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2023 Best Books in Ornitheology (Sort Of)

If you’re a birder, it’s likely that you value a good list: a life list, a county list, a yard list, you name it. Birders don’t just observe; we track. And if you’re also a reader, you might approach things the same way, setting reading goals or challenges, or making lists of books you’ve read in the past year, or plan to read in the year ahead.

As many of the blogs and sites I frequent share their year-end “Book of the Year” recommendations, I thought I’d offer my own — but admittedly there aren't a lot of submissions in the birds-and-the-Christian-faith genre. Nonetheless, let me suggest two categories relevant to the field of ornitheology.

  • Birding Book of the Year. These books represent your traditional ornithology, so don’t expect a faith component here; that’s the work of us ornitheologists instead. These are simply books that will deepen your appreciation for the wondrous complexities of the avian world.

  • "Creational Attentiveness" Book of the Year. I’m not sure what else to call this, but I want to commend books that inspire me in a faith approach to God’s creation — not necessarily about birds, but writing that challenges us all to be more attentive to the good-good-very-good of what the Lord has put before us.

In the spirit of “Best Of” I’m trying to pick books that were released in 2023, but I’m cheating just a bit, since this is my first year making recommendations.

Birding Book of the Year

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

In this unique book, Moss curates ten illustrations of mankind’s love-hate relationship with birds. Sometimes inspiring (the raven, the pigeon) and often tragic (the dodo, the egret), each chapter presents a very different picture of what it means for a species to literally change the course of human history. The ten selections span all seven continents, and share such historical accounts as China’s misguided war on the sparrow, Peru’s brutal human abuse over cormorant guano (yes, that's poop), and America’s women’s movement of “ornithological suffragettes” that brought down the lucrative plume trade. Readers may not agree with all of Moss’s interpretations and applications, but the history is riveting and the book provides plenty to think about.

Honorable Mention

What An Owl Knows

by Jennifer Ackerman

Ackerman’s books have elevated our understanding of the mental capacities and behavior of birds, drawing from numerous species and studies, but in this book she gets specific about owls. In addition to furthering our understanding of neural maps, navigation, raising young, and hunting prey, Ackerman also addresses our fascination with (and sometimes fear of) owls, tracing centuries of history to understand their allure in human civilization. I learned loads in this book, and look forward to incorporating this research into some devotional reflections in future posts.

Creational Attentiveness Book of the Year

Every Moment Holy, Volume III: The Work of the People

by Douglas McKelvey et al

This is a book of beautiful prayers and liturgies that contemplate the cadence of life from its simplest acts to its most pivotal moments. It’s a unique book that encourages us with profound words to mourn, celebrate, trust, and observe the Lord at work in the overlooked crevices of our lives. I’ve appreciated Volumes I and II, written by Douglas McKelvey, and their encouragements to look for God’s presence in the changing of a diaper, the setting up of a tent or campfire, and the brewing of coffee. In Volume III McKelvey has solicited the help of almost 60 writers, musicians, poets, and artists to provide reflections on more than 100 life moments, many of them mindful of the illustrations of creation. There are liturgies for the planting of (and the death of) a tree, for a walk in the woods, for yard work, and — yes! — for birdwatching. Not all the entries will speak to you equally, but there are sure to be some that encourage you as you practice the presence of God.

Honorable Mention

The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom

by Andrew Peterson

If I’d started recommending books on this site two years ago, this would have gotten top billing, and I know I’m breaking all protocols by listing a book that was released in 2021, that I read in 2022, and that I’m only getting around to recommending in 2023. But Peterson does with trees what I desire to do with birds: to walk through a creational metaphor and see God’s character revealed in it from one end of the Bible to the other. Peterson’s book is very autobiographical, but he uses the Genesis-to-Revelation image of a garden to walk through his own “forest of memories” and encourage us to do the same. “Glory is always encroaching, even in the meanest urban sprawl.” Peterson, a Christian songwriter and the author of the must-read Wingfeather Saga, traces a loving God through the various trees and roots of his own life, convinced that “love conquers slowly, like seedlings pushing through mud.”

What new-release books have you found most interesting in the study of birds, or in the capacity to wonder? I’d love your recommendations as well; please share them below.


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