For the Birds Radio Program: How to Choose a Field Guide

Original Air Date: Nov. 29, 2010

What’s the best way to choose a field guide? Laura recommends heading to a library or bookstore, thumbing through the ones that look most appealing, and looking up a few familiar birds in your favorites. The book that shows those birds the way you see them is probably the best choice for you.

Duration: 4′57″


Just about every year for the past decade, at least one new field guide has been released, and 2010 is no exception. A lot of birders insist on owning every single new field guide—sometimes even getting a copy of every edition of every field guide. But even the most avid field guide collectors tend to keep most of these field guides on a shelf, hardly ever opened. Wise birders choose one favorite guide to bring along when birding. Field guides vary in layout, organization, and all kinds of things. By using the same book over and over, birders internalize how their book is arranged and start noticing other species en route to the ones they’re looking for.

This time of year, people beg me for recommendations about which field guide to buy for gifts. To be honest, I have no clue. For me, a field guide is as personal as briefs or boxers, or underwire or softcup.

I do a better job helping choose a field guide for the actual recipient. Quite truthfully, there is no such thing as a “best” guide. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and the best match for you may be different from the best for someone else. The field guide birders use to identify their first 100-200 species quickly becomes either their Best Friend Forever or a junior high bully, making them feel inadequate and helpless.

My recommendation is to pull out all the field guides in a bookstore or library, and look up 4 or 5 species that you already know well—even very easy ones such as robin and blue jay, to see which guide(s) show them most accurately to your eyes. Of the ones that seem best at showing “your” species, narrow down the choices by considering which are most portable, which make it easiest for you to find various birds, and which make it easiest to compare similar species. For species such as cardinals that have different male, female, and immature plumages, make sure the guides are clear about what to look for. And most important, which do you really enjoy looking through?

If pressed, I do admit that I personally prefer guides that show similar, related species, such as the thrushes, all on the same page so it’s easy to compare them. The ONLY photographic guide that does this well is Kenn Kaufman’s focus guide. I prefer field guides that are illustrated. The one I learned on was the Golden Guide, and I’m still very fond of it, but in the past couple decades, I’ve switched to the National Geographic guide. The newest edition, the fifth, has thumb index cuts and an excellent full index right on the inside cover. The artwork in this guide has been uneven compared to the Peterson and Golden guides because several different artists produced the plates rather than a single artist, but each updated edition has improved the artwork noticeably, and the fifth edition is especially strong. I also like the National Geographic guide’s range maps, which have state and provincial lines drawn in and are next to the drawings and text.

Photographic field guides never show all the thrushes on the same plate for simple comparison, and the limitations of fitting enough photos in a portable book make for weird compromises. One that came out this year doesn’t even show a yellow rump on the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Of course, these are my personal preferences. What matters is choosing a guide that YOU prefer. If you have more than one field guide, pick one and stick with it. The job of a field guide is to help you identify flesh-and-blood birds. The more time you spend looking at birds with one guide, the quicker and more accurately you’ll identify each new bird—and that’s the whole point.