Christmas Books

A Christmas Gift Guide to Natural History Books

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As a lover of both natural history and reading, to me a book about nature is pretty much the perfect Christmas gift. To help with some ideas for your own letters to Santa, or to buy for the wildlife lover in your life, I’ve put together a list of some of my favourites, grouped by theme. Some are old, some are new, some are gift books and some paperbacks. To finish, there are some natural history themed novels, as well. I’ve included links to new copies for all these titles on Bookshop.org, and their site is a great way to support independent bookshops. As stated, if you buy through these links, I may earn an affiliate commission. But if you think your recipients would be on board with the idea, you could also consider the more environmental option of buying used copies from a company like Wob.

Birds

Although Birds Britannica is at the more expensive end of the scale but it is absolutely worth every penny. The book combines social history, ecology, folklore and so much more. It is a unique exploration of Britain’s bird species and our connection to them. Perfect for dipping into, there is a huge amount of information, but it is so readable and full of fascinating little gems. This beautiful book is fully illustrated throughout. Flora Britannica and Bugs Britannica are also available.

Perfect for the birdwatching bibliophile, As Kingfishers Catch Fire is Alex Preston’s exploration of birds through the books he has read. Giving in to peer pressure to give up physical birding in his teens, he carried on looking at birds through books instead. Here he shows where he found them. Artist Neil Gower illustrates each species. The hardback is no longer available, sadly, but is worth looking for second hand.

Adam Nicolson’s family have owned the Hebridean Shiant Islands since 1937. This means he has seen many of our seabirds at very close quarters. In this book, he introduces us to ten species, most of them regular visitors to the UK. Nicolson explores the extreme challenges seabirds face as well as the incredible adaptations allowing them to survive in the harshest conditions. The book is also a warning; seabirds are suffering huge declines worldwide. Nicolson discusses some of the reasons, although it was published before the latest threat of avian influenza.

You may have seen from my review of A World on the Wing recently that I am fascinated by migration. There have been a few books that follow a particular species on migration and The Snow Geese is one of my favourites. Author William Fiennes follows the geese as they head north from Texas to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. As much a travelogue as natural history book, Fiennes meets some fascinating characters along the way.

Plants

I love trees but identifying them isn’t one of my strong suits. This brilliant book sets out to help anyone in the same boat. Covering 52 British species, the book is both useful and beautiful. The books also explores each species’ history as well as looking at our relationship with trees. A perfect gift for those wanting to learn more about trees.

Botanist Leif Bersweden spent a year travelling trough Britain and Ireland exploring the wealth of flora across our two island nations. As well as finding out about some of our most fascinating flower species, he meets other enthusiasts and professionals in the field. He shows that amazing flowers grow in the most unexpected places but also that we are at risk of losing many unique species. Bersweden is hugely enthusiastic, and this is a joyous and highly readable book.

Colin Tudge is a wonderful science communicator, as this book proves. We find out what, exactly, a tree is, how they evolved, how they relate to the trees around them and why they are so important. Tudge also introduces us to the different tree groups. We meet conifers, palms and oaks, finding out some incredible facts along the way. This is also a brilliant companion to Tudge’s book, The Secret Life of Birds.

Animals and Insects

This is one of my all-time favourite natural history books. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings introduces us to a wealth of organisms that are so incredible it is hard to believe they really exist. Exist they do, though. All are perfectly adapted to their own niche. Many are still largely mysterious. Enthralling and awe-inspiring, this is a brilliant look at the diversity of life.

Another year-long quest in book form, this time involving moths. Many people assume moths are the brown and dowdy poor relations to butterflies. However, many are spectacularly beautiful species. Lowen goes on the hunt for some of Britain’s rarest and most amazing moths. At the same time, he and his daughter discover just how many species are hiding in plain sight in their own garden. Even if you aren’t able to travel the length and breadth of the country in search of moths, this book is inspiration to look for these amazing insects close to home.

The Secret Life of the Otter is the perfect gift for any otter enthusiast. Howard is an incredible wildlife photographer and he captures some incredible behaviour. Photos combine with the right amount of text, introducing us to all aspects of this beautiful creature’s life. There is also a chapter on Vancouver Island’s sea otters for added cute value.

Classics

First published in 1949, A Sand County Almanac is a beautiful collection of essays laying out influential environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’. This was his belief that humans should adhere to a responsible relationship between themselves and the land. The essays also detail the natural changes through the year on his Wisconsin farm. Earlier in his career with the Forest Service he was sent out to kill any large predators hated by local ranchers. Later, though, he changed his views and became committed to protecting the environment.

Equally influential to environmental movements was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book celebrated its 60th anniversary this year and is as relevant as ever. Carson documented the devastating effects of chemicals such as DDT on the environment, including the thinning of raptor eggs that led to huge declines in bald eagle and peregrine populations. New chemicals are now accumulating across ecosystems and we need to relearn the lessons of this important but also highly readable book.

It may only have been published in 2005, but to my mind Findings (along with Jamie’s next book, Sightlines) is a modern classic. Kathleen Jamie is an award-winning poet but here turns her pen to prose. The book is a glorious collection of writings on the natural world. She notices details that many of us would miss and expertly describes both the everyday and the extraordinary.

Fiction

Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory was a deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019. Covering decades, a disparate set of characters are gradually drawn into a fight to save the the trees they have grown to love. The word epic is often overused when describing books, but in this case it is entirely warranted. The novel is both profoundly human and a beautiful hymn to a world we are losing more of each day.

Many of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels have a natural history theme and this is no exception. Young mother Dellarobia becomes caught up in the work of an ecologist as he tries to find out why the monarch butterflies that settle near her land aren’t migrating. he is convinced it is a sigh of climate change but others aren’t so sure. Wedding the personal to wider themes, this is a brilliant novel.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Watership Down‘s first publication. It heralded the start of a golden age for novels centred on animal characters, most sadly now out of print. Although ostensibly a children’s book (Adams created the story for his two daughters) it is definitely not for younger children having some very dark sections. The novel tells the story of a group of rabbits who must set off to find a new home when one of them receives a premonition that their warren is under threat. This link is for the paperback, but there are some nice hardback ones available too.

Further Reading

For more ideas and links to some of the books I have recommended in past blogs, see my Bookshop.org page here.

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