18 Classic Natural History Books
Updated: May 5
I’ve been addicted to natural history books for as long as I can remember. My well-thumbed copy of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth has an inscription in the front wishing me a happy tenth birthday. This definitive, eloquent classic opened my eyes not only to the diversity of life, but also to the sense of wonder that accompanies all wildlife travel.
It is not difficult to discover an unknown animal,’ writes Attenborough in the book’s opening lines. ‘Spend a day in the tropical forest of South America, turning over logs, looking beneath bark [and] sifting through the moist litter of leaves...’
With this simple description, Attenborough plunges us into an Amazonian bug-hunting expedition. That’s the thing about good natural history writing. It makes you feel like you’re there, a natural accomplice, delving into the same environment, sharing the revelations.
The best wildlife books inform and inspire, and Life on Earth definitely belongs in my top 18. Picking the others, however, was no easy task. Some are there for their riveting travelogues, others for their groundbreaking revelations, passionate voice, eye-watering humour or breathtaking photography and art. I've also included some indispensable field guides – works of art in themselves – that have accompanied me on numerous wildlife trips.
Life on Earth
David Attenborough's iconic thesis accompanied the equally groundbreaking television series tracing the evolution of life on Earth – a keenly observed narrative that eloquently recreates the pageant of life over the last 3,500 million years.
The Voyage of the Beagle
Wordsworth Editions, 1997
Charles Darwin’s wonderfully observed, revelatory voyage to South America and the South Pacific. Travel, science, wildlife and a sense of wonder woven into a fascinating journal.
The Diversity of Life
Belknap Press, 1992
One of the world's pre-eminent biologists and naturalists, Edward O Wilson’s definitive essay explores the importance of biodiversity using vivid imagery and insight.
The Wild Places
Granta Books, 2007
Robert MacFarlane’s eloquent portrait of Britain’s last wild places – a spellbinding and poignant classic that evokes the spirit and natural beauty of untouched landscapes ranging from the Burren’s limestone pavements to East Anglia's salt-marshes.
Into the Heart of Borneo
Redmond O’Hanlon’s keenly described and often hilarious jungle adventure with the poet James Fenton takes the pair deep into Borneo.
The Snow Leopard
Vintage Classics, 2010
Peter Mathiesson’s evocative account of mountains and mysticism, travelling through the Himalayas with field biologist George Schaller to study the wild blue sheep and catch a glimpse of its elusive, shadowy predator...
Eye to Eye
Incredible images by Frans Lanting, one of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers, brought together in his first personal portfolio – a hefty, large-format, totally engrossing volume of some 140 extraordinary portraits – from orang-utans in Borneo to penguins in Antarctica.
One Man’s Island
A wildlife artist’s year on Scotland’s Isle of May, revealed through beautiful sketches and watercolour paintings. Keith Brockie’s work is a celebration of the art of natural history observation.
Planet Earth II
BBC Books, 2016
Every book that accompanies a TV series from the BBC Natural History Unit deserves space on a wildlife-lover's bookshelf. Life on Earth is already included above, but Planet Earth II also makes it onto the list simply because it is an essential companion to one of the most stunning, compelling wildlife series ever made.
The Photo Ark
National Geographic, 2017
One man's quest to document the world's animals, The Photo Ark is Joel Sartore's captivating pictorial homage to biodiversity. Featuring 400 extraordinary portraits, the book is not only visually beautiful and scientifically important, but also carries a powerful message for the conservation of species ranging from the white-bellied pangolin to the red-headed uakari.
The Seabird's Cry
William Collins, 2018
The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers... Adam Nicolson follows them to the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Americas on a soaring celebration of their habitats and behaviour – while highlighting the threats they face.
50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The Natural History Museum, 2018
A visual treat, featuring some of the best wildlife photographs ever taken, this book charts the development of nature photography and brings together five decades of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
Raptors of the World
Helm Field Guides, 2005
Get to grips with all 340 of the world’s raptor species, from mighty eagles to diminutive falcons. The superb artwork in this field guide will help you identify birds of prey roosting and in flight. There’s also information on subspecies and juveniles.
Parrots of the World
Helm Field Guides, 2006
Joseph M Forshaw is a world authority on parrots and this dazzling volume features illustrations of every species in glorious detail, along with distribution maps and introductory sections on taxonomy, evolution, breeding biology, behaviour and conservation.
Whales, Dolphins and Seals
A&C Black, 2006
A field guide to the marine mammals of the world, this stunning guide is a must for anyone embarking on a polar voyage. It covers every species of cetacean, pinniped and sirenian in the world, along with the sea otters and the polar bear.
Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World
Helm Field Guides, 2006
Not always easy to identify – particularly when you’re on the pitching deck of a ship – these magnificent pelagic seabirds are described in vivid detail in this book, which includes clear illustrations of each species in flight, as well as distribution maps.
Coral Reef Fishes
Princeton University Press, 2001
No less than 2,118 species of marine fish from both the Indo-Pacific and Caribbean regions are illustrated and described in this definitive guide. An essential companion for anyone interested in snorkelling or diving on the world’s coral reefs.
How to be a Bad Birdwatcher
Short Books, 2004
Not so much a guide as a celebration of birds and the pleasure that comes from simply observing them, Simon Barnes dismisses the popular myth that you need expensive binoculars and an anorak to enjoy birdwatching.