feathers
By Noah Strycker
Riverhead (Penguin), 302 pages. $27.95

Magpies mourn their dead. Parrots can keep a beat, even dance. Oh, and albatrosses fall in love. Noah Strycker collates these and other insights of bird behavior into The Thing With Feathers. In this chatty, easy-to-read volume, Strycker marshals original reporting and scientific studies to argue the simple yet radical notion that birds have something to teach us about our own humanity. Spend some time with this book and even a veteran birder is bound to learn a thing or two. READ AN EXCERPT HERE


The Sixth Extinction
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Holt, 335 pages, $28

Elizabeth Kolbert’s book is the story of a human-made planetary mass extinction only seen in Earth’s geologic history five times before (The last was 65 million years ago, when a meteor the size of Manhattan obliterated the dinosaurs. Humanity, it seems, has invented subtler ways to die.) But few writers have Kolbert’s knack for casting looming catastrophe in such fun and agile prose. Told through 13 vignettes about 13 of the die-out’s earliest victims, The Sixth Extinction is a lively, informative, and, in the end, open-ended intellectual history of extinction science that’s sure to keep you turning pages even as she turns the knife. READ AN EXCERPT HERE


The Forest Unseen
By David George Haskell
Penguin Books, 288 pages, $16

David Haskell endeavors to witness the workings of the entire forest by revisiting a single tiny patch again and again throughout the year. Contemplative and poetic, the book slides effortlessly between the micro and macro scales in a way that makes ecological complexity both accessible and awe-inspiring. Whether you read it cover to cover or pick it up for the occasional, randomly selected chapter, Haskell’s writing is sure to deepen your appreciation for the natural world and invite some meditative thinking of your own.


Walden Warming
By Richard B. Primack
University of Chicago Press, 265 pages, $26

Biologist Richard Primack cleverly transforms Henry David Thoreau’s famous observations of Walden Pond into a dataset against which he compares his own, modern notes on the region’s climate and ecology. His juxtaposition clearly illustrates that climate change is already affecting Thoreau’s old stomping grounds. In Walden Warming, Primack has repurposed a classic of the conservation-writing canon into a present-day call to action.


A Feathered River Across the Sky
By Joel Greenberg
Bloomsbury USA, 304 pages, $12.75

Just before the dawn of the conservation movement in the U.S., the world’s most abundant bird was wiped out of existence, with the last individual dying in a zoo a century ago. Nothing about this extinction was inevitable; there were innumerable chances to save the species, but no one did. In a hauntingly matter-of-fact style, Greenberg lays out the astonishing story of the Passenger Pigeon and evokes its echoes in the environmental issues of today. 


The Dawn of the Deed
by John A. Long
University of Chicago Press, 287 pages, $17

Dust mites inseminate their partners by stabbing their abdomens. The Argentine duck’s penis measures a whopping 16.5 inches. Ancient fish copulated male-on-female, rather than spawning in the water as modern fish do. These are a just a few of the revelations in paleontologist John Long’s highly entertaining and informative book on the evolution of sex.

Hope on Earth
By Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias
University of Chicago Press, 201 pages, $20.

We are on the verge of an environmental catastrophe. The growing human population, unchecked consumption, and depletion of resources could very well spell disaster.Ehrlich and Tobias agree on that, but the two environmental scientists differ on their proposed solutions. In their wide-ranging conversation—pulled from discussions over a couple of days at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory—the two discuss everything from culture, to science, to religion, to politics as they debate the earth’s—and our—fate.


Lost Animals
by Errol Fuller
Princeton University Press, 256 pages, $29.95

We’re used to seeing gorgeous shots of animals in trouble. The bright white coat of the polar bear against the dark water in an increasingly ice-less Arctic. An up-close shot of a panda chomping on bamboo. Many of the photos in Fuller’s book, by contrast, are often blurry shots—in some cases the only photograph—of now-extinct animals. The indistinct images, accompanied by informative species profiles reinforce the enormity of the loss; these animals survived long enough for photography to be invented, but then quickly blinked out.


The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013
by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Tim Folger
Mariner Books, 368 pages, $14.95

Sometimes you just don’t want to sit down and read an entire book. In those instances, you might consider reaching for The Best American Science and Nature Writing. This annual anthology lives up to its title—it is a rich mix of stories from Orion, The New Yorker, Harper's, Scientific American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and more.



Avian expert Kenn Kaufman weighs in with a few suggestions of books from years gone by. He’s too modest to suggest his own work, so we’re going to do it for him. In Kingbird Highway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $14.95), Kaufman recounts dropping out of school at the age of 16 to set out on a solo quest to see as many birds as he could in a year. He crisscrosses the continent, hitchhiking and picking up odd jobs when money runs out—he budgeted $1 a day for food and subsists for stretches on cat food. He sleeps outside no matter the elements, briefly winds up in jail, and meets fascinating characters, avian and human alike.


Wild America
By Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher
Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 448 pages, $17

In 1953, the best-known bird watcher in the U.S. took his British counterpart on a naturalists’ road trip around North America, from Newfoundland to Mexico and then north to Alaska. Their account of the journey is still revered as a classic of nature writing. James Fisher’s first impressions of this continent alternate with Roger Peterson’s viewpoint of long experience; the contrast creates a three-dimensional portrait of the nature of North America six decades ago.


Three books by Peter Matthiessen

Acclaimed writer Peter Matthiessen, who passed away this April, won National Book Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. Much of his work centered on themes of nature or the environment. Three samples: The Wind Birds may be his best bird-centric book, with beautifully detailed essays on the lives of migratory shorebirds. The Snow Leopard recounts a journey deep into Nepal in search of the title animal, interwoven with a deeper spiritual journey that winds up meshing perfectly with the stark, harsh beauty of the Himalayas. His novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord brings together mercenaries, missionaries, and primitive native tribes, their characters and conflicts brought into focus by the magnificent Amazon rainforest where the story takes place.



A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered That Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants, by Ruth Kassinger (William Morrow, 413 pages, $25.99)

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, by Kristin Ohlson (Rodale, 256 pages, $23.99)

Mother Nature Is Trying to KILL You: A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World, by Dan Riskin (Touchstone, 274 pages, $24.99)

The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes, by John A. Shivik (Beacon, 206 pages, $26.95)

The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America's Predators, by Cristina Eisenberg (Island Press, 325 pages, $30)

Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America's Environment, by Robert K . Musil (Rutgers University Press, 328 pages, $26.95)

The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair (Viking, 287 pages, $26.95)

Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships, by Jennifer L. Verdolin (Prometheus, 302 pages, $18.95)

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl, by Martin Windrow. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 313 pages, $26)

The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, by Alan de Queiroz (Basic Books, 368 pages, $27.99)

The Extreme Life of the Sea, by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi
(Princeton University Press, 235 pages, $27.95)  

The Galápagos: A Natural History, by Henry Nicholls (Basic Books, 213 pages, $27.99, C$31)

Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island, by Will Harlan (Grove, 325 pages, $26)

A Window on Eternity: A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park, by Edward O. Wilson (Simon and Schuster, 169 pages, $30)

The Reef: A Passionate History, by Iain McCalman (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 349 pages, $27)