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Field Guides - Who Was That Bird?
by Jayne Rushin

If you are interested in birds, you will find it more fun if you can identify them. The more birds you recognize the easier it becomes. When learning to identify birds, a good field guide is an essential tool. There are innumerable books with gorgeous bird pictures on the market, but a field guide is designed specifically to assist in identification.

Most beginning birders find identification much easier with a field guide that illustrates with drawings rather than with photographs. Birds like people can be highly variable, and photographs can be misleading when you are trying to identify an unknown bird. Beginners also might be wise to choose a "regional" guide rather than one with all the birds of North America included. If you are looking at a bird in your backyard in Alabama it can be a bit tedious and even confusing to try and find its picture in a book that has 3 or 4 hundred birds included that are only found west of the Rocky Mountains.

You will no doubt find several different guides at your local bookstore. A field guide will have a full color illustration of each bird along with a description that includes: overall size, bill color and shape, wing shape and size, and identifying markings. There also will be a brief description of habitat, a map showing seasonal ranges with migration routes, and a discussion of songs and calls.

The following three guides are the preferred choices of beginning and experienced birders. The "Peterson" and "Sibley" guides are published in regional editions and the "National Geographic Guide" includes all the birds found in North America.

In 1934 when Roger Tory Peterson published his first field guide, he set the standard for all the other field guides that have followed. Peterson illustrated  his own work, using arrows to pinpoint significant features of each bird for quick field identification. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, the most recent edition of Petersonís book is entitled: Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Range maps are found at the back of the book. A new feature of this edition is the addition of a small range map on the  page with the species illustration and description. There also is a Peterson field guide for western birds. 

Roger Tory Peterson is a legend among birders, and for good reason. This is his final book -- he died peacefully after spending the day painting for this guide -- and it reflects Peterson's decades-long experience creating one of the most widely used identification systems for birds.


A favorite of many birders, National Geographic Societyís Field Guide to the Birds of North America is very readable and has excellent descriptions. The fourth edition of this  popular field guide adds some valuable features, including updated maps and taxonomic classifications. A new "quick-find" index of common groups refers experienced birders to the right page, fast, but won't be much use to novices. Nevertheless, the book's organization is clear, the illustrations are realistic and more colorful than ever, and the range maps are easy to understand. The guide covers all North American bird species, including seabirds. In his introduction to the new edition, Cornell ornithologist John W. Fitzpatrick motivates birders of all levels, extolling the virtues of this field guide in helping ordinary citizens add to the store of scientific knowledge. And he's right: marking the little checkboxes in the index as you spot each species is satisfying science that can be done by anyone, including kids. Another delightful feature is the phonetic spellings of bird calls, such as the "kakakowlp-kowlp" of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo or the "few-few-fawee" of the Western bluebird. This remains one of the best portable bird guides in publication, tough enough to take in the field, but detailed enough for hours of armchair browsing.


The Sibley Guide to Birds is published in Eastern and Western Editions. The guides include basic information such as the parts of a bird and general color-coded maps. The color-coded maps that accompany each bird show where the birds live throughout North America, so that birders in, say, Pennsylvania, will know to look for the Northern Mockingbird in Ohio as well. And, of course, Sibley's beautiful full-colored paintings of birds jump out at every page.

Leaf through the field guides in a bookstore, and select the one that appeals to you. Be sure to check the pages that contain pictures of birds you already know. A book in which the pages have been stitched together before the binding is glued on will hold up best. Always buy the very latest edition, since the material in a field guide is constantly being revised and updated.


Ready to order a Field Guide. click here to see AWCA selections and recommendations.


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