For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: A Field Guide to Hawks

Original Air Date: Oct. 5, 1987

Laura reviews the newest in the Peterson series of field guides, A Field Guide to Hawks.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

Now that there are four excellent comprehensive field guides available to bird-watchers, you might think the bird book market was saturated. But you’d be wrong. Houghton Mifflin has just released a new title in its Peterson field guide line, A Field Guide to Hawks. Yep, even though every field guide sold already covers hawks, now there’s a book for the person whose binoculars focus on nothing but hawks.

At $13.95 for a soft-bound copy, A Field Guide to Hawks is not for everyone. Beginners and advanced birders alike can usually get by perfectly well with just one of the comprehensive field guides. The best one on the market is put out by National Geographic, titled A Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The only problem with it is that it’s not sold in commercial book stores. It’s usually available in university and museum bookstores, or you can order it directly from the national Geographic Society. Almost as good are the 1980 edition of the Peterson field guide, and the Golden field guide, titled Birds of North America. The most comprehensive bird book of all doesn’t really qualify as a field guide. The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding is a three-volume set which is awkward and unwieldy in the field. Illustrations are photographs rather than paintings, which is a big negative–a photo freezes one moment in a bird’s life, which may not be a typical pose, and lighting and film type can seriously affect the accuracy of the colors. A good painting can emphasize important field marks and delete or subdue markings that are hard to see or not present on all birds, as well as show colors as they really are.

A Field Guide to Hawks has all the strengths, and all the weaknesses, of other Peterson guides. The text is quite good, but is inconveniently separated from the plates. There are a fair number of black-and-white photographs of most species, but these are arranged away from both the text and the plates. The maps are about the best of any Peterson guide–but they’re unfortunately located with the text instead of with the plates, where most beginners look when figuring out an unidentified flying object.

This guide contains a wealth of fine points of hawk identification that the comprehensive field guides simply don’t have space for. If you want to tell if that Osprey is a male or female, the Field Guide to Hawks will explain that female Ospreys have a necklace of dark feathers, but males don’t. If you want to know which race a particular Peregrine Falcon belongs to, you’ll want this guide too. And if you spend a lot of time watching hawks at the ridge or along other migration collecting spots, A Field Guide to Hawks will be very useful. But if you only go up to the ridge once or twice a year and otherwise only spot an occasional red-tail or kestrel, you’d be wiser to invest in a second comprehensive guide than to buy such a specialized book. Now we can probably expect to see myriad assortment of other field guides–one for gulls, one for warblers, a one for shorebirds–maybe they’ll even come up with a field guide to the birds of Disney.

(Recording of a Mallard laugh)

(Recording of a Blue Jay)