New Birder Experience – What is the Best Field Guide to Birds?

While there are a multitude of field guides to North American birds, does one stand out as better than all the rest? We try to answer this simple yet essential question as part of The New Birder Experience with Stacia.

Field GuidesWith the many field guides out there, birders often gravitate towards one or two absolute favorites. Often three stand out above the rest: Peterson, Sibley, and Kaufman. But it is common to use several and possess many more.

But what about for a new birder? Is there one guide that stands out as most appealing, most useful, least overwhelming?

We asked our new birder, Stacia, to look through a pile of field guides ranging from the “big Sibley” to the Young Birder’s Guide and many in between. We paged through ones with drawings, ones with full photographs, and ones with digitally edited photos.

While we did not cover every guide out there, we sifted through a wide variety and came to the below conclusion to: What are the two best field guides for new birders? (We couldn’t just do ONE.)

While it didn’t officially make the top two, the simple yet informative pocket guide: Birds of Illinois Field Guide was a favorite especially for someone who may not have any interest in birds whatsoever. The colorful images and small size make this a nice page-turner and also a gift for nearly anyone of any age. The state focus is also encouraging as these are birds that are fairly easy to find.

Number two favorite: Peterson Guide to Birds of North America

The newly updated Peterson is a work of art as well as a fairly easy-to-use guide. The paintings are not overwhelming and the information is easy to digest. The mentions of abundance levels were appreciated and the overall appearance of the guide is just plain ascetic.

Number one favorite: Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Sibley’s artwork is excellent and the arrangement of species is easy to understand. The family pages with numerous species together provide a nice overview and the use of a consistent format of how the birds are presented is appreciated.

The Eastern version is preferred over the full version for actual field use as it fits much better in a pocket than that and other guides. Also, not having all the birds of North America was considered a bonus as it reduced the amount of time to look for an ID. The potential for an un-identified rarity is there, but for new birders in general this should not be a big issue.

Each new or newer birder will have their own opinions on the best guides out there. You really can never have too many guides but just starting out it is better to stick with one or two. Often we as birders forget just how much knowledge is required to identify birds. It takes time and there is a learning curve. Field guides are there to aide in the process and make birding even more enjoyable.

How about you?

What is your favorite guide? What would you recommend to a NEW birder? We’d love to hear what you think!!

19 thoughts on “New Birder Experience – What is the Best Field Guide to Birds?

  1. Favorite field guide: National Geographic

    Favorite for new birders: depends on age. For younger birders I recommend Bill Thompson’s “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America”. For others, Peterson. The Peterson guide is easier for a new birder to use over the Sibley because they can riffle through the pages easily. The layout of the Sibley puts the birds on the left hand page in the spine. Watch a new birder use their guide. They’ll spend a lot of time riffling from the back to the front or vice versa until they get the feel of the guide and the layout.

  2. I agree with Erik. I typically recommend Peterson to new birders, but not the new bulky one. I like the prior Eastern edition since it’s more compact. Sibley can be a bit overwhelming. I like the simplicity of Peterson with the field mark system. Kaufman also gets some votes. A lot of beginners seem to like the photos. It can also be overwhelming since it has all of NA in it.

  3. I started with Sibley’s Guide to Birds of Western North America and it is still my preferred field guide. I have copies of others at home too for cross-checking.

    In order to step up my birding skills I am currently going field guide-less in the field. I am focusing on looking harder at the bird and taking notes and making drawings. When I get home, then I look at the field guide. I can already notice my skills improving.

  4. Erik – excellent points. The National Geographic is a good one.

    Patrick – Kaufman was high on the list for this test, especially after pointing out the intentional removal of “clutter” from the photographs. You can hardly go wrong with Peterson (even the new edition).

    Robert – Superb point about taking notes and drawing in the field. This is something that will be part of a future post on this topic. It is difficult to get into (especially for those who can’t draw well) but it is worth it for building birding skills.

  5. I am new to birding, although I have had the Audobon and Peterson guides for a few years. When I saw the Kaufman and Stokes guide, I was sold. They both show the birds in a common stance, which is helpful in the field. The color coding on the pages makes it easy to find the section I’m looking for, and the quick references in the front and back of the books comes in handy. I also like the fact that so far, they both seem fairly water resistant. While I also have other books for reference (N.W.F., Audobon, Peterson), and some more specific books (sparrows and finches, warblers, hawks, nests, bird behavior, etc.), the Stokes and Kaufman guides go everywhere I go. I keep one in my car and one in my work vehicle.

  6. I’m a new birder and I love my Eastern Sibley. But I’ve never used a different one in the field. I prefer the paintings to the photos because I know every mark and color were put in the paintings for a reason, but with photos I don’t recognize subtle differences as easily.

    I’d also love to see a post on begining scopes cause I would like to get one but can’t spend money on a super high quality scope. I’d love to know what experienced birders think the best scope for a small budget is.

  7. Adam – completely forgot about the Stokes guide, probably because it is somewhere at the parent’s house. The Kaufman is a good one and has stood up to a lot of abuse but only on the cover.

    Christine – Paintings do have the advantage of highlighting specifics over photos but I understand some birders find this a bit misleading at times.

    We’ll try to get a post out on scopes but it may be a bit general and not brand specific; what to look for when getting one. We started with a fairly inexpensive Eagle Optics brand and it did the job for a few years.

  8. good post..I am enjoying reading the comments as well…We live in a motorhome so We Try not to carry too many books.
    We have sibleys and national geographic.

  9. Dawn – thanks! It would be interesting to know just how many birders own Sibley guides… guessing it is a ton!

  10. I started with a Peterson’s Guide many years ago when I was an art major in college. I have always loved his illustrations! On artwork I’d give Peterson an “A” and Sibley a “B”. Just get out both of your books and compare them side-by-side. My dream bird guide would be a Sibley’s with Peterson illustrations.
    I appreciate Sibley’s multiple views. I especially like having the map and the information on the same page – very helpful – you don’t have to keep flipping around. I would like to have a bird check-list in my Sibley’s. It’s fun to look back at what I have seen.
    I keep both books under the seat in my car with some binocs. When I get home I check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website for more info. and their McCauley Library of birds sounds and video – terrific!
    Happy Birding.

  11. Becky – thanks for the comment. I am mixed about checklists in the guides. I think they are neat but I don’t use them much, especially because the guides get updated and then I don’t want to transfer the list. Plus, using multiple guides can add to the complication of having an in-guide checklist. Definitely a great idea to keep guides in the car. I have one at work too because people are always asking me what bird such and such is and they describe it and then I can show them.

  12. Looking for a good “first” book. I have a question on the books that have either a East or West version. I live in Minnesota. I criss-cross the Mississippi daily. Most bird identification needs would be for either North Minnesota or Northern Wisconson. Is there a clear choice in the East/West books that would work, or should I avoid these and stick to the “North America” versions?

  13. Dan – I would go with the North America versions. There are some out there that still are a manageable size and since you live in Minnesota it would be nice to get more of the “western” birds. You would still be OK with the Eastern guides but it is nice to have more birds in case something out of the ordinary shows up.

    I have always found it fun to browse birds that are not found locally but I would love to see sometime.

  14. I live in California and the best all time guide is the 1961 version of Peterson’s “field guide to western birds”….it is compact and all bird groups are confined to thier own color plate ( for the most part )…..makin identificationa snap…….then newer versions are adding too much information…thus makin it inpracticle for field use.

  15. I’ve used Sibley’s and Peterson’s but prefer the latter for the better illustrations.

    Better than both those field guides, however, is American Museum of Natural History’s Birds of North America (Eastern Region), edited by Francois Vuilleumier. The photographs are superb and reach a level of detail that clearly distinguishes one bird from another similar to it.

    For example, Sibley’s and Peterson’s guide did not help with absolutely identifying the Chipping Sparrow. They left me with doubts because their illustrations were not as clear as the photograph in Vuilleumier’s which positively helped me in identifying the Chipping Sparrow.

    Vuilleumier’s guide fits in the back pocket as well. The cons, however, is that the font size is barely readable if you don’t have eyes of a twenty year-old. You’ll need your reading glasses. But once you can read it you’ll notice far more copious field notes than the other two combined and even some space to jot down your own notes.

    For 100% POSITIVE identification I believe Vuilleumier’s guide has taken the lead in bird watching field guides.

  16. Drib – thank you for your comment; I have not heard of the Vuilleumier’s guide but will have to check it out.

  17. I also like the American Museum of Natural History’s guide (Vuilleumier, ed. – DK Publishing). It has a great design and does seem easier to use than others for purposes of identification and distinguishing among similar species.

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