Comparing Field Guides

Comparing Field Guides
As a birder, one of your most important purchases is your field guide. A field guide, is of course, a small book filled with bird pictures and maps, that you use to identify the names of any new birds you see.

There are several different guides. The most famous are the Peterson Guides, which were invented by famed bird author Roger Tory Peterson. There are also the Audubon Society Guides, National Geographic Guides and Sibley Guides. The Sibley book is a complimentary copy provided for me to review. The rest are my own field guides that I bought myself or received as gifts from my friends and relatives. Unfortunately, my Peterson Guide is an older edition, so while I love it, I will not review it here, since you can’t go out and buy it. Three that I own that are still on the market are reviewed below.

National Geographic: Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America. No date given (this is the current edition, though.)

What’s Good: This book has a lot of neat little time-savers. In the front cover, there is a fold out list of various common birds listed by name, and in the inner cover, there are pictures of them. They also have those indentations on the pages that you can put your finger on. (No, I don’t know what you call them!) For example, if you see a gull that you can’t identify, you just put your finger on the word “gull” and open to that page, and voila! Gulls! The maps are fairly small, but they are on the same page as the bird pictures, and are color coded for easy reading. And I enjoy the feature about rare birds in the back, which gives the exact dates some of these stragglers were seen.

What’s Bad: Nothing is really bad about this book, but I find it filled with “extraneous” birds--birds that are not from anywhere near where I live. Some of the “eastern” birds are well into the Central and possibly Mountain time zones, in states that I would not consider the east (like Wisconsin.) If I’m trying to identify a bird for the first time, I have to reject a lot of birds from other areas of the country. In the Peterson Guide that I was more used to, the “east” didn’t stretch as far “west,” which made it easier to use.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American
Birds (Eastern Region) 1995.

What’s Good: Although the drawings that are found in most other guides are great, sometimes you just have to see a photo! (I find that sometimes the birds are darker in real life than they appear in drawings.) The Audubon Guides also tell you the most about each bird, although on a different page than the photo. And, if you want to keep your backpack light, this is the smallest. Also, there is a neat color-coding method to identifying perching birds, like sparrows and warblers.

What’s Bad: Because photos are used, you don’t see as many variations of feathers. For example, using the mallard again, in the Nat Geo Guide, six examples are shown: male and female adults, teen ducks, and a male in eclipse plumage (when they lose their distinctive feathers in the summer and look like the females.) There are also two examples of adults flying. In the Audubon Guide, there are two photos, one of a male and one of a female, but they are 39 pages apart! And don’t get me started on the teeny, tiny maps! I could barely see them when I was young, and now that I’m 40! Forgetaboutit!

The Sibley Guide To Birds (2000 Edition).
What’s Good: Also published by the Audubon Society, this book is much, much more detailed than the other one. Like Peterson and Nat Geo, this book contains all pictures, in this case, all painted by famous bird artist David Allen Sibley. For the mallard duck, there are no less than 16 pictures! Some are of the Mexican mallard, which lacks a green head. In case you are wondering what a northern (green-headed) mallard would look like crossed with a Mexican mallard--well, wonder no more! Sibley includes various hybrid pictures as well.

What’s Bad: This is larger than the other books, and would be inconvenient to carry around. It’s no book for beginners, either, but is for dedicated Bird Nerds. Also, it includes the entire country, so there will be a lot of extraneous birds for everyone.

My overall recommendation: For serious birders, I recommend the Sibley Guide, but more as a reference book. For everyone else, it depends on if you prefer paintings or photos, and if you want to learn a lot of facts about birds or just see what they look like. As you get further into the hobby, you may find, as I did, that you need more than one.

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