American Birding Podcast



On Birds and Books

After a love of birds, the most commonly shared interest in the birding world is probably a love of books. Even with the rise of apps and massive internet databases, birders reliably look forward to the latest book about species identification, life histories, birding memoirs, and any number of other ornithological topics.


I think of myself as equal parts book lover and bird lover. That’s one thing I love about the hobby: there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other. They go together. Birds and books reinforce our passion for both.

We know about spark birds. Here’s my story.

When I was twelve, my family went to Yellowstone, where I saw bison, elk, pronghorns, and moose. I fell in love with looking for big, charismatic animals. When I went home to Miami, I wanted to continue the search, but I quickly learned that South Florida lacks the interesting megafauna of the West. Instead, it’s a place of birds.

But I didn’t want to see birds. They didn’t have the same allure as the big mammals out in Yellowstone, until I noticed a shockingly bright orange and black bird in the live oak in my parents’ front lawn. I watched it forage up and down the tree until it left several minutes later. Then I went inside, found the Audubon field guide my parents had, and learned its name: spot-breasted oriole. That was the beginning.

I birded hard in middle school, less in high school, got back into it again in college while studying abroad in Costa Rica, and then dropped off again. Not having birding friends and a non-birding girlfriend were big factors for me.

Then, moved by my nostalgia for Central American rainforests, I picked up the ornithologist Alexander Skutch’s memoir-travelogue, The Imperative Call. I was hooked by the end of the foreword’s first paragraph:

Two voices summon men with a call so imperative that few who hear clearly can resist. One is the voice of religion, which bids us abandon all mundane pursuits and seek holiness, God, and life everlasting. The other is the voice of nature, which invites us to fill our spirits with its beauty and wonder and challenges us to disclose some of its closely hidden secrets. Obeying either of these voices, we may neglect nearly everything that prudent men esteem and strenuously seek: wealth, security, solid comfort, and social status. We may even abandon family, friends, and homeland to follow the call into a wilderness where perils lurk.

Skutch’s words touched me in a way that no other piece of writing ever has. I became addicted to the honesty and wisdom of his prose, his knowledge and intimacy with birds, and how he oriented his values around protecting the natural world. I read dozens of his other books, which range from memoirs and collections of essays to pure natural history to meditations on philosophy and theology. And I rediscovered my love of birds.

The Imperative Call was my spark book, or perhaps my re-spark book. It reminded me of the person I wanted to be and what my true interests were. I realigned my life so birds and books were my biggest priorities. I can’t understate how important this book was for me.

So many birders have heartwarming spark bird stories, but I’m confident nearly as many have spark book stories. If you have one, what was your spark book?