Thursday, May 2, 2019

Fieldcraft: How to choose the birding field guide that is best for you

Short-billed dowitchers molting into breeding plumage
Short-billed Dowitchers starting molt into breeding plumage. San Diego, California. April 2, 2017.
Do you want your field guide detailed enough to identify these birds transitioning into breeding plumage?
Or, is, "some kind of dowitcher" good enough for you?
First of all, there is no "best" bird field guide. There are many excellent field guides available on the market. One of these just might be the best field guide for you.

You have four decisions to make first, however, regarding how you will use your guide and what you want it to show. Consider these four decisions carefully.

First, is usage. How will you use this guide? Is this an identification guide that sits at home or in the car for reference, or is it a field guide that you will carry with you to put a name on the bird before you? A true field guide is compact enough to carry easily. To be compact means that it will be brief compared to some identification guides. Thus, to be useful, it must be very well-organized to actually find the bird quickly.

Second, how detailed must it be? Or, rather, how much detail do you want left out? Do you want it to show only breeding males? Females if different? Non-breeding plumage if different? Juvenile and immature plumage if held for the fall and winter? Subspecies variation where field-identifiable? How much information do you want about habitat? Songs? Behavior? Nesting? Similar species? Range in text or maps?

Third, how inclusive must it be? Must it show every species ever seen in your region or just the most likely? Or even fewer--just the most common and obvious? And what is your region? A state? A geographic province? A continent?

Fourth, is the visual medium. Do you want photos or artistic illustration? A photograph is one individual on one day of it's life, in the light conditions of the day, time, and location, with the camera settings of the photographer (and the computer post-processing), doing whatever the bird was doing at the time of the photograph (probably being slightly alarmed by being stalked by this human with this giant glass eyeball staring at it!). No two birds are exactly alike. In fact, with continuous molt, wear, and body fat changes, that one bird will never again look exactly the way it does today. Some drawings are very lifelike, others are more patternistic so you don't get lost in feather details that don't help with the identification. Most drawings are an "average," and can show a typical posture and habitat or, alternatively, might show all birds in identical posture with no shadows in order to emphasize only the pattern differences.

If you can provide definite answers to as many of these field guide "trade-offs" ("style choices"?) as possible, you will be able to pick out your own best field guide, now and in the future. The answers to the level of detail needed and how inclusive it must be are very important. Are you okay letting some female or immature birds go unidentified? Do you care about the identification of very rare look-a-likes that are possible but not likely? Do you only care about a very small region or will you be birding more widely?

At first, every bird will be new and unfamiliar to you. So you may want to start with a simple guide. After a couple of months you will learn the common birds in your area. If you reach this point and have too "simple" of a field guide, you will quickly note many birds that aren't depicted. Fortunately, field guides are inexpensive and you can "move up" to a more comprehensive guide.

Starting with a "simpler" guide might be preferable, though, to being overwhelmed by the more detailed and inclusive guides. A field guide should encourage identification. If it's too complicated it will discourage.

On the other hand, if you've been bitten by the "birding bug," you will quickly out-grow a simpler guide and would gladly take on the challenge of the more detailed guides, so that as few birds as possible get away unidentified.

Here are a few popular books in North America and others on my bookshelf and how I rate them using the 4 criteria above.

Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Seventh Edition). Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer. 2017. National Geographic Society, Washington DC.
Buy it at

Slightly larger and heavier than the standard field guide; may fit in a coat pocket. Very detailed; numerous illustrations of over 1000 species. Textual descriptions of plumage, voice, habitat, range, some behavioral notes. North America, excluding Mexico, but including Greenland. Painted by different artists but most are highly detailed, feather-sharp, with plumage annotations, and some habitat illustrated.

The Sibley Guide to Birds (Second Edition). David Allen Sibley. 2014. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

The "Big Sibley" (there are several smaller regional guides). Larger and heavier, won't fit in most pockets. Very detailed; numerous illustrations of each species; maps; textual descriptions of identification marks, habitat, behavior, and voice. All species also shown in flight. North America, excluding Mexico and Greenland. All paintings by the author, with excellent posture and proportions, many in life-like poses with annotations and a very few habitat hints. [Get the 2nd printing of July 2014 that fixes color and text contrast issues.]

A Field Guide to Western Birds (Third Edition). Roger Tory Peterson. 1990. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

I know there are more recent editions (Fourth Edition to all of North America, exclusive of Mexico), but this may be the last in the 5x7.5 inch traditional Peterson pocket-sized field guide. It is less detailed than the guides above, with fewer illustrations per species, so less overwhelming for beginners. Text describes identification, voice, habitat, and, helpfully,  similar species. Maps are all together in the back. This includes half a continent--the Western US and Canada (not Hawaii as earlier editions), so perhaps 100 fewer species than the entire continent. It uses Peterson's more patternistic art style and stiff right-facing poses with arrows pointing to the field marks. This simplifies the identification process for beginners.

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Donald and Lillian Stokes. 2010. Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Buy it at

Larger and fat. Very heavy with 790 pages and a CD of bird songs that I have never used. Very detailed desk reference; this book may average 5 illustrations per species. Much text. Rather than Peterson's "field marks" approach, this guide teaches identification first with shape, a very effective way to quickly narrow down your identification to the correct family of birds. All major plumages are described in the text, along with habitat and voice. Maps are very accurate. Subspecies are described. 850 species in North America, excluding Mexico and Greenland. This guide uses 1/6th to 1/8th page size photographs with no annotations--read the text. For more advanced birders.

Birds of Oregon. Roger Burrows and Jeff Gilligan. 2003. Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn, Washington.

At 5.5x8.5 it might fit in a pocket. It skips detailed illustrations and averages about 1-1/2 illustrations per species. So this makes it more of a car reference for beginners who want to find and identify the common birds. However, it is fairly detailed in the text, beginning with a full paragraph life-history overview of each species. ID text telegraphs main plumage marks, size, status, habitat, nesting, feeding, voice, similar species, best sites, and summer/winter maps. It includes only the most frequent 75% (328 species) of Oregon's birds, forgoing those that have less than maybe 5 records per year. It is illustrated with fairly large paintings.

These example field guides should give you an example of how to analyze field guides and help you choose the birding field guide that is best for you.

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