This period of cloistering at home has made bird lovers everywhere more attentive to their backyards. Millions of us have hung bird feeders, ordered bird identification cards and glued ourselves to the windowpane to watch these tiny emissaries of the sky. Yet for all the joy that birds bring us, they face grim and unprecedented dangers as their numbers dwindle. To better appreciate the beauty, delicacy and tenacity of our aerial friends, these books will put you on the right crosswind.
★ A World on the Wing
Scott Weidensaul, a Pulitzer finalist for his book Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, returns to the topic in A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, though much has changed in the intervening 20 years. For one thing, tracking technology has improved, with devices shrunk to a size that even the smallest songbirds can wear. Weidensaul describes a minuscule transmitter fitted to the small of a bird’s back by two small loops around its legs, and this is charming to think about—first, of birds having a small of the back, and second, of their wearing transmitters like tiny underpants.
In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group proposed that humanity had left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene, an era defined by the ways humans have destabilized the natural world. Weidensaul addresses migratory birds’ changing reality and the scientists who work tirelessly to learn more about them and advocate on their behalf to the powers responsible for decimating these birds’ lives and rhythms. The plight and toughness of both birds and their human defenders will move you in lasting ways.
★ A Most Remarkable Creature
According to Jonathan Meiburg, a South American falcon called the caracara is both the most and least likely animal to survive the world to come. Personable and wickedly clever, the caracara’s greatest strengths are its adaptability, intelligence and ability to forge connections, even with humans. In his debut book, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, Meiburg travels across South America in pursuit of this little-known falcon that seems to either enchant or chagrin anyone who crosses its path.
So intimately does Meiburg acquaint his readers with this inquisitive, curious, sometimes playful thief of a bird that it’s startling when he adds “doomed” to that list of adjectives. Meiburg’s fondness for the caracara is plain, and he can’t help but dream up a plan to rescue this odd winged creature from its steadily shrinking habitat, encroached upon by forces both natural and human-made. What’s more, Meiburg lodges the caracara so deeply in readers’ hearts that by the end of the book, they will feel ready to participate in whatever scheme he proposes to save this peculiar dinosaur-descendant.
The Glitter in the Green
At the other end of the avian spectrum lies the hummingbird, that glamorous, sugar-high pugilist of the garden. Natural history writer, photographer and hummingbird obsessive (within the first hundred pages he crosses both a bear and a puma in pursuit of this tiny, glimmering bird) Jon Dunn has written a book that is both an ode to hummingbirds and a remarkable piece of travel literature. In The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds, we travel with Dunn to Alaska, Mexico and across South America as he follows in the hummingbird’s wake.
Dunn gives us the facts about hummingbirds—for example, their long tongues coil inside their skulls when not in use and split at the end to allow for rapid-fire nectar gathering—but he also explores the places where hummingbirds intersect with the world they inhabit and the people they affect. The story of hummingbirds intertwines intriguingly with Mexican witchcraft, James Bond, plane crashes, economies around the world and the lingering legacy of Aztec power. We come to realize that these familiar visitors are astonishingly mysterious: They perform impressive migrations to arctic climes for breeding, their feathers have been valued as currency, and some cultures believe they bring love and guard travelers. From the narrative of Dunn’s excursion, we learn that a backyard hummingbird sighting is actually an exotic visit from the wide, strange world.