For the Birds Radio Program: Gift Ideas: Field Guides

Original Air Date: Dec. 12, 1989

Laura talks about choosing a field guide.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Varied Thrush)

This time of year I often run into people puzzling over the field guides in bookstores, wondering which is the best one.

The most important rule is, never use a field guide with photographs of birds. The fact of the matter is, photos just can’t capture birds the way a good artist can, especially for field guide purposes. Let’s take the page of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds about thrushes. The Hermit Thrush picture was obviously taken on a cold day, and its feathers are all fluffed out, so it looks fatter than the other species. And the Wood Thrush photo, taken at the nest, makes that bird appear unusually thin compared to the others—at that point in the nesting cycle, the parents always are thin, but that would certainly confuse people looking at one in late spring. The Hermit Thrush’s picture was taken from above, and obscures one of the bird’s most important field marks, it’s bold black breast spots. The Gray-cheeked Thrush picture shows more of an eye-ring than the birds usually have, and the Swainson’s Thrush blends in too much with the background. A skillful artist can draw all the birds at the same scale in the same posture, so accurate comparisons can be made, and can emphasize or deemphasize marks according to how important they are.

The Audubon field guide is bad for more than it’s pictures—it also has the oddest organization of any bird book, putting the photos in order by color. When you see a bluebird, are you more likely to notice the red breast, the blue back, or the white underbelly? The Yellow-headed Blackbird is on the same page as the Black-billed Magpie, the Bohemian Waxwing faces the Louisiana Waterthrush, and the Painted Bunting is on the page with green birds, though the vivid red and blue of this bird are far more conspicuous than its greenish back. The only way you can find most of the birds in this guide is to look them up in the index—but to do that you have to already know what they are.

This field guide does have lots of interesting information in its species accounts, but that is organized in an equally screwy way, by habitat. Although most birds have a specific breeding habitat, they can still be found in a variety of places during the rest of the year, especially during migration, when most people are watching them. When a rare bird that you’ve never seen before suddenly shows up at your feeder, how are you supposed to know what habitat it normally belongs in? Of course, this book won’t help you with a lot of rarities anyway–the Northlanders getting Varied Thrushes this year couldn’t identify them using this book, because Varied Thrushes aren’t in it at all.

Although the Peterson Guide is excellent, it is limited to Eastern North America. Roger Tory Peterson is a good enough birder to realize that Varied Thrushes and some other western birds occasionally turn up in the East, so he includes drawings of most of the regular rarities, but his book is useless if you take a vacation to Arizona or California. And Peterson put his range maps in the very back of the book, where they aren’t likely to be noticed. In my opinion the best two guides by far are the Golden guide, Birds of North America, and the more expensive but only slightly better Field Guide to the Birds of North America by the National Geographic Society. I still take my golden guide everywhere—it’s one of the few examples of something in the world where the least expensive of all is actually the best choice.

(Recording of a Varied Thrush)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”