What’s the best book or field guide for bird identification?February 11, 2023
A good field guide is one of the most important tools to help identify birds. Traditionally, field guides took the form of books, often quite big books, that for field use could be heavy or vulnerable to wetting on rainy days. Nowadays there are also some great smartphone apps as well, making bird ID fit into the palm of your hand. Many people rely on both books and apps to identify birds; below are some of our favorite guides for North America.
With many great field guides out there, the “best” bird identification book is often a matter of opinion. To find your favorite, start by browsing field guides at a library or bookstore. Look up four or five familiar birds: which guide portrays these birds closest to the way you see them? Is the book comfortable to use? Are the birds easy to find?
Look for a field guide with drawings rather than photographs. Artists portray birds in similar poses, using their experience and knowledge to make it easier for you to key in on the important field marks. With photographs, lighting conditions and differences in postures can obscure important features or highlight unimportant ones.
Size is also a factor: if your book is too large, you won’t want to carry it in the field, but if it’s too small, it may not include all the likely birds in your area. Start with a guide that shows all the birds of North America or at least all the birds of the East or the West. You might find that a state-level guides (or other regional guide) is helpful and handy for most of the birds you run across—but keep a more thorough guide to turn to for those unusual sightings you’re sure to find eventually.
These are some of the guides we recommend:
- The Sibley Guide to Birds focuses on plumage, is very detailed, and includes excellent drawings of birds in different plumages. Because it provides so much detail, fewer species are shown per page, making comparisons a bit more difficult. The original is large and heavy, so check out The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. They are equally complete (for their regions) and far more portable.
- The Peterson Guide to Birds of North America is a classic guide that includes the birds of Hawaii. If you are looking for something with a more narrow geographic focus, check out The Peterson Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America or The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Covering just half the continent, these classic guides help you narrow down your choices to the birds where you live. One minor drawback is that the range maps are all in the back of the book—be sure to check range maps before settling on an ID.
- The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. This field guide was specifically designed for beginning birders. It uses photographs of birds, but with a layout more typical of field guides using paintings, allowing easy comparison of related species.
- The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds takes a novel approach to illustration: embedding multiple photographs in a single landscape photo to create impressions of how birds are actually seen at multiple distances and in a variety of plumages.
- The Golden Guide’s Birds of North America, is extremely portable and accessible for beginners.
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America is very popular and accessible, but a bit large. The illustrations were done by a variety of artists, so there isn’t the single style found in the Peterson, Sibley, or Golden guides.
All About Birds Regional Field-Guide Series
This series of slim, pocket-sized guides present information and photos from our All About Birds website for about 200 species in each of seven North American regions: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, California, and Texas & Oklahoma. They include four ID photos per species, including male, female, breeding, and nonbreeding plumages, updated range maps, and a visual index to quickly get you to the right page. There’s also an in-depth front section on how get started as a new birdwatcher and how to attract birds to your yard.
Folding guides break down bird identification into regional areas, placing illustrations and a minimal amount of text onto a foldable, laminated sheet. The number of featured species is limited, but these small, sturdy guides are easy to carry and stand up to the elements.
- Waterford Press All About Birds Pocket Guides cover a handful of different bird focused topics, including 10 regional guides and three waterfowl ID guides.
- Sibley has 24 regional guides featuring the excellent drawings found in The Sibley Guide to Birds.
Our All About Birds online bird guide is a great resource with lots of information on more than 630 species of birds from the U.S. and Canada, including photos, sounds, and videos. You can browse birds by family and shape. Each account has a section where the featured bird is compared to similar species, which helps in identification when species look alike.
For comprehensive scientific information on all 10,900+ birds on Earth, a subscription to Birds of the World is more than worth the modest expense.
Apps are a great resource for bird identification that you can carry in your pocket. Many people like to have a good bird identification book at home, and use an app when they are birdwatching outdoors. Many apps also have bird songs and calls in addition to drawings and photos. Here are a few apps that we like:
- The Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID has an easy-to-use bird ID wizard that can be used all over the world. It asks you a few questions about the bird you have in your sights (color, size, location) and then gives you a few possibilities of what bird you may be seeing. Merlin Bird ID can also identify a bird from a photo and even identify a bird from sound.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds app is another good app to use and covers birds of the U.S. and Canada.
- The Audubon Bird Guide app covers over 800 species of birds in North America. You can share photos on the app and keep up with the latest news about birds—from conservation to outreach opportunities.
All About Birds is a free resource
Available for everyone,
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