For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: American Bird Conservancy field guide

Original Air Date: May 2, 1997

The American Bird Conservancy recently released a new field guide. 3:50

Audio missing


Just about every time I go to a bookstore, someone asks me which field guide to buy. When I started birding, there were only two to choose from–the Peterson guide and the Golden guide. Both have fine illustrations but are designed differently. Some top-notch birders preferred one and some the other, so people just picked whichever more appealed to them.

Now there are a lot more guides available. The Peterson and Golden are still two of the top three, but the best is probably now the National Geographic guide. Joining these three are a half-dozen others, including at least three different photographic guides. But with so many to choose from now, people have trouble deciding on one, and a new wrinkle has been introduced in the form of the American Bird Conservancy’s new guide called All the Birds of North America.

This field guide has several unique features. My favorite is that it devotes a lot of space to extinct birds, giving full-page treatment each to the Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Labrador Duck, Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, and Bachman’s Warbler. As long as they were doing this, I wish they’d also mentioned the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. This, like the Heath Hen, is actually a sub-species of a still-existing species, but the Dusky Seaside Sparrow’s loss happened in the 1980s due to excessive coastal development—a problem that continues to endanger many species, and so merited some attention. But it’s nitpicking to complain that they left out one bird when they give more space to the other seven than to any other guide.

Most of the birds are illustrated in their natural habitats, which is another plus from both an identification and a conservation standpoint. Like the National Geographic guide, several different illustrators painted the drawings for this guide, leading to an unevenness of style and quality. I particularly loved the illustrations of the ducks and the woodpeckers. The warblers seem too washed out, and several sparrows have shaggy crests. Nobody ever seems to illustrate Boreal Chickadees right—field guide artists obviously spend more time in warm areas than here in the Northland. The oddest drawing of al is a four-winged Anna’s Hummingbird. The artist was clearly attempting to capture its rapid wingbeats, but this was a failed effort which several people have already joked about on the internet. Rare birds are given much less space on the page, concentrating beginners’ attention on the more likely suspects, but some birders felt that this approach gives short shrift to the birds they want the most detailed information about.

The information in All the Birds of North America includes much more interesting stuff than the other guides. The identification pages are limited to ID, but each group of birds is given a one- or two-page introduction with notes about behavior, physical adaptations, and conservation. This guide’s organization is confusing for those of us who are already used to the other guides, organizing birds in a more intuitive than scientific way, but I suspect beginners would easily adapt to and probably end up preferring this guide to most, and perhaps all, of the others.

If you’re looking for a field guide for a beginner, or an extra guide for someone addicted to bird books, All the Birds of North America is a fine one to choose.