For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: National Geographic Field Guide, Third Edition

Original Air Date: May 7, 1999

I have no idea when this program aired. This field guide came out in 1999, and it makes reference to the ABC All the Birds guide. Probably 1999 or 2000.

Audio missing


Field guides have suddenly become a very big business. The last time I went into a bookstore, I found eight different bird field guides that would work for Wisconsin and Minnesota, along with a few guides for beginners that don’t include all the birds one might find in our area.

Birders have strong opinions about all these guides. I don’t know of a single serious birder who would consider using a photographic guide for his or her primary guide in the field–they’re far too limited in the number of poses and plumages shown, and comparisons with similar birds are too difficult. But how about the others? Some birders swear by the Peterson guides, with their wonderful Peterson system-the little arrows pointing to the most important field marks. The Peterson guides have the best range maps of any guide, but in the worst possible place-the back, far from the drawings and the rest of the information about each bird. And the Peterson guide comes in two versions, each covering only half of the United States. We in the Northland use the eastern version, which is great because it eliminates a lot of birds that we don’ t have a chance of seeing in our part of the country, but then again, if we go on a trip to Arizona or Alaska, we need to adjust to a whole new field guide. So people who prefer a guide with all the birds of North America or want range maps next to the pictures go with one of the other choices.

All the Birds of North America is a fine, fairly new field guide. The drawings are lovely, but the birds are arranged by color and shape more than by taxonomic order. This works for beginners, and may actually be an advantage, but more advanced birders prefer guides organized taxonomically. The guide I recommend for kids, and the one that is my sentimental favorite, is the golden guide, titled Birds of America and published by the Western Publishing Company. But virtually every advanced birder I know uses either the Peterson guide or the National Geographic guide.

National Geographic just updated their field guide. They added 80 new species-mainly rare birds that have only turned up once or twice on the continent. They kept many of their drawings the same, but dramatically improved some and added more variations for many of them. Even the old drawings seem improved-the color saturation in particular is much better this time around. And now the paperbound version has sewn binding, so they will hold together much better.

The most noticeable thing about the new National Geographic guide is how it conforms with the newest taxonomic changes of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Many bird names are now different. The Baltimore Oriole is back, and Bullock’s Oriole, too-they split the Northern Oriole back into two species. There are now three scrub jays where there was once just one. And what we’ve called a Solitary Vireo has also been split- into three species. The one we find here is now called the Blue-headed Vireo-the western species are called Cassin’s and Plumbeous Vireos.

Another big improvement is the introduction, with information on how to start birding. It’s now illustrated, and includes a lot of helpful details to get beginners started on the right foot. All in all, if you are in the market for a new field guide to birds, the National Geographic is the one to choose. I recommend it highly.