Christmas gifts 2012: the best wildlife books

Stephen Moss chooses his favourite books about the natural world

If there is a theme to this year's wildlife books, it is concern for the future of the natural world. Two books from the same publisher, each about extinction, approach the subject in very different ways. Extinct Birds, by Julian P Hume and Michael Walters (Bloomsbury), is a work of immense scholarship, detailing every species of bird to have disappeared. It is a timely read, given that far more types of bird are now threatened than have already gone. In Extinct Boids (sic), by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy (Bloomsbury), each species is splashed across the page in Steadman's unique style, accompanied by a witty and informative commentary by Levy. Meanwhile Drawn from Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise, by David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins), is a sumptuous celebration of that unique and threatened bird family from scientific, artistic and historical viewpoints.

Extinction is also on Mark Avery's mind – the imminent disappearance of such familiar British birds as the skylark, nightingale and cuckoo, following decades of mismanagement of the British countryside. Fighting for Birds (Pelagic) does what it says in the title, and the RSPB's former conservation director pulls no punches. Similar themes come to the fore in Silent Spring Revisited, by Conor Mark Jameson (Bloomsbury), a timely commemoration of the publication, half a century ago, of Rachel Carson's seminal work Silent Spring; and Wildlife in Trust, by Tim Sands (Elliott & Thompson), a comprehensive and fascinating history of the century-old Wildlife Trusts movement. Birds in a Cage, by Derek Niemann (Short Books), tells a fascinating story from a narrower historical period; it is a moving account of the "prison-camp ornithologists" of the second world war.

There is always room for traditional nature guides, and this year two neglected subjects have had their day in the sun. Mushrooms, by Peter Marren (British Wildlife Publishing), is a wonderfully eclectic book about the strange world of fungi, by one of the best nature writers in Britain today. Field Guide to Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland, by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons is an extraordinary labour of love, especially for illustrator Richard Lewington, as it covers more than a thousand different species of these tiny insects.

A less traditional guide is The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw (Princeton), a bizarre but irresistible examination of the anatomy of birds, which gives us genuinely new insights into the behaviour of living species.

Collins brings us a trio of books in the venerable New Naturalist series: Scotland, by Peter Friend, Partridges, by GR Potts and Francis Buner, and Grasshoppers & Crickets, by Ted Benton. The latter breaks new ground by including a CD of the insects' sounds along with video material.

British nature writing often deals with the specific and personal, and four excellent books do just that. Otter Country, by Miriam Darlington (Granta), is a delightful account of one woman's quest to understand this charismatic mammal. It follows in the tradition of Gavin Maxwell and Henry Williamson, and stands comparison with both. Veteran birder Bryan Bland brings us The Profit of Birding (New Holland), a quirky account of how a lifetime spent with birds opened up other avenues of pleasure and fulfilment. The other two books focus even more closely on a particular place. A Patch Made in Heaven, by Dominic Couzens (Robert Hale), traces a year in one small corner of the Dorset countryside. It is brought to life by Couzens's superb ability to show us the hidden meaning behind everyday aspects of bird behaviour. Likewise Mike Dilger, The One Show's resident naturalist, writes a delightful account of his first year in a new home, during which he and his partner transformed their former council house garden into a wildlife haven: My Garden and Other Animals (Collins). Any nature-lover would love to receive two beautifully illustrated offerings from Langford Press: Jewels beyond the Plough, by Richard Jefferson and John Davis, is a celebration of Britain's grasslands, one of our most endangered habitats; and in Troubled Waters, one of our best-known bird artists, Bruce Pearson, journeys through the southern oceans to chart the tragic decline of the world's albatrosses. For my nature book of the year, I have chosen Bird Sense, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury). This is the perfect combination of learning and insight along with style and accessibility. Birkhead wears his knowledge lightly, and conveys complex scientific concepts – such as the way migrant birds navigate – in an easily understandable way. A magnificent achievement.

• Stephen Moss's Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village is published by Vintage. To order titles with free UK p&p visit the Guardian bookshop


Stephen Moss

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