Bird Watcher's General Store

Choosing a Field Guide - 06/10/05


Dear Bird Folks,

I'm always running over to my next-door neighbor's house to ask him to identify a bird. I think he is getting a little tired of it because yesterday he said "Why don't you buy yourself a bird book?" Hmm, good idea. Or at least I thought it was a good idea until I went to the book store and became overwhelmed by all the choices. Before I invest in a new bird book I would like to ask you which book, of all the multitudes, is the best?

-Jon, Buffalo, NY.

You are Very Wise Jon:

Very wise to come to me before you "invest" a whooping twenty bucks in a book. Buying a book without proper council? Talk about living life on the edge. On the other hand, you were being very risky when you sought bird guidance from your neighbor. Neighbors are fine for borrowing things like lawn mowers, or in the case of those living in Buffalo, snow blowers. Neighbors are also good for taking in your mail while you are away. Even that can be risky depending on what magazines you subscribe to, but not as risky as asking a neighbor for bird identification advice. Last week I had some guy ask me about "Beach Orioles." Beach Orioles? What the heck are Beach Orioles I asked? The guy replied, "You know, the yellow orioles. My neighbor says they are Beach Orioles." I explained that the yellow birds were probably female Baltimore Orioles. I then sold the guy a new bird book and told him to stay away from his neighbor.

Even though I have a fair knowledge of what birds look like, I'm constantly referring to my field guide, aka bird book. I use my field guide more than any other book, except maybe the dictionary. (Did you know that raspberry has a "p" in it? When did that happen?) The best field guides are only $20.00, but you would be surprised at how many people look for a cheaper way out.

The first thing they ask for is a poster. A poster? We are talking about birds, not America's most wanted. A recently published field guide of Eastern birds included 650 species of birds and 4,200 illustrations. A poster large enough to include that many birds could pull your wall down, trapping your entire family. Forget the poster.

The next thing to forget are books that try to limit the number of birds you can see. Don't waste your time with "Birds of the Backyard" or "Fifty Easy to Learn Birds." Any bonehead can learn the easy birds, it's the tough birds we need the help with. The other problem is, if a book only includes a few selected birds, then you'll be forced to invent your own names when the bird you see isn't in there. A book that only shows the bright orange male Baltimore Oriole leaves you guessing when the dull yellow female arrives. The resulting lack of information leads to the birth of such oddly named species as the elusive Beach Oriole.

Next on the list are the dreaded photo guides. Photo guides are exactly what the name implies, they are normal bird books that use photographs. Photos seem like a great idea. What can be wrong with a nice photo? The trouble is that a photo only depicts that particular bird, on that day and in that lighting. A bird may look different depending on the weather or on how the light hits its feathers. Just today a friend called me about a sleek gray bird. She didn't believe me when I told her it was a catbird. The photo of the catbird in her book was all fat and fluffy, instead of being thin and sleek, like it actually is. This poor bird looked like it had gotten caught in the spin cycle of a Maytag. Don't get a photo guide.

By far the better books are the guides that use illustrations. An artist can show the bird in several plumages and several positions, including flight. The more illustrations and the more positions the better chance you have of making a correct identification.

There are several such field guides to consider. The three most popular are by Roger Tory Peterson, David Sibley and National Geographic. All are excellent guides and it would be hard to chose the best. In fact birders have gotten into fist fights arguing over which book is the better. Ha, birders getting into a fist fight. Can you imagine? I even made myself laugh with that one.

Check out either of those three guides Jerry, or any of the complete guides that are illustrated. However, if you find a guide that has pictures of Beach Orioles on the cover, just put it down and walk away.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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