Best Bird Watching Books 2020


Bird watching is a multi-faceted activity that covers a massive amount of information and topics. For that reason, new and experienced bird watchers alike often seek to gain a deeper understanding through books written by experts in the field. These books can be extremely different in how they’re formatted and the information they contain, and we’ll cover everything from guidebooks to species-specific books to help you determine what bird watching books are right for you. Here are the top 20 bird watching books available today.

Table of Contents

What is the best bird watching book?

This book photographic field guide is a must for any North American bird watcher. If you know the name John James Audubon, the man after which the National Audubon Society was named, then you know that this book has a high standard to live up to. Following in the footsteps of a pioneering ornithologist, this book covers nearly every possible bird that you’ll encounter in North America. The information included on each species has great depth as well, including their voice, how they nest, where they live and how wide their range is, and any other identifying behaviors. 

The “Eastern Region” book covers the region east of the Rocky Mountains, while the “Western Region” book covers the region west of the Rocky Mountains. This book is a great starter to begin identifying birds in your area and immersing yourself in information. This book is a good investment since you’ll likely be using it for your entire bird watching career, meaning it also might be worth splurging some extra cash on a more durable and lasting “turtleback” book, although a paperback version is also offered.

A major pillar of bird watching is studying their behaviors. Being able to identify and even predict the behaviors of bird is the key to not only differentiating between species, but even more so how to find a specific species by understanding what habitats they prefer, what food they like, and more. Also, it will help you to uncover the reasoning behind some of the oddities that birds exhibit, and it will demystify some strange behaviors. As you read this book and study birds in your area, the world of birds will begin to make more sense and you’ll be a more informed bird watcher for it.

The main focus of this book is on birds that you likely see in your own yard, common birds such as blue jays or robins, although there are over 200 species covered in total. Since it covers birds that are in your own yard, you can practice nailing down the patterns of those birds before traveling to other locations and viewing similar behaviors in more rare or foreign species to what you’re familiar with.

Jennifer Ackerman is a lauded science writer who will take you deeper into the minds of birds and why they’re some of the most intelligent animals in the world. This book is an enjoyable read, one you’ll likely read cover to cover, as opposed to the guidebooks on this list that you’ll only go to when you need help identifying a certain species of bird. This book gives information on the genius of birds as a whole by citing specific examples from certain species, from the viewpoint of a science expert and fantastic writer. 

The book covers more than 20 years of gathered research and displays it in a way that is comprehensible for even new and novice bird watchers. What’s also great is that the book will allow you to delve as deep as you want, with additional information and specifics being offered in the footnotes, so that if you want a more general and perhaps enjoyable reading experience, you can skip the footnotes unless you’re seeking the specifics. Throughout this book you’ll encounter birds that are capable of using tools, factors that indicate how intelligent a bird is, and even how to tell if birds are playing.

Similar to The Genius of Birds, this book focuses on the incredible feats and intelligence that some birds exhibit on a daily basis, such as the incredible homing pigeons. Strycker offers a unique delivery of the book as well, being described by the Wall Street Journal as “thinking like a biologist but writing like a poet,” with many reviewers also noting that Strycker is often humorous throughout the book, making this a great learning resource but also a fascinating read. Strycker seeks to point out how birds and humans are more similar than you might realize with some birds having lifelong partners, family dynamics, and more. 

Strycker also uses any possible example or evidence to back up what he writes, including mathematical models, physics, and interesting analogies, all while maintaining a book that is comprehensible for anyone to read. He is known for setting the world record of bird species observed in a single year with 6,042 species in 2015, so it’s more than safe to say that Strycker knows what he’s talking about and he draws from that vast experience throughout the book.

Yes, this is technically a textbook and very few of us enjoy sitting down to a textbook for some casual reading. However, this book is known for not reading like a textbook and instead being more interesting while still maintaining the incredible levels of information that textbooks usually do. If you can read the entire 700 pages, you’re certainly putting yourself ahead of the curve when it comes to bird biology, but instead of reading every page, this book serves as one of the best available resources for all of your bird biology questions from one of the greatest academic institutions in the world, with contributors to the book also coming from different corners of the earth. 

Anyone who works with birds or watches birds should have this book on their bookshelf because it is written by some of the most well-researched authors in the world, but is displayed through over 800 colorful and detailed images accompanied by writing that is worthy of the Cornell name. Don’t be intimidated by the size or the Cornell association, this book is valuable for beginners and experts alike.

This is the second Sibley book on this list and that should come as no surprise, since Sibley is one of the leaders in bird watching and the list of books that he’s authored on the topic are extensive. Sibley’s Birding Basics is regarded by many as the best overall guide to give anyone an adequate understanding of the practice of bird watching. Sibley will walk you through tricky bird watching conundrums, such as differentiating between subspecies. Sibley also includes major factors that play into bird watching such as weather, the change of seasons, and geographical information. 

This book will level up your bird watching instantly. Sibley will also tell you what you need to get started birding, including necessary gear and what to look for when you’re starting out. Even the most common birds will become fascinating with Sibley’s information. Take a page out (literally) of the greatest authority on modern bird watching and see how it opens your eyes to the wonders that birds offer all around us.

Jeffrey Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association and Lisa White is the editor of nature guides at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The two have teamed up to gather a collection of essays, articles, and stories written from some of the most well-known birders in the world. With both authors being exposed to massive amounts of birding content, they’ve curated the best of the best. This book is perfect for a quick read or “bathroom reading.” Whenever you want to enjoy a short story or an article selection, you can pick up this book and gain a little more understanding and fascination with the world of birds. 

Each story is written in first person point of view, making this book more informal than many on this list, but also more entertaining as a result. Each story concludes with tips from the authors on information or encounters that occurred in that story, which is a great way to apply tips and tricks to situations that bird watchers will actually encounter in the field. In addition, each story also gives background on the bird watcher behind that article or story, which helps to expand your familiarity with some of the leading experts in the field.

Van Hermert is a biologist who conducted studies on chickadees’ beaks throughout graduate school until she couldn’t take the confinement of the lab anymore and decided to travel form the tropical Pacific to northern Alaska with her husband. Throughout the whole journey, you’ll get a biologist’s point of view on every animal encounter, including many bird anecdotes. This is a pleasure read that will leave you with a want to get out of the house and reconnect with nature. It’s the winner of the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition. 

The book has been compared to the likes of John Muir, one of the greatest nature writers to ever live, and Pulitzer Prize finalists have called this book their favorite of 2019. This modern classic will continue to be relevant for decades to come because of the spirit of adventure that it evokes and the wealth of information that Van Hermert has to offer. The journey wasn’t easy either and it’s a story of perseverance, toughness, and endurance as much as it is an adventure novel. Usually stories like this only exist in fiction, see what it’s like in reality.

For those who might not be familiar with who the Ravenmaster is, the Ravenmaster is in charge of ensuring the prosperity of the ravens who call the Tower of London home. These ravens are protected heavily because of superstitious beliefs that the ravens and the Crown of England have intertwined fates, and if the ravens perish, so too does the Crown. Skaife is the Ravenmaster and as you could assume from someone who has the occupation title of “Ravenmaster,” he has some stories to tell.

 The book and the author are almost fable-esque, which makes them incredibly interesting and he’s a darn good writer to boot. If you have kids around the house, this is a book that you can enjoy together. Read it through and then pass it along to the kids or read it together! This book might not be as chock-full of information as the others on this list, but you should give this one a read in between the more grueling reading that you’ll be doing to better yourself as a bird watcher.

This book focuses on birds’ evolutionary biology and how they came to be the animals they are today and how some of their weird quirks and survival tactics developed as well as biological adaptations. Each chapter of the book covers a different bird taxonomy and it ends with a bang. If you’re curious about an individual bird group, you can read their chapter, although the entire book is a relatively easy read and you’d be remiss to end your reading prematurely. The book goes as far back as scientists can trace birds, so you can be sure that you’ll be getting some of the most ancient bird science that exists out there, all the way up to the most modern discoveries and observations. 

The timeline begins all the way back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth and how these winged creatures managed to avoid the catastrophic event that wiped dinosaurs from the face of the earth. It’s always an interesting experience when modern science and the foundation of earth’s history collide. You’ll find answers here to questions that you didn’t even know you had.

This one will be especially attractive to those who live on the coast or who are interested in birds of the sea. Nicolson writes from the point of view of someone who dwells on a seabird island off the coast of Scotland and provides his insight on the coastal birds that he sees all the time such as puffins, albatrosses, and more. The book covers 10 species in total and features meticulous documentation to help the reader follow along such as maps, observations, and even some folklore. Included in the book is information on the impact of climate change on many of these species and how Nicolson can testify to the difficulties that these birds are facing and will face even more as time wears on. 

As you might expect, the climate change subject can be a little bit bleak, but it will also get you thinking and perhaps make you more conscious of how you’re interacting with our planet. If you live on the coast where any of these ten species commonly visit, you’ll have the luxury of comparing your own observations to Nicolson’s tales.

This novel chronicles the “First True Ornithologist,” Francis Willughby. Willughby lived a brief life of 37 years before passing from probable malaria, but Willughby had already left his mark on the birding world by that point. However, Willughby often doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, since after his passing most of his work was lost. Willughby was good friends with John Ray, who is well-known as a naturalist, and his work often loomed over that of Willughby, but that doesn’t mean that Willughby himself lacked insight or innovation. 

This book is a trip back in time to how birds were studied at the advent of ornithology in some of the greatest academic and research institutions of that time, namely Oxbridge. It’s interesting to see how Willughby was able to nail down characteristics and traits of birds that then were revolutionary, but now are taken for granted. Once you’ve gotten a grasp of what ornithology is today, you should absolutely give this book a read and immerse yourself of what the field was like back in the mid-1600s. It’s a rare glimpse you won’t find in any other book.

If you’re wondering what stars like Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson have to do with the world of birding, this book is where you might find the answer. This humorous book was turned into a movie featuring those stars in 2011 and covers the fierce competition that occurs each year where bird watchers will strive to see the most birds of that year. We mentioned Noah Strycker earlier on this list, the 2015 winner of this wild competition. The book follows three men in who battled for the 1998 record and their obsession with the competition that became so fierce that it brought them to travel tens of thousands of miles each and braving horrendous climates and conditions to see more birds than the other two men.

 It might sound comical, and that’s because it is, thus three of the greatest comedic stars of all time being cast into a picture featuring this brilliant story. If you’re looking for a bird book that will give you some insight into the lengths that some of the most dedicated bird watchers go to to see just one more bird and also are in need of a good laugh, this book is just for you.

Dan Koeppel is the son of Richard Koeppel, a man who was so obsessed with bird watching and jotting down more sightings in his notebook that he neglected his family. It’s the darker side of an obsession similar to that of The Big Year. Although Dan Koeppel speaks lovingly about his father, although there were many years of their relationship lost to this unhealthy obsession. Richard Koeppel would go on to encounter over seven thousand bird species, one of only a handful to ever do so. Dan Koeppel manages to find a way to show the incredible downsides that obsession can have while also still holding birding in a positive light and showing how birds are significant to humans and are often worth extra consideration and attention.

 And beyond the birding, this is a book about relationships and the tragedy of loss and the revitalization of reconnection. It’s a unique tale on birding that has impressive characterization which creates a very dynamic storyline. More of a pleasure read than a source of knowledge, but it’s worth picking up to see what great lengths people go to for excellence.

Obsession is becoming a really prevalent theme on this “best of” list as we come to Noah Strycker’s second appearance. The year that we briefly touched on earlier, where Strycker managed to spot 6,042 species of birds in one year, smashing the record for most in a year, is told from start to finish in this book. It shows the great lengths and often suffering that Noah Strycker went to see more than half of the bird species on earth in one year, all the while traveling through war torn places, natural disasters, witnessing mass habitat destruction, and more perils. 

Strycker caps off the book by reassuring readers that although he witnessed all of these tragic impacts to birds and how they live, that more eyes than ever are focused on the conservation of birds and their way of life. Follow the most dedicated birder on record through his record shattering year and see just what it takes to hold a candle to the greatest bird watchers ever.

This autobiographical tale is the inspirational tale of how Phoebe Snetsinger fought through a cancer diagnosis to begin her bird watching journey at the age of 34 and to go on and be the first person ever to spot over 8,000 species in her lifetime. Snetsinger’s race against the clock of terminal illness turned out to be less pressing than expected, as she went on to live many years past her projected passing, which gave her the ability to maintain the incredible pace that she worked at. This story follows a birder who made the most of their tragic situation and went on to build a legacy in the face of it. 

If you’re short on inspiration, give this book your attention and you’ll leave with more inspiration than you can handle. As with the other birding characters we’ve seen who have spotted thousands of birds, Phoebe’s story comes with some extremely trying times, some that rival a terminal cancer diagnosis.

You’ve likely seen the name “Audubon” on the name of a local park, a nature preserve, a conservation society, or elsewhere. That name came from one of the greatest naturalists to ever live, John James Audubon. Audubon became famous for his incredible talent of drawing birds. He spent 35 years of his life traveling the United States in search of new avian subjects to sketch. Richard Rhodes takes a careful look at the life of Audubon and brings his story to life, from his unique ability to capture the essence of birds on paper to his relationship struggles, and his psychological wrestling with the tearing down of habitats and nature. Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and is one of the few who are apt to cover such a legend as John James Audubon.

If you’re looking for a condensed history of the hobby (and at times lifestyle) of birding, this book is it. Starting at the discovery of the New World and all of the new bird species seen by European explorers and following the timeline to what birding has become today, a passion held by tens of millions in the United States alone. This book also follows along with some of the nation’s greatest birders and forefathers of birding, so if you don’t want to take the time to read the biographies that we’ve mentioned prior on this list, perhaps this book will give you enough of a background on these important birders in a shorter amount of time. 

“Brief” might be somewhat of a misnomer for the book, considering that it is around 300 pages, but when you’re covering the entire history of a centuries-old hobby, 300 pages is certainly condensed. If you’re on the fence about this one, Amazon does offer a fairly lengthy preview of it, including the first 11 pages available for free. So give it a try, we think you’ll order it promptly after reading the preview.

BirdNote is a radio feature put on by National Public Radio partners and this book features essays that offer interesting insights into individual bird species. Many avid bird watchers made sure to tune into BirdNote for many years and its legacy only continues in this great collection of essays. The format of the book also allows for readers to periodically check in and read an essay or two without having to commit to reading the entire book cover to cover. So, read a little here, a little there, and gather tidbits of information on birds from perhaps the greatest source of birding entertainment to ever exist.

Cornell is a world-class academic institution, and one of the university’s highlights and featured programs are its ornithology program. Many of the world’s greatest ornithologists come from Cornell due to this notoriety. And visitors to the Cornell Lab or Ornithology are now greeted by an awesome 500 square-foot mural that depicts the history of birds, dating back 375 million years all the way to modern day. The mural was painted by one of the authors of this book, Jane Kim.

This book is somewhat of a compliment to the impressive mural and goes more in depth into this 375-million-year history. The book delves into how birds evolved throughout this time period to feature their unique traits and features a view of birds from the perspective of an artist. When art and birds collide, the authors focus on some of the most beautiful aspects of birds, such as their vast color palette and their often wild shapes, sizes and proportions. On your birding bucket list should first be to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and view the mural for yourself, and subsequently to read this book as a follow up.

We hope you enjoyed this extensive list of 20 of the best bird watching books available today. The list offers a lot of variety so we’re hoping that there’s something for everyone on here. Now, don’t delay, get to reading, and get outside and start spotting more birds!


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About Us

We are avid bird-watchers who recently retired, allowing us more time to travel the world. Fortunately, we have managed to visit numerous countries around Europe, Asia, and America. Watching and photographing birds has been a passion for many years and we are making the most of the extra time on our hands!

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