House Sparrow on chain link fence

It’s a sign, I think, when I receive a book to review and realize I just bought the same book, on my own recognizance, for my own pleasure. Also a sign when I spot other books by the same author on the shelf in the office of a member of my thesis committee, and on my own Christmas wish list. In this case, the signs were right. This is a good book.

Other signs: Last night, as I was reading this in the bar, a man came up to me and asked about it (please don’t do that.) First he thought it was a book of poetry, but when I said no, he proceeded with a long story about the red sparrows (House Finches) at his new feeder. These signs point to the fact that this book is both lovely and necessary.

Everybody knows sparrows, except for the fact that most people don’t know anything about sparrows.Kim Todd sets out to rectify this in a small, elegant book that covers both House Sparrows, the Passer tribe, and the other birds colloquially called sparrows throughout the world (albeit she concentrates most on North America and Britain.) She sorts out the taxonomic tangles for laypeople in some of the most well-turned popular science writing I’ve had the pleasure to read, and then moves on to discuss the sparrow as symbol in folklore and literature, the great Sparrow Wars following the introduction of the House Sparrow to the US (a series of escapades that produced some publications that might fairly be called the 19th-century equivalent of flame wars about feral cats) and the War on Pests during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the use of White-crowned Sparrows and Song Sparrows in research, the extinction of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow and of course the current environmental outlook for sparrows both common and rare. All this, she accomplishes in 165 pages, not stinting on lovely illustrations, many in color.

Most of the credit for this accomplishment to Todd, but I should also spare a word of praise for REAKTION Books. This is the second book I have read in their Animal series and the first, Cockroach, was deserving of equally high praise. Certainly, these are books worth seeking out for any lover of natural history, not just birders.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at