Telling the Story of 80 of the World's Most Interesting Birds

'There is no such thing as an uninteresting bird.'

Bateleur Eagle, Terathopius ecaudatus, Zimbabwe
Bateleur eagle, Terathopius ecaudatus, Zimbabwe.

Ryuto Mikyake

In his work as a science writer and photographer, Mike Unwin has faced an angry elephant, snorkeled with whale sharks, and canoed among hippos. But for his latest research, his subjects aren’t quite as large and are easier to find.

In his new book, “Around the World in 80 Birds,” Unwin tells tales about dozens of bird species, each representing a country or territory where it is significant. The book features illustrations by Ryuto Miyake.

With somewhere around 11,000 bird species in the world, Unwin had no trouble finding potential subjects. It was only difficult to whittle down his list.

“My tiny urban patch is hardly a bird reserve and yet by the end of an average working day, including a lunchtime stroll around the park, I will generally have seen or heard some 25 species,” Unwin writes. “Add to that the profusion of avian imagery that I am bound to encounter—from book spines to tattoos—and it’s clear there’s no escaping birds.”

Unwin focuses on wildlife, conservation, and travel. He has published 40 books, for both adults and children, and writes regularly for many newspapers and magazines.

Treehugger talked to Unwin about his bird adventures, why he finds them so captivating, and how hard it is to find them.

Treehugger: What do you find so fascinating about birds?

Mike Unwin: Pretty much everything about them. The amazing anatomical adaptations they have evolved for flight—including feathers, wings in place of front legs, and lightweight beaks instead of heavy jaws and teeth. The incredible journeys that flight has allowed many birds to make, migrating over the highest mountains and deepest deserts, flying halfway around the globe in a few weeks. The sheer inventiveness of their breeding behavior, with dazzling plumage, flamboyant courtship displays, and melodic or weird voices. The intelligence and versatility of species such as crows, whose cognitive powers we now know rival those of the great apes. In general, the astonishing variety among the world’s 11,000 species—from pigeons to penguins and hawks to hummingbirds.

Hoatzin, Ophisthocomus hoazin, Guyana
Hoatzin, Ophisthocomus hoazin, Guyana.

Ryuto Mikyake

Which species are some of your favorites?

Too many to name! I love the purple-crested turaco—an African bird with gorgeous colors and a harsh grating voice that is the national bird of Eswatini, where I once lived. The European sparrowhawk—a small bird of prey, common in the U.K., which dashes through gardens like a winged assassin in search of small songbirds and is always gone before you get a proper look. The wandering albatross—a huge seabird with a 10-foot wingspan that can reach the age of 70; I have encountered these voyagers far out at sea in the Southern Ocean and spent hours watching them and wondering about their lives, as they glide beside the ship, staring at me. Any species of owl, anywhere.

Emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, Antarctica
Emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, Antarctica.

Ryuto Mikyake

What exciting things have happened to you on your adventures as a nature photographer and writer?

Over many years living in southern Africa I had many exciting encounters with wild animals in the bush—including tracking lions on foot, canoeing among hippos, and facing down the mock charge of an angry elephant. Elsewhere, I have climbed high into the Himalayas to find and photograph snow leopards; I have kayaked with penguins and humpback whales among the icebergs of Antarctica; I have sat among a troop of gorillas in Uganda’s tropical forest, while the huge silverback checked me out; I have met the eagle hunters of Mongolia, where I felt the power of a golden eagle’s talons clinging to my wrist; I have stood stock-still in the grasslands of Brazil while a giant anteater, baby on her back, walked up to my feet; and I have snorkeled with whale sharks in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

When looking for animals, how do birds compare to the other species you’ve searched for? Are they harder to find?

I have been lucky enough to see thousands of bird species around the world, but these days I tend not to target rare species for my list but rather aim to enjoy whatever happens to reveal itself in the place where I find myself. Birds in general are easy to find. The great advantage of watching them, compared with most other animals, is that they’re ubiquitous: Wherever you go, from tropical rainforest to the city center, you will see plenty of different species. Many are very conspicuous—not just by sight but also by sound. No other part of the animal kingdom is so vocal, so you can have a wonderful bird experience simply by listening (even here in busy little England, our spring dawn chorus is a thing of wonder).  

And because birds are easy to find, they’re also easy to watch. Spending time observing what they’re doing can be more fulfilling than simply “ticking” [off a list] or “snapping” them: whether it's a woodpecker excavating a hole, a heron stalking a fish, or swallows feeding their young. 

Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus, New Zealand
Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus, New Zealand.

Ryuto Mikyake

Is it more fulfilling when you find particular ones?

Of course, it’s exciting to see something special or new: I was thrilled when I recently spotted an elusive shoebill, deep in a papyrus swamp in Uganda, after years of reading about them. And it’s always exciting to track down and identify a rarity—trying to match what you’ve seen with the description in the book. But every year I get more excitement and learn more from simply watching the behavior of birds with which I’ve been familiar all my life.

Were you familiar with all the birds you wrote about or did you discover interesting ones during your research?

I knew all the species except for one—the tororoi bailador, a tiny Colombian ant-eating bird that was discovered by scientists just before I started writing the book. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see 56 of the 80 species I chose, and I was familiar with the others from books and documentaries, many of them since childhood. However, the research process taught me many new things about birds that I thought I knew well—and underlined the fact that, when it comes to birds, we’re learning all the time.

Red Junglefowl, Gallus Gallus, Thailand
Red junglefowl, Gallus Gallus, Thailand.

Ryuto Mikyake

How did you choose each of the 80 birds? How important was it that they have interesting stories and not just be beautiful?

It was very hard to select just 80 species; I could very easily have chosen 80 others. My main aim was to showcase the diversity of the bird world and show how much birds mean to people around the globe. I wanted my selection to cover a wide range of families—from ducks and seabirds to birds of prey and songbirds—and to cover all habitats, from deserts and mountains to forests, savannahs, and oceans. I wanted to feature large birds and small birds, common birds and rare birds, popular birds, and obscure birds. 

Each of the 80 was ultimately chosen because of some feature that has made an impression on us—whether its fine plumage (such as the superb bird-of-paradise) bizarre appearance (shoebill), fascinating behavior (tailorbird), evocative song (nightingale), or relationship with humankind (red junglefowl). For many species, these qualities have helped embed them in our culture—language, literature, art, mythology, heraldry, and so on. Many others are bound up in our history of science and discovery or are celebrated subjects of conservation. In the end, there is no such thing as an uninteresting bird. Every species has a fascinating story to tell.

Why do you think birds often play such an important role in folklore and myth?

Birds have many qualities that impress themselves upon us. For cultures all over the globe, their powers of flight have come to represent freedom—and also the ability to transcend earthly boundaries, often suggesting the divine. Birds’ flamboyant courtship rituals and (for some species) their conspicuous pair bonds suggest romance and fidelity, while the predatory prowess of eagles and other raptors is associated with power and military might.

In any given environment, birds are often the most conspicuous representatives of the animal kingdom, so our attention and imagination tend to settle on them—whether it’s an eagle soaring above a mountain or a magpie perched on a garden gate. Furthermore, birds’ voices are strongly evocative of place. Hear a gull and you immediately think of the seaside; the hoot of a tawny owl, and it’s a lonely forest at night.

Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx Californianus, Mexico
Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx Californianus, Mexico.

Ryuto Mikyake

Can you share a little bit about your background and what’s next on your to-do list?

As a child, growing up in England, I was obsessed with all forms of wildlife—especially birds. After graduating in English literature, I went to work in southern Africa—first as a teacher and later as an educational publisher. Here, I spent all my free time in pursuit of wildlife, broadening my knowledge and experience in some of the world’s richest natural environments. I founded and ran the Swaziland Bird Club; did census work for the South African Frog Atlas Project; and was a volunteer for Zambia’s South Luangwa Conservation Society (Zambia), focusing on human/animal conflict.

My travels in search of wildlife have taken me to all seven continents—but I am equally happy exploring the hills and coasts around my home of Brighton, in southern England, watching the migratory birds arrive and depart every year. My next assignment is to Patagonia, where I hope to track down pumas and Andean condors.

View Article Sources
  1. "Birds." Bird Life International.