Getting Started in Birding: Choosing the Right Field Guide

A field guide might be your finest buddy whether you’re a beginner or an experienced birder. Even if you already have one, this information will be helpful. I had a guide for years before I learned how to utilise it properly. It’s much more than a book that shows you photographs, names, and descriptions of birds to help you identify them. As you read this post, you may discover that there is a better guide on the market than the one you’ve been using. Perhaps it’s more recent (which, as you’ll see later, is vital), or you may decide that images fit you more than drawings. You may also discover that you’ve merely scratched the surface of all the knowledge a field guide has to offer. If you don’t already have one, you should be able to gather enough information here to make an informed purchase.

What exactly is a field guide? It’s a little book—usually a paperback—designed to assist you in identifying all of the birds or species that may be spotted in your region. The term “species” comes from the Latin word for “kind or appearance,” and it refers to birds that look identical and mate with one another, such as Vesper Sparrows and Western Tanagers. Photographs or pictures of birds in their proper families—groups of species with comparable structural characteristics—are shown in field guides. The Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, and Pygmy Owl are three separate species with comparable anatomical traits that belong to the owl family. Orders are made up of families that have a similar evolutionary origin (Passeriformes, for example, is an order which includes the perching birds).

Field guides often include range maps that depict the geographical region in which each species is known to live. Breeding, wintering, and year-round ranges are shown in various hues on the maps. These ranges are constantly extending due to changes in the environment and the populations of the species. And new species are continuously being discovered. As a result, most field guides are revised at least every 10 years.

New species may emerge for one of three causes. For starters, DNA and other scientific investigations often reveal that birds formerly assumed to be members of a single species are really members of distinct species, and vice versa. For example, the Scrub Jay, which was formerly thought to be a single species, was recently separated into three: Western, Island, and Florida Scrub Jays. In addition, birds imported into North America from other continents (“exotics”) often become established. The European Starling and the House Sparrow are two instances of exotics that have spread throughout the country. And other species, like the Shiny Cowbird, have naturally spread from Mexico or other foreign nations (South America in this instance) into North America.

Field guides covering all of North America (north of Mexico), the eastern or western parts, other geographic areas such as the Pacific Northwest, at least 49 states, and many other nations are available. There are other field guides that specialise on certain families of birds, such as hummingbirds, warblers, and owls. There are also guides for bird names, nests, nestlings (young birds that have not yet left the nest), eggs, and bugs that birds consume.

An Audubon Handbook, for example, uses the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains as a limit for North American species. This is due to the fact that the Rockies represent a natural barrier for many, but not all, species. The 100th meridian, on the other hand, is used as a border in Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. Both distinctions, however, are artificial, since those living just east of the 100th meridian or the Rockies are likely to see many of the species included in Western guides. And the number of species found in both the eastern and western areas is increasing. There are now about 900 species in North America, with around 460 in the West.

National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America is one of the most popular manuals covering North America. The pictures are superb, and species and range maps are neatly presented on the same page. Range maps are useful, particularly for beginner birders, since they assist exclude species that are not known to exist in a certain location during the identification process. I say “help” eradicate because birds regularly go beyond of their natural ranges. Duck Mandarin You could see a bird that is either breeding outside of its range, migrating, or is a “accidental”—a foreign stray that has been reported fewer than a dozen times in a certain location in the past.

A field guide also includes a full description of a species’ preferred environment, features of comparable species, and key behaviour and field markings.

The Sonagrams—visual reconstructions of bird songs—in Golden Books’ Birds of North America provide it an edge over other guides. It’s also the smallest and lightest guide, fitting conveniently into a pocket or fanny pack. Birds of North America, unlike Peterson and Audubon, encompasses both the eastern and western areas in a single book.

The American Bird Conservancy’s All The Birds of North America and Stokes Field Guide to Birds are two of the most recent field guides on the market. Stokes is the best-selling book at my local birding shop. Both of these books, like National Geographic, provide range maps on the same page as the species. Stokes, on the other hand, use images rather than graphics. Many people believe that pictures of birds make them simpler to recognise. This is because members of the same species, such as humans, may have significantly distinct appearances. And, since birds vary colour with age and season, you could encounter a bird in the wild that doesn’t appear exactly like the image in your book. Illustrations, on the other hand, are more trustworthy in the identifying process. Nonetheless, many birders own both photographic and illustrated guides and rely on one as a backup. Illustrations are provided by Peterson, Golden, National Geographic, and the American Bird Conservancy; images are provided by Audubon and Stokes.

Knowing how your field guide is arranged can help you find a bird more quickly. And when it comes to birdwatching, quick identification is critical. Most birds are not known for being accommodating. The guides described in this article—the main manuals now available on the market—are arranged in somewhat various ways; each has distinguishing features that set it distinct from the others.

The Peterson guides (3rd Edition, 1990) classify birds into eight groups: Swimmers (ducks and duck-like birds); Aerialists (gulls and gull-like birds); Long-legged Waders (such as herons and cranes); Smaller Waders (plovers, sandpipers, and so on); Fowl-like Birds (grouse, quail, and so on); Birds of Prey (hawks, eagles, and owls); Passerine Birds (birds (perching birds). Because the species in each category vary greatly from those in the others, even inexperienced birders will recognise which category to use—or which not to use—when trying to identify a bird. You wouldn’t seek up a sparrow in the Swimmers category, for example. But you’d travel to Fowl-like Birds to search for a grouse.

In addition to categorising birds into these eight groups, Peterson gives another way of organisation that aids in identification: distinct species within a category that are difficult to differentiate from one another are frequently grouped on the same page. And Peterson used the well-known “Peterson System,” which consists of arrows pointing to significant field markers on each bird.

Peterson also examines voice, habitat, and behaviour, as well as providing distribution maps for the majority of the species. It’s a really popular guide. Peterson, like Golden, is light, compact, and nicely drawn, but many consider Peterson’s drawings to be more technically and aesthetically successful. The range maps are positioned in the back of the book, apart from the species photos and information, which is a disadvantage. With two exceptions, the other guides listed in this article put range maps next to the respective species—either on the same or opposite page.

In place of maps, the most recent Audubon Handbooks (1988; McGraw-Hill) include a textual summary of species ranges. Although the earlier Audubon Field Guides (1977; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) include the descriptions of each species and the distribution maps together, the images are in their own section.

National Geographic is organised differently than Peterson. As previously stated, each range map is displayed on the same page as the relevant species description: facing the image. This allows you to rapidly eliminate comparable species that are unlikely to be found in your region. In Nevada, for example, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird might be mistaken for a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. However, based on the distribution map, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is unlikely to be encountered farther west than eastern Texas. Although there are always outliers and ranges are slowly extending, eradicating the Ruby-throated would be generally safe.

National Geographic altered its structure in the Third Edition to more closely mirror the order of species listed in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Check-list of North American Birds (7th edition, 1998) (A.O.U.). Many birders use this checklist to record the species they see in the wild. The American Birding Association’s Traveler’s List and Check List for Birds of North America is another popular checklist that is based on the A.O.U. version. It’s a little booklet the size of a shirt pocket. Side by side are twelve columns meant for marking species on various occasions. This makes it simple to identify the species you’ve documented in the same locations year after year.

Both checklists organise birds based on their evolutionary ties. The list is largely considered as the authoritative source for species common and scientific names. The term “common names” refers to the local names given to birds. Partridges, for example, are named Ruffed Grouse and Northern Bobwhite in certain parts of the United States. A bird’s scientific name is a two-part Latin name that is recognised worldwide. Scientific names are made up of the genus and species names (genus is a biological categorization that ranks between the family and the species). A Peregrine Falcon, for example, has the scientific name Falco peregrinus.

To make it easier to find bird groups, Stokes includes a quick-reference alphabetical index within the front and rear covers, as well as a color-tab index. In this situation, a group comprises species that share morphological characteristics but do not necessarily belong to the same family. Seabirds, chicken-like birds, blackbirds/orioles, and shorebirds are examples.

A quick-reference method is also available from the American Bird Conservancy. It contains a color-coded index within the front and rear covers, much as Stokes. However, it employs symbols that depict a species type or trait, such as a long, decurved beak, to assist you in locating the appropriate portion of the book. This guide categorises animals based on where and how they obtain food. It also employs panoramic graphics of relevant ecosystems.

Stokes also has a quick-reference section with fifty-three popular backyard and feeder species, which is very useful for new birders. Color groups woodpeckers, finches, hummingbirds, sparrows, and other birds you would observe from your window. If the birds you’re looking for aren’t in this category, you may use the color-tab or alphabetical indexes.

Audubon does not follow a precisely scientific organisation, but rather groups species that have similar habitats, behaviour, and appearance. For rapid reference, symbols, photos, or short descriptions of size, habitat, and flying position are offered at the top of each page. In most instances, several photographs of each species are provided to demonstrate various viewpoints, sexes, ages, and plumages. Audubon also has a section devoted to the variations between related species.

I’d suggest Stokes or Audubon if you want to utilise a photography guide. If you choose Audubon, be sure to get the most current version. In the earlier version, the picture quality is pretty low. The McGraw-Hill version has both text and images, and the image quality is equivalent to Stokes. Both guides weigh about the same (around 1 1/2 pounds), but the Audubon is thinner and simpler to wield in the field.

Peterson gets my pick for an illustrated field guide. The dimensions (4 1/2′′ x 7 1/4′′, 15 oz. ), drawing quality, and arrow system are all appealing to me. Golden is about the same size as Peterson, but it’s a few ounces lighter and, unlike Peterson, covers all North American species in a single book. The pictures, on the other hand, aren’t as good. The American Bird Conservancy is around four ounces lighter than Audubon. National Geographic is bulky (one pound, six ounces) and difficult to put into a fanny pack or coat pocket.

How much should you budget for a guide? Prices vary from roughly $7.95 for an Eastern or Western area guide to $19.95 for all of North America’s birds. Discounts are available from groups such as the American Birding Association, which sells its guides for around $2 less than the retail price. When shipping is taken into account, you may opt to visit your local bookshop or a Wild Bird Center or Wild Birds Unlimited franchise.

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