Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bird-tastic fiction: novels about birders, ornithologists and other avian obsessed folk


I've been meaning to tackle this post for a while, highlighting some examples I've found that combine my two favorite hobbies: birding and reading. All of these represent enjoyable works of fiction in which birds and/or birders are strongly featured. (A passing mention is not enough to qualify for this post.) So here are some books to read when the weather is too horrid to bird...or when you're on a plane headed for a fantastic birding destination!

Mystery and suspense (this is my favorite genre, so I'll start here):

Christine Goff has a series of five "bird-watcher's mysteries": A Rant of Ravens, Death of a Songbird, A Nest in the Ashes, Death Takes a Gander and Death of a Birdie. These are in the "cozy" mystery subgenre, featuring amateur detectives who are either birdwatchers or work for the park district; as such, they are rather gentle, fun books for those who enjoy (in the words of a coworker) "a good clean mystery." Each has a particular bird- or enviroment-related theme, such as shade grown coffee and Colorado birding in Death of a Songbird, and protecting a southeastern swamp from development in Death of a Birdie.

Ann Cleeves is a British writer who clearly knows her birds...and birders. A Bird in the Hand is a mystery about a birder who is found dead at a famous marsh in Norfolk. As a mystery, it is a bit uneven (I understand that this is one of her earlier works), but the depiction of the birding community is spot-on. And...I really want to bird in that marsh! One of her later books, Raven Black, is a superior mystery with a minor character who is an environmentalist/ornithologist. I haven't yet been able to track down a copy of The Crow Trap, but it is definitely on my to-read list.

Speaking of British authors writing about murder in the Norfolk marshes, I really enjoyed Steve Burrows's A Siege of Bitterns: A Birder Murder Mystery. a police procedural (the policeman is a birder) who is drawn into an investigation of murder, birders, and an endangered ecosystem. A Pitying of Doves, the second book in the series is coming out soon, and I can't wait to read it.

Whoo? by Richard Hoyt is an extremely fun--and funny!--mystery about a private investigator and his Native American partner who are trying to look into the murder of an ornithologist in the Pacific northwest. The book was written during the height of the logging controversy, and there are, of course, spotted owls galore. Since I went to high school in Eureka, CA, a lot of the dialogue (pro and con) about logging and clear-cutting brought back some flashbacks. Of course I have always been on the side of the owls (sorry, I just can't resist a chance to use one of my favorite GIFS):

Jan Dunlap has written a series of mysteries featuring a birder/high school counselor named Bob White. (Cute, right?) I have only read one of them, Murder on Warbler Weekend, with the usual (and all-too-relevant) theme of birds vs development, and while it was not one of my favorites, the birding aspect was fun.

Honorable mention:

These books had less of a birding focus (or were less enjoyable for me), but enough to get on the list:

Parrot Blues by Judith van Gieson: southwestern mystery involving parrot smugglers.
The Devil's Hawk by Ray Sipherd: southwestern mystery about immigrant smugglers, but the protagonist is a birder
Beware the Butcher Bird by Lydia Adamson: set in New York City, with a group of bird-watchers investigating the death of a famous bird guide author. I didn't much like this one, but it does have the bird-theme going on, and someone else might enjoy it more than I did.
Strange Bird by Anna Jansson is a Scandinavian mystery/medical thriller about bird flu. Only slightly about birds, although there are some pigeons.

Literary/mainstream fiction:

Here is another good category of books, in which I include everything which doesn't fall into a clear-cut genre. But birds and birders abound!

William Cobb's The Bird Saviors is set in the near future, in a society beset by a bird flu pandemic and widespread instability, with a lonely ornithologist as one of the protagonists.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson is a hilarious account of a birding competition to win the heart of the local bird-club leader. This was probably one of my favorites, as it has not only plenty of African birds, but also an incredibly funny account of all the contretemps the narrator gets into in his quest for them.

The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis features a mixed-race girl  trying to win her Korean mother's affections (and make up for all the pet birds she accidentally killed in her youth) by helping with a bird rescue attempt in California's Salton Sea. This one gets points for an exquisitely detailed setting, but a warning that there are, indeed, a lot of dead birds in these pages.

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway is the story of a World War II veteran/amateur ornithologist in his damaged old age, with alternating chapters dedicated to his war years in the Pacific and his present elder years and the young girl who makes a connection to him. Not as strong on the "birds" as some other books mentioned here, but a good read.

Sparrow Migrations by Cari Noga is a beautiful novel about several characters learning how to be true to themselves, including an autistic boy whose love of birds serves as bridge to the larger world. Added bonus: a wonderful scene involving piping plovers nesting in the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler is an exquisite exploration of grief and healing amongst the family members of those lost in a plane crash, one of whom is an ornithologist. Just a bit about the birds, but I loved this book too much to leave it off the list.

Another favorite, Quick Fall of Light by Sherrida Woodley is another near-future bird-flu pandemic story, but with the added twist of passenger pigeons! Yes, you heard me right, passenger pigeons! After his mysterious death, a researcher's wife discovers that her husband was involved in top-secret studies with the last surviving flock of these ill-fated birds, and that he might have had his own agenda apart from the medical corporation he worked for. I loved this book, and wish it had more of an audience...

Honorable mention:

On the other hand, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom certainly needs no introduction, as it is a best-seller that has won all sorts of awards. It is the story of a decaying marriage, and the decay of the protagonist's ideals, as an idealist young environmentalist/bird lover sells out to big coal companies, and then perhaps redeems himself. Not one of my favorites (perhaps a tad too "literary" for my tastes?), but I would be remiss in leaving it out.

I really enjoyed Birdbrain by Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo, about a rather insufferable young couple hiking off the beaten path in Australia. Concern for the environment and social decay converge in a weird sort of metaphor involving the inquisitive and at times destructive kea parrot. Not a lot about birds, really, but great food for thought on environmental themes.

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott is a mannered short novel about a visit between two couples. One of the members in a falconer, and the book has a lot of great descriptions of her "pilgrim hawk" (peregrine falcon). Read this one because it's great fiction; the bird aspect is just a bonus.

Women's Fiction/Romance

I have to admit, this is not my favorite genre, but since so many people do enjoy it, I say...if there be birds and birding, bring it on! And it's not that I hate a good love story, I would just rather have corpses than kisses in my fiction. In any case...

Bird After Bird by Leslea Tash is a very sweet an enjoyable love story about a young businesswoman, Wren, (who also loves birds) and a shy and damaged veteran/bird artist, Laurie, set (mostly) in Indiana. If you are thinking you don't like romance...well, there are some great birding scenes. And if you do like romance, these are two endearing characters that I, for one, really wanted to get together.

Laws of Migration by Suzanne Frank is another romance that won me over by its birdiness and awesome setting. Elize is an ornithologist who has just been passed over for a promotion, who travels to Morocco to look for some rare bald ibis,,,and also finds a hot love interest while she's there. I especially enjoyed this one for the setting, as I lived in Morocco for two years, and really enjoyed bringing back the memories.

Virginia Arthur's Birdbrain is an interesting and occasionally hilarious novel about a lonely young housewife who ditches her husband and discovers birds...and the never-ending quest to save their habitats. I especially enjoyed the portions about her attempt to save a patch of coastal sage habitat in southern California, although as I am originally from Michigan, those scenes resonated with me as well. For everyone who has ever had to explain to others that yes, snipe really do exist...

Honorable mention:

Catherine Gaskin's Gothic romance A Falcon For a Queen gets honorable mention for a character whose a falconer. The rest of the story isn't bad either.


One Bird by Kyoko Mori (young adult): story of a high school girl who finds new purpose in life as a bird rehabilitator. Loved the descriptions of the Japanese waxwings!

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (children's):  historical novel about a scrappy young girl who goes looking for her sister, added to this list for its wonderful descriptions of passenger pigeons.

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory (horror): a young man and his family appear to be under an evil curse after inheriting a cottage and a captive cormorant from his uncle. There are some really good (and warning to bird lovers: DISTURBING) scenes with the cormorant.

So, these are the birdy titles that come to mind. Do you have any favorites that I have neglected to mention? Or any comments about the books I've posted here? As a book-loving birder (or bird-loving bookworm, take your pick), I'd love to read your comments or suggestions!


  1. Oh, the librarians at my library aren't going to be happy to see me toddling in with my newest list of requests for interlibrary loans. I'd forgotten that I wanted to try Christine Goff! May I add to your list, "H is for Hawk"? And may I second your recommendation for, "Sparrow Migrations?" Both, in their way, quite compelling books for birders.

  2. Lord. Your blog is freaking me out. I feel compelled to let you know about my
    book because you are incredibly like that Eldon holding you?

    Birdbrain--get the latest ebook version.

    1. I did read (and enjoy) "Birdbrain"--it's listed towards the bottom of this post (which is sorted by genre, not by merit). Ellie's a great character, although much more extroverted than I am!