What’s the best book or field guide for bird identification?

April 1, 2009
There are a variety of field guides to chose from. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America are all good choices. There are a variety of field guides to chose from. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America are all good choices.
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The “best” bird identification book is often a matter of choice, so different people will give you different answers. You may want to start by browsing field guides at a library or bookstore to get a sense of which one works the best for you. Chose a few that are appealing and 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 in its pages?

Most experienced birders prefer a field guide with drawings by an expert rather than with photographs. Good bird 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 bird postures can obscure important features or highlight unimportant ones, although the photos in some well-done guides are digitally manipulated to make color comparisons among different species more accurate.

You may also want to consider size when buying a field guide: 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 birds you’re likely to see in your area. If you hope to eventually become proficient at birding, it’s wise to start with a guide that shows all the birds of North America or at least all the birds of the East or the West.

Hawaii’s Birds, a small guide published by Hawaii Audubon, is the only field guide with complete coverage for a single state. Other than that, small-geographic area or state-focused guides do not include all the birds found in a given area. These are more minimalist types of guides that should be used in conjunction with a more thorough guide to avoid misidentifications and frustration.

The guides most often recommend by the Cornell Lab’s staff include:

  • 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 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. Unfortunately, the range maps are all in the back of the book. You may think you’ve pinned down the identification of a bird you see in Seattle only to discover, weeks later when perusing the maps, that that species is found only in Arizona.
  • 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 quite large and heavy, but there are two much smaller versions, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, that are equally complete (for each half of the continent) and far more portable.
  • 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.

Once you become more familiar with the birds you’re seeing, you’ll find the All About Birds Online Bird Guide a wonderful reference for more information about each species as well as for photos and sounds of the birds.

 

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