1. Home

Discuss in my forum

The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


The Armchair Birder

The Armchair Birder


The Bottom Line

A collection of colorful essays, The Armchair Birder looks beyond identification field marks, color morphs, habitat preferences and other basic information about birds to give readers a truly insightful understanding of the very birds readers assumed they were already familiar with. Birders interested in the “why” behind nest construction, courtship rituals, unusual names and other birdy quirks will enjoy the trivia John Yow presents and will be fascinated to see just how much they have to learn about the birds they thought they knew.


  • Entertaining writing style and informative context provides an educational look at birds without being overwhelming.
  • Each essay is illustrated with the corresponding artwork from John James Audubon.
  • Personal anecdotes give intimate insights any backyard birder can relate to.


  • Some essays have occasional heavy use of quotes from other sources, but each still adds personal insight to the bird under scrutiny.
  • Because this anthology only covers the author’s regional birds it is not necessarily as relevant to readers with different backyard species.


  • Title: The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds
  • Author: John Yow
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication Date: April 2009
  • Format: Hardcover (softcover and Kindle editions also available)
  • Page Count: 256
  • ISBN: 978-0-8078-3279-0
  • Price: $27.00

Review - The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds

Birding doesn’t have to be about getting out into the field, building a long life list or traveling extensively for brief glimpses of exotic species. The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds highlights just how exotic and exciting even the most common birds can be once a birder really takes the time and effort to examine the intimate intricacies of birddom. Author John Yow explains it well when he says “if you’re like me, identifying them is the beginning, not the end, of the journey. If you’re like me, knowing what they look like just whets your appetite for knowing what they’re up to.”

Every backyard birder has had that rare glimpse of unusual behavior and birds behaving strangely, but why do they do what they do? Yow asks “who knew what kind of weird behavior might be going on right here in my little piece of forest?” and he does his best to answer that question through the 40 species he explores in this essay anthology. Not only are Yow’s personal observations discussed, but he goes straight to the birding experts – Arthur Cleveland Bent, John James Audubon and other top ornithologists and resources – to add richness and scientific depth to his explorations of birds.

It isn’t the exotic species that fascinate Yow, however. Just as every backyard birder has their favorite common guest, Yow’s most insightful work is done with birds every birder thought they knew, and he examines even the most familiar species in unfamiliar ways, revealing a great deal about the birds’ history, ecology, behavior and habits, such as:

A total of 40 species are covered in The Armchair Birder, most with individual detailed essays but several coupled together where their habits overlap. Both common and Latin names of the birds are included, and each essay is illustrated with appropriate bird images from John James Audubon, though while in black and white which robs them of the finer details, still adds a rich visual component to this book.

Yow’s humorous tone often anthropomorphizes birds, but that is a habit many birders share and it adds charm to the book without overstating the birds’ human qualities. Yow does include some mild political commentary that is now outdated but is easily overlooked while reading. A brief list of sources at the end of the text provides additional suggestions for readers interested in taking their own armchair birding to the next level, for as Yow admits in the book’s afterword, “If I’ve done nothing else in these pages, I’ve thrown open the gates to armchair birddom, where all can enter – even without expensive binoculars.”

Birders of all ages and experience levels can become armchair birders and explore their favorite feathered friends not in the field, but in the pages of books and through other research resources. From unusual histories to quirky behaviors, there is much discovery to be made about even the most commonplace birds, and The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds makes a great beginning.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.