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Article in: Book Reviews
February 1, 2010

Guide to Birding Field Guides

With so many birding field guides to choose from it is difficult to choose one. This is probably why many birders own several! There really is no “perfect” guide out there but some of these come close. Whatever guide(s) you use it is important to familiarize yourself with the format and order prior to going out into the field. Also, while out in the field it is a good idea to only consult your guide after the mystery bird flies away. We hope you enjoy this “guide to birding field guides”.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

The Kaufman Field Guide Series (which also includes Insects, Butterflies, and Mammals) uses high quality digitally edited photos to showcase birds in positions that show off identifying field marks. Call-out lines are used to further point out key markings on the photos which are mentioned in the text.

The birds are organized by family and/or similarity rather than taxonomically. This has some potential for confusing the scientific learning of birds and their biological relationships but for a budding birder makes it a lot easier to identify in the field.

For example, there is a page on “Various Micro-Birds” which covers Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Bushtit, and Verdin together since they behave and look similar.

To further help finding birds, the book has color-coded sections which matches the table of contents as well as a checklist style index (so you could mark off birds you’ve seen).

The plates (pictures of birds) reside on the right page and the accompanying text is on the left. The text includes scientific information as well as habitat and identification pointers. Some birds include a description of their voice and all but the rarest have color-coded range maps to show where and when to expect the bird.

Kaufman covers all the birds of North America and the guide is sized well for a large pocket to bring out in the field.

Note: There is also a Spanish version of the Kaufman Guide – Aves de Norteamerica – which is translated by Patricia Manzano Fischer.

National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds

Referred to as simply the “Sibley”, The Sibley Guide to Birds comes in Eastern, Western, and all of North America editions. The Eastern and Western versions are “field-guide sized” and cover their respective regions. However, the full version is a must and what we discuss below. (We refer to this as the “Big Sibley” as do many birders.)

First published in 2000, I’ve used the Big Sibley ever since and have loved sharing it with all who bird with me. Instead of photography, all the birds are illustrated by David Allen Sibley. The illustrations provide for a “best-case scenario” when out birding as the birds are positioned in such ways to show off key field marks.

This approach has been criticized but provides a great way to learn birds ahead of time and improve field identification when the book is not readily available.

I learned the majority of my eastern wood warblers by paging through the warbler section about a hundred times. Each of the birds are positioned facing the same general way and also in flight so you can get a better understanding of the form and function of the bird along with the colors and markings.

The guide follows taxonomic organization (that was current of the book’s printing) and the species accounts feature no more than two birds on a page. Scientific information, habitat, and identification tips are all included as well as voice and color-coded range maps.

Some species with numerous variations are covered in more depth with even more illustrations and at the start of each family of birds there is a detailed overview of the family and all the species represented in the guide for that family.

The Sibley is definitely big and thus a little more cumbersome for quick field use but for a bird-learning guide it is perfect.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition

The “Nat Geo” guide provides a compact, true field guide organized in more recently updated taxonomic order. The format includes illustrated plates on the right side and informational text on the left hand pages. The easy-to-use table of contents and tabbed pages make accessing a particular family simple and easy. Unfortunately, not all families are tabbed so you still need to refer to the table of contents or index to find certain families or species.

The text is some of the best found in traditional field guides and includes detailed descriptions of what to look for to identify a specific bird. The range maps are a bit smaller than other guides but still accurately show geographical and seasonal expectability of each species.

One of the best features of the Nat Geo is that it includes every species seen in North America, even some of the really rare ones. While it might seem like species overload, it provides an opportunity to study birds that may show up on that dream trip to the southern tip of Texas or even that wayward hummingbird in southern Wisconsin.

Note: A Green-breasted Mango showed up near the border of Wisconsin and Illinois and guides like the Nat Geo made it much easier to provide an identification of a bird that is normally several thousand miles south.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

Roger Tory Peterson’s first field guide to birds was published in 1934 and has since evolved pleasantly to be one of the most widely used guides on the market. Peterson passed away in 1996 but in 2008 a new edition to his guide was published to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday.

This guide is a bit different from the earlier versions but still retains the “Peterson” feel and is still a top-notch guide. This edition is the first in the Peterson line to include all of North America (instead of eastern and western editions which are going to be published later) and thus is much larger than past printings.

The bigger size makes for big, bold artwork which includes callout lines to specific field marks. The format is similar to other guides with plates on the right pages and textual information on the left pages. The range maps are tiny but are also indexed in the back at a much larger size (the biggest of any guide).

The guide begins with a wonderful introduction on how to identify birds and includes silhouettes (outlines) of birds as you may see them on wires, fence posts, in-flight, etc.

Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

The Smithsonian, at first glance, may seem a bit of information overload. The text and photos are packed together and fill up over 500 pages. But this wealth of information make this an awesome guide, perhaps for older young birders.

The birds are arranged in taxonomic order and every family of birds is introduced thoroughly. The text alone is worth having and reading this guide and with some 2,000 photographs, the visual appeal is there too.

Accompanying the Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds is a DVD loaded with 587 bird sounds covering 138 species. These can be loaded into an iPod or computer to help learn and associate the sounds with the birds. This is a first for a field guide and provides an added benefit to the cost of the field guide.

All the Birds of North America (American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide)

ABC’s field guide is marketed as a “pocket-size guide for real field use” but is a bit awkward in size for a pocket. However, for using the guide in the field, All the Birds does a fine job. The guide is organized in an unconventional manner with species arranged by appearance, focusing on such things as bill shapes and sizes and behavioral similarities like “tree climbers”.

Such a layout creates an interesting way to identify birds: say you are unsure that a Cactus Wren is indeed a wren, you can find it amongst the “curved-bills”. This greatly enhances learning similar birds that are actually unrelated and thus normally in a different section of a field guide. However, some of the sections are too large with too many families represented which becomes pretty confusing.

Each section is introduced with wonderful text that explains what, how, and where to look for that type of bird. This feature is pretty cool because it provides a bit of pre-field work help to aid your success of finding birds. It is always a good idea to read the text and study your guide before going into the field and this encourages that.

The illustrations are beautiful and other helpful identification tips are sprinkled throughout the pages making All the Birds a great learning tool.

Birds of Eastern North America: A Photographic Guide (Princeton Field Guides)

This beautiful guide comes in both Eastern and Western varieties with the only differences being regional coverage. The photography alone is worth owning this guide; the photos were hand-picked specifically for their ability to illustrate identifying marks and also show the amazing beauty of the birds.

The text that accompanies the photography is wonderful as well and includes several pages of introductory text that covers topics such as plumage, migration, and habitat types. The detailed information on habitats comes in handy for understanding where to look for specific birds.

The layout consists of species text and range maps on the left-hand side and a collage of photographs on the right-hand side. The collage covers male, female, immature, and alternate plumages where applicable.

Similar species are arranged closely together for quick comparison and the index is easy to use to find a particular bird. The top corners of the pages have small bird photos that also help for finding birds while flipping pages.

This guide is more than just beautiful photos but may be a bit difficult to want to abuse out in the field.

National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America

The NWF guide is thick, heavy, and includes most of the birds of North America. Missing are some of the rarer species which is a shame because some of these are being seem more often especially along the US/Mexico border.

The guide begins with a lengthy introduction which describes how to define and identify birds, the natural history of birds, and various other nuggets of information. The birds are organized taxonomically and each family or grouping is introduced with explanative text about similarities among the group. This helps to provide a broader approach to larger groups of birds that share a lot in common.

The layout is fairly “busy” with mostly two species covered per page and loaded with multiple, small photographs. The text is limited but adequate and the range maps do their job nicely. The photos are overlaid with (hard-to-read) identification tips which help for identification but make the layout even more cluttered.

With a waterproof, heavy-duty cover and a lot of birds to explore, the National Wildlife Federation’s guide is a practical choice for field use.

Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region (Stokes Field Guides)

This guide comes in both Eastern and Western varieties with the only differences being regional coverage. The guide has a rather simple format that could be considered plain. Although, the lack of flair is quite appealing because the focus is then drawn on the birds and the information needed to identify them.

Each species is given a full page with one or more color photographs and the text immediately follows below. Behaviors are discussed along with identification tips and info on feeding and nesting. A range map plus info on habitat, voice, and conservation status is also included.

The guide is organized taxonomically (in scientific order at the time of publishing) and the pages are color-coded by family types to speed up finding a particular section. Sprinkled throughout the guide are “Learning Pages” which provide extended information on certain types of birds that can be difficult to identify.

The guide is fairly heavy and a bit too large for a pocket but is highly durable.

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Peterson Field Guides)

While it only covers 200 species and there is no western counterpart (yet), The Young Birder’s Guide is a great step forward into fully functional focused guides for young birders. The condensed format will leave some birds unidentifiable (for example, many warblers and sparrows are missing) but the format and look offer a lot of appeal to kids.

The format consists of one bird per page (or two extremely similar birds on the same page) where there is a photograph or two, an illustration, range map, and text explaining what to look for and listen for and other things to consider in finding and identifying a species. The specific tips on behaviors to watch for and habitats to explore enhance the functionality of the guide.

Each species also has a “wow!” fact that is sure to grab and hold the attention of younger birders. There is also a fairly large introductory section with tips on how to help birds, become better birders, birding manners, and field skills. This text provides the perfect tool to help encourage kids to get outside and look for birds.

There are other guides available and some of these are a bit “dated” but we hope this provides a nice overview of what is out there. As always, we appreciate your opinions so please provide them below in the comments!

10 Comments or Trackbacks   ↓ Jump to add comment ↓

  1. Vern says:

    I grew up with the Golden Guide to Birds by Robins and Zim and at the time seemed like the main alternative Peterson. Although it was revised in 2001 the update was not as good as it could of been, but it’s still my favorite guide to carry out in the field with me. I guess it has fallen somewhat out of favor as you did not metnion it.

    Posted on: February 2, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  2. The Birdfreak Team says:

    Vern – The Golden Guide wasn’t mentioned because the library did not have it and I don’t own a copy :) {All the guides listed I personally own except the NWF one which was from our public library}

    Posted on: February 2, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  3. Joe Klaiber says:

    Hi there,
    are there any discussions or feed backs for bird guide books of Central and South America.
    For Example, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru has new bird guide books, since ca 1 year. In Venezuela there will be published this year a new DVD about bird calls and songs of Venezuela
    All the best
    Joe Klaiber

    Posted on: July 23, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  4. Ryan says:

    I know this post is quite old for an internet post, but this is definitely a good one. People have some different tastes as far as their chosen guide, but I have always been a big fan of guides that closely follow the Peterson Method, as the ones I started with did not, and when I ran into one that did, it changed my birding world! Now I use a couple that follow the method: the Nat Geo guide (which I need to update my version of), and a great local guide for Minnesota: Janssen’s, Tessen’s, and Kennedy’s “Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin.” What great guides!

    Posted on: September 24, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

  5. David says:

    Can someone recommend a good field guide for the birds of Costa Rica?

    Posted on: November 18, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

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