For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Books

Original Air Date: June 3, 1992

What’s the best field guide for identifying birds?

Audio missing


Of all the equipment a birder can buy, from expensive optical equipment to field checklists, the one absolutely essential item is a field guide.

You should browse through your favorite field guide frequently, committing the pictures to memory, so when you’re faced with an unfamiliar bird, you have a better chance of finding it in the book while the bird’s still in view. The best field guides have drawings rather than photographs. As nice as photos are, a good bird artist captures birds in the most useful poses, and highlights important distinguishing marks. Photographs of birds resembling each other are invariably taken in different light conditions, from different distances, on different kinds of film, and exaggerate differences and similarities, confusing even an experienced observer.

The Peterson guide is very popular, though it only includes birds of Eastern North America. If you’re interested in checking out more exotic fare from Alaska or Arizona, you’ll need another book. Actually, beginners often prefer the Peterson guide for this very reason. When you’re trying to figure out a new bird, there are fewer birds to choose from. Peterson’s range maps are the best available, but unfortunately, they’re hidden in the back of the book, far from the pictures and text.

The Golden Guide, written by Chandler Robbins, is another favorite, this one with range maps right alongside the illustrations and text. The drawings were done by Arthur Singer, who was commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to draw the state bird stamps. I wish they’d chosen Mr. Singer to do the Elvis stamp as well. The main drawback of the Golden Guide is that the range maps are small and don’t show state lines.

The very bet field guide available is the one put out by the National Geographic Society. This one has range maps with state lines alongside the drawings and text, and is the most authoritative of the three. Top birders everywhere prefer this one. When my kindergartener Tommy’s life list reached 50 a couple of weeks ago, I gave him his own copy to mark the occasion. The National Geographic field guide is now available in bookstores everywhere, for less than $20.

Photographic field guides are fun to browse through, even if they are of little use in the field. The worst one by far is the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, where the birds are arranged by color. A Bobolink, which is black, white, and yellow, is found in the section with all-black birds. The Painted Bunting, which is bright blue and red with a greenish back, is found with green birds. To find just about any bird, you have to look it up in the index, which pretty much defeats the purpose of a field guide. The text, which is separated from the photos, has an equally screwy arrangement, this time by habitat. You can find Tree Swallows in the part about “Lakes, Rivers and Ponds,” but not in the part about pastures and fields. The Audubon Society field guide does have the most interesting life history information of any of the modern field guides, so it’s worth checking out from the library–just don’t take it on a birding expedition if you actually want to identify new birds.

The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding is a three-volume monster field guide, but has a wealth of information for advanced birders dealing with tricky identifications. It’s more of a home reference than a field guide, and the photos are of mixed quality.

Now that summer reading time is here, head out to your local library and browse through some field guides. They’ll be easier reading than Shakespeare, more educational than Stephen King, and easier to carry than Moby Dick.