Guide to Guides

In the beginning, there was Peterson. Roger Tory Peterson is recognized as the father of the modern field guide. Based on teachings of Ludlow Griscom, his 1934, "A Field Guide to the Birds" revolutionized bird identification techniques. It made birding a pursuit possible by the multitudes. No longer was it the domain only of naturalists with years of formal training. Nor was a dead bird in the hand any longer needed the principal means of identification.

Occasionally a new book would appear, offering an innovation or slant not found in Peterson. But Peterson remained the favorite, decade after decade. In recent years that has changed. Birders are now confronted with what to many is a bewildering array of guides. Since most of us are afflicted with the compulsion to collect, we are tempted to buy every new offering.

True, most birders feel they need more than one field guide because no single guide can include all the essential information on every North American species. Now that we have a variety before us, we can and should be selective. We provide these brief analyses of guides to help you make selections based on what kinds of birding activities you enjoy and your current level of "expertise".

Prices given are "list" prices. You may find bargains in stores or via mail order. Ask other birders for "best price" places before you buy. Note the titles carefully; they are very similar. If a birthday or holiday is near, you may want to leave a copy of this lying about with your choice(s) heavily marked and where to buy or who to ask written beside it.

A Field Guide to the Birds (also called Eastern Birds), Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Co., Rev. 1980; $16.95. A Field Guide to Western Birds, Rev. 1990. $16.95.

Editor's Note: Since Edge Wade's review appeared in The Bluebird, Peterson has died, and a Fifth edition of the Eastern Guide has been issued in April, 2002, now entitled, "A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America." The paperback version lists for $22.00.

Strengths: The "Peterson System" of using arrows to point to key characteristics is very helpful. The illustrations are excellent i.d. aids. The descriptions are usually succinct and solid.

Weaknesses: Range maps (showing where the species is likely to be found in which season) are in a separate section in the back. Two books are needed to cover the continent. Changes in "official" names and "splits" in species have made these somewhat out of date.

Recommendation: These are great for beginners because of the arrows, but find a used copy to serve as a back-up to a newer guide, or get the latest (posthumous) edition that is much improved--it has thumbnail sized range maps on the species account pages.

Birds of North America, A Guide to Field Identification. Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, Arthur Singer and Herbert S. Zim (St. Martins Press, Rev., 1983) (Also called the "Golden" book or guide.) Editor's Note: Since this review first came out in The Bluebird, the publisher has issued a new, 2003 edition, which lists for $19.95. Jonathan P. Latimer, Karen Stray Nolting and James Coe have been added as authors. Some of Edge's criticisms of the 1983 edition may have been corrected.

Strengths: All North American birds are in one book; range maps with descriptions. Sonagrams, a method of depicting bird songs may be a plus, if you're able to relate to them.

Weaknesses: It's a little out of date. Colors aren't always accurate.

Recommendation: This is a fine "starter" book and is good as a cross-reference. Look for a used copy.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North America Birds, by John Bull and John Farrand, Jr. And Lori Hogan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977; reissued and updated, 1994). The Eastern region is bound in a green flexible cover; the West in red. Part of a series, often sold at Sams.

Strengths: The often lengthy species accounts are usually very good, with details not found in most guides. Birds are arranged by color, not taxonomy; a plus or minus, depending on perspective.

Weaknesses: The photos vary in quality and often are misleading for i.d., especially for beginners.

Recommendation: Definitely not for beginners for bird identification, but very informative otherwise. Find a used copy, enjoy the photos and read the species accounts when it's too dark to bird.

Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region,. Donald and Lillian Stokes (Little Brown, 1996). Companion to Western Region, $16.95. Don't confuse with Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds (way too basic for almost anyone).

Strengths: Full page species accounts include identification, feeding, nesting, habitat, population and conservation status. Excellent photographs illustrate some plumage variations.

Weaknesses: Though excellent, the photographs are limited as identification aids.

Recommendation: Not for beginners. Don't use it as your only guide; buy it used.

All the Birds of North America, Jack L. Griggs (HarperResource, 1997, reissued 2002). $19.95.

Strengths: It's the first to group birds in habitat backgrounds. Illustrations are larger than in other guides. Text appears below illustrations, not on facing page. It's almost up-to-date on species names.

Weaknesses: Birds are not presented in the same (taxonomic) order as in other guides. But, it is very well done and can a favorite, even when you're no longer a beginner.

Recommendation: This has a lot to offer beginning birders; others will find it difficult to locate species, but worth the effort in useful information.

Field Guide to the Birds of North America, (Third ed., National Geographic Society, 1999). $21.00 (A fourth edition is now available. Look for a black cover).

Strengths: This has set the standard of excellence since the first edition. Colors are considered accurate. Maps and plates are with the descriptions. Experienced birders have generally chosen it for the one to carry in the field.

Weaknesses: It doesn't fit in some pockets.

Recommendation: Not for beginners. Even with the new generation of guides, this one is a must for intermediate and expert birders.

Birds of North America, Kenn Kaufman (Houghton, Mifflin Co., 2001). $20.00.

Strengths: Innovative approach uses digitally improved photos. Peterson-like "pins" point to important field marks. Order of presentation varies from taxonomic order to present similar looking birds together. The color-coded index, "thumb points" and color backgrounds of plates make finding groups of birds a quick flick. Size of the bird is on the plate for quick reference. The range maps are very good. Nomenclature is almost up-to-date. The females are given equal billing.

Weaknesses: There are inconsistencies in photo quality. Photo size variation among similarly sized birds seems more distracting/detracting than in drawings. Plumage variations are presented, but are limited.

Recommendation: Great book for beginners, but not as the only guide (use it with one of the older standard guides). Intermediate birders will enjoy and learn from it. Advanced birders will appreciate some aspects, but may be put off by some of the weaknesses listed.

The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley, (National Audubon Society, 2000). Wieldy.

Strengths: Superbly illustrated with multiple plumage variations presented. Range maps very well done. Lines to important field marks are Peterson-like. Text, maps and illustrations on the same page. Large page format permits pleasant presentation.

Weaknesses: It's big. It's heavy. Birders on ventures to Central and South America tote the often intimidating large guides, but this is even bigger and heavier.

Recommendation: Not for beginners, it should be considered as a possible purchase by intermediate birders, and is absolutely a must for advanced birders (and anyone who spends time agonizing over peeps, sparrows or gulls). This book is as revolutionary as Peterson's first, but for a different audience.

Note: Now available in East and West editions in a smaller format. The advantage is a more wieldy size (between Peterson and National Geographic). The illustrations are the quality of the original, but smaller. A disadvantage is, as with any regional split, that two volumes are needed to cover the ABA area. This means purchasing both if you plan to travel beyond the coverage of one volume. Additionally, one volume may not aid in vagrant identification.