For the Birds Radio Program: Review: The Stokes Field Guide to Birds

Original Air Date: Feb. 9, 1996

Laura Erickson doesn’t normally tell people which books not to buy, but today she makes an exception. 4:02

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I’ve been thumbing through my copy of one of the newest field guides on the market. The Stokes Field Guide to Birds is a beautiful book. There are so many good bird books on the market that never get reviewed that I don’t like to waste air time on bad books, but thousands of people looking at this one in book stores will be influenced by its attractiveness into buying it, even though this is one of the poorest field guides I’ve ever seen.

This is not to say that the book is worthless. The photographs alone make the book a bargain at $16.95. Like the Peterson guides, this one has two editions, one for Eastern and one for Western North America. But this book has all the drawbacks of a typical photographic guide and more.

The whole point of a field guide is to help people identify birds. And photographs are nowhere near as good as a quality artist’s depictions for comparing birds in the field to nail down an identification. Film types, lighting, the direction a bird is facing when the shutter clicks–all these things can make two birds look more or less alike in a photograph than they are in real life. Thanks to lighting or film, the photo of a Gray Catbird in the Stokes guide is the brownest catbird I’ve ever seen. The Warbling Vireo looks more clean-cut and black-and-white than this nondescript species ever is in nature, there is no hint of yellow or brown in the Cedar Waxwing, and both meadowlarks appear as orange as orioles. Many flycatchers are shown facing forward, without even a glimpse at their wing-bars, critical field marks for this family. Common and Chihuahuan Ravens are shown with side by side photos making the two birds appear virtually identical in size, though in reality the Common Raven is much larger.

This field guide has far more serious flaws in the birds it leaves out, as well. For many warblers, only the spring male is shown, with female, immature, and fall plumages entirely ignored except for brief comments in the text. Hunters will be horrified to see that only swimming ducks are shown–wing patterns are critical to recognizing flying ducks. Immature Gray Jays are left out even though these uniformly sooty birds confuse many visitors to the northern forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Canada, and New England. And a surprising number of rarities that tum up in the eastern United States are completely left out, including such common vagrants as the Varied Thrush and Townsend’s Solitaire, both of which I’ve seen in my own backyard in Duluth.

The text is singularly poor for a field guide. For each bird’s entry, there is no mention of other species that might be confused with it. The authors boast in the introduction that this field guide includes information about habitat, behaviors, and population trends that are left out of other guides, but the information this book provides is sketchy at best, and really has very few facts that other field guides left out. It does have conservation notes, with arrows pointing up or down to show whether Breeding Bird Survey or Christmas Bird Count data indicate whether a species is increasing or declining, but even this can be misleading since some species that are severely declining in some regions are doing well in others. All in all, if you want a good field guide, you still can’t beat the National Geographic or the Peterson or Golden Guides, and most of the inferior guides are still a lot better than The Stokes Field Guide to Birds.