The story of 80 of the world’s most interesting birds

In his work as a science writer and photographer, Mike Unwin has dealt with an angry elephant, snorkeled with whale sharks and canoeed with hippos. But for his latest research, his subjects are not so big and easier to find.

In his new book, “Around the World in 80 Birds,” Unwin tells stories of dozens of bird species, each representing a country or area where it matters. The book contains illustrations by Ryuto Miyake.

With some 11,000 bird species in the world, Unwin had no trouble finding potential subjects. It was just hard to narrow his list.

“My tiny urban patch is hardly a bird sanctuary and yet at the end of an average workday, including a lunchtime walk through the park, I will generally have seen or heard about 25 species,” Unwin writes. “Add to that the plethora of bird images I’m sure to encounter – from book spines to tattoos – and it’s clear there are no escaping birds.”

Unwin focuses on wildlife, conservation and travel. He has published 40 books, for both adults and children, and is a regular contributor to many newspapers and magazines.

Treehugger spoke to Unwin about his birding 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 developed for flight, including feathers, wings instead of front legs, and lightweight beaks instead of heavy jaws and teeth. The incredible journeys that flight has enabled many birds to migrate over the highest mountains and deepest deserts and fly halfway around the world in a few weeks. The sheer inventiveness of their breeding behaviour, with dazzling plumage, flamboyant courtship and melodious or weird voices. The intelligence and versatility of species such as crows, whose cognitive abilities we now know rival those of the great apes. In general, the amazing variety among the 11,000 species in the world – from pigeons to penguins and hawks to hummingbirds.


Hoatzin, Ophisthocomus hoazin, Guyana.

Ryuto Mikyake


Which varieties are some of your favorites?

Too many to mention! I love the purple-crested turaco – an African bird with beautiful colors and a loud raspy voice, the national bird of Eswatini, where I once lived. The European Sparrowhawk – a small bird of prey, common in the UK, that runs like a winged killer through gardens in search of small songbirds and is always gone before you can get a good look. The wandering albatross – a huge seabird with a wingspan of 3 meters that can reach the age of 70; I have encountered these travelers far out at sea in the Southern Ocean and have watched them for hours and marveled at their lives, sliding next to the ship and staring at me. Any kind of owl, anywhere.


Emperor Penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, Antarctica.

Ryuto Mikyake


What exciting things have happened to you during your adventures as a wildlife photographer and writer?

During my many years living in southern Africa, I had many exciting encounters with bush wildlife – including tracking lions on foot, canoeing among hippos and facing the mock attack of an angry elephant. Elsewhere, I’ve climbed high in the Himalayas to look for and photograph snow leopards; I’ve kayaked with penguins and humpback whales among the icebergs of Antarctica; I’ve sat among a pack of gorillas in the tropical forest of Uganda, with the huge silverback watching me; I have met the eagle hunters of Mongolia, where I felt the power of a golden eagle’s talons hanging from my wrist; I’ve stood dead still in the grasslands of Brazil as a giant anteater, baby on her back, got up; and I’ve snorkeled with whale sharks in the Sea of ​​Cortez in Mexico.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to see thousands of bird species around the world, but these days I tend not to focus on rare species for my list, but to enjoy whatever occurs in the place I’m in. Birds in general are simple find. The great advantage of observing them, compared to most other animals, is that they are ubiquitous: wherever you go, from tropical rainforest to the city center, you will see many different species. Many are very conspicuous—not only by sight, but also by sound. No other part of the animal kingdom is as vocal, so you can have a great birding experience simply by listening (even here in busy little England, our Spring Dawn choir is a marvel).

And because birds are easy to find, they are also easy to watch. Spending time observing what they are doing can be more satisfying than just “tapping” [off a list] whether they ‘bite’: be it a woodpecker digging a burrow, a heron stalking a fish or swallows feeding their young.


Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus, New Zealand.

Ryuto Mikyake


Is it more satisfying when you find certain ones?

It’s, of course, exciting to see something special or new: I was overjoyed when I recently saw an elusive cobbler, deep in a papyrus swamp in Uganda, after reading about it for years. 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 excited and learn more simply by watching the behavior of birds that I have been familiar with all my life.

Did you know all the birds you wrote about or did you discover any interesting ones during your research?

I knew all kinds except one – the tororoi bailador, a small Colombian ant-eating bird discovered by scientists just before I started the book. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to see 56 of the 80 species I have chosen, and the others I knew from books and documentaries, many of them since childhood. However, the research process taught me a lot of new things about birds that I thought I knew well – and underlined the fact that when it comes to birds, we learn all the time.


Red jungle fowl, 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 difficult to select only 80 species; I could have easily picked 80 others. My main goal was to show the diversity of the bird world and to show how much birds mean to people around the world. I wanted my selection to cover a wide range of families – from ducks and seabirds to raptors and songbirds – and to cover all habitats, from deserts and mountains to forests, savannas and oceans. I wanted to show big birds and small birds, common birds and rare birds, popular birds and obscure birds.

Each of the 80 was eventually chosen because of a characteristic that impressed us – be it the beautiful plumage (like the beautiful bird of paradise), the bizarre appearance (shoe beak), the fascinating behavior (tailorbird), the evocative song ( nightingale), or relationship with humanity (red jungle fowl). For many species, these traits have helped to embed them into our culture – language, literature, art, mythology, heraldry, and so on. Many others are connected to our history of science and discovery or are celebrated subjects of conservation. After all, there is no such thing as an uninteresting bird. Each 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 us. To cultures around the world, their ability to flee has become a symbol of freedom – as well as the ability to transcend earthly boundaries, often suggesting the divine. The flamboyant courtship rituals of birds and (for some species) their striking pairings suggest romance and fidelity, while the predatory prowess of eagles and other birds of prey is associated with power and military might.

In a given environment, birds are often the most conspicuous representatives of the animal kingdom, so our attention and imagination tend to focus on them – be it an eagle soaring above a mountain or a magpie perched on a garden fence. In addition, the voices of birds are strongly reminiscent of place. You hear a seagull and you immediately think of the coast; the screech of a tawny owl, and it is a lonely forest at night.


Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx Californianus, Mexico.

Ryuto Mikyake


Can you tell us about your background and what’s 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 chasing wildlife, broadening my knowledge and experience in some of the world’s richest natural environments. I founded and led the Swaziland Bird Club; did census 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 delighted to explore the hills and coasts around my home in Brighton, in southern England, and watch the migratory birds arrive and leave. My next assignment is to Patagonia, where I hope to track down cougars and Andean condors.

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