A distinguished ornithologist and wildlife broadcaster, James' interest in birds developed at a young age, encouraged by his father, and inspired by his uncle, the Cheshire naturalist Arnold Whitworth Boyd. Educated at Eton he initially followed his family's wishes and read medicine at Oxford University but ultimately graduated with a degree in zoology.
From 1936 to 1939 James worked as an assistant curator at London Zoo but his passion for birds, and the field study of them, remained strong. In 1940, he wrote Watching Birds, which became one of Pelican's best-selling paperbacks and was credited with causing a deeper public interest in birds. This was followed by other popular titles including: The Birds of Britain (1942) and Bird Recognition (1947, 1951, 1955). In 1946 James began publishing and for 8 years was the natural history editor at Collins.
In the course of his career James made over 1000 broadcasts, regularly contributing to radio programmes at the early BBC Natural History Unit. His friendly approach made him a well-loved voice on the air and he regularly introduced Birds in Britain. James also made numerous appearances on camera, contributing to over 200 programmes. In 1957 he introduced the Eurovision outside broadcast from Hamburg's Hagenbeck's Zoo, which set the style for his later programme, News from the Zoos.
Taking a prominent stand on nature conservation efforts, James spent many years on the council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and in 1968 was appointed deputy chairman of the National Parks Commission (now the Countryside Commission).
James died on the 25th September 1970, aged 58.