A History of Movement on Wings

July 9, 2022

A review by Chelsea Connor

Flights of Passage: An Illustrated Natural History of Bird Migration, by Mike Unwin and David Tipling

Yale University Press, 2020

288 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15077

Bird migration has always been a fascinating topic for birders of all stages. Watching the tides of birds ebbing and flowing with different seasons. But how do they know where to go and when? And how do they pick the places that they travel so tirelessly to? Flights of Passage takes a refreshing look at bird migration, focusing on individual species of migratory birds, the history and stories associated with them, and the places they go. Unwin and Tipling also open the reader up to lesser-known and looked-at types of migration in many species readers may not be aware of.

The book opens with spreads of birds—a puffin filling up on fish to prepare for its flight, a pair of Turtle Doves rising, the tiny Wilson’s Storm-Petrel seeming to dramatically burst from a much larger cresting wave—already propelling you into the journeys ahead. The authors then share amazement and intrigue for the “Mystery of Migration,” an aptly named introduction that gives a global overview on the topic. The following six chapters group birds together by type: “Wildfowl and Diving Birds,” “Seabirds,” “Shorebirds and Waders,” “Songbirds,” “Raptors and Owls,” and “Other Bird Migrations.” They serve to artfully weave together the facts and history that the authors have learnt from research about the complex phenomenon of migration so far in clear and accessible language. Each begins with a one-page overview of the bird group, leading into individual entries on about ten different globally distributed species. Each of these one to two-page entries are often lengthened by more stunning photo spreads of the subjects.

The species entries start with short natural history accounts that detail the size measurements, descriptions of appearance, lifestyle, status, and range and migration paths. It’s hard to overstate the beauty of the vivid photography that accompanies the stories of the birds and their movements. The depth and composition of each photo puts one in the environment with each of the feathered focal points. The closer portrait-like shots show off striking personalities, and it feels like you’re getting an intimate look into this bird’s life. Their characters are captured so skillfully in all photos that the reader comes away with a sense of true familiarity and understanding.

The stories told about each bird flow from beginning to end, teaching readers history, cultural importance, and natural history alongside the story of the when and where of their journey. Unwin and Tipling have adeptly penned these bird biographies in ways that keep your interest without the barrier of heavy scientific wording.

ABA Area birders will recognize the usual suspects of waterfowl like Common Loons and songbirds like American Robins and can learn much more on the nature of their migratory paths. Other birds like Osprey familiar to coastal ABA Area birders can also be found across the Northern Hemisphere, providing North America-based readers the opportunity to learn about this bird’s migratory experience outside of their continent. Still more can be learnt in birds completely outside of the ABA Area and in birding hotspots like the continents of Africa and Australia with, for instance, the Red-billed Queleas and Budgerigars. They also serve to showcase uncommon ranges and types of migration, where these birds follow bursts of rain instead of escaping the winter as one might expect.

For every fan of migration, or bird fans in general, Flights of Passage serves to be not only a great read, but a wonderful book you can keep on your coffee table or desk and reference whenever migration comes to mind. If you’ve ever thought much about where birds go when they go, or you’ve logged the miles yourself, Flights of Passage kindles a warmth much like that which some of these birds fly out in search of.


Chelsea Connor is a herpetologist, birder, artist, and Ph.D. student from the Commonwealth of Dominica. She loves the flora and fauna she grew up with. As a science communicator, Chelsea spends time amassing and sharing information on different anoles with her hashtag #DidYouAnole? on Twitter, and she also writes about the indigenous animals of her home island.