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Birding Field Guide Comparisons and Reviews - Birding Basics

Joe Kegley

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Birding Field Guides

Birding Field Guides(tools used by birders to identify individual species of birds) make accurate identification possible and come in all shapes and sizes. Choosing a field guide from the vast array in the market place can be a daunting task for the beginning birder. Luckily they are not very expensive, usually costing less than $20, so buying more than one is a viable option.

Some things to consider when making a selection are the specific region you will be using the guide, does it include photographs or illustrations, and size.

Some guides limit the included species to ones found only in a specific region or state within the US. If you live in the east and never expect to go to the west coast, maybe you don't need an all inclusive guide for North America. Minimizing the number of species found in a field guide is especially helpful for a beginning birder.

If this is your first field guide, it is best to select one with illustrations instead of photographs. Illustrations allow unique field marks specific to a species to be emphasized. Photographs don't always show or emphasize these field marks due to the lighting or the angle of the subject.

Most folks who will be taking their guide out in the field want them to be small and lightweight. Of course there is a trade off here, the smaller and lighter, the less information in the guide. That rule might not apply for electronic guides on mobile devices, they have the potential to be small, lightweight, and contain in-depth information.

The following are the results from reviewing some of the top Birding Field Guides for North America on the market. All have their individual strengths and weaknesses.

The field guides were reviewed on the following criteria:

  • Illustration quality
  • Field Mark Notations
  • Female Illustrations
  • Juvenile\Immature Illustrations
  • Hybrid Illustrations
  • Flight Illustrations
  • Habitat Information
  • Foraging and Diet Information
  • Nesting Information
  • Seasonal Range Map inclusion
  • Textual Voice Description
  • Audio Voice Playback
  • Quick Reference

Selected species used for comparing illustrations among the publications included:

  • Field Mark Notations - Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee, and Blue-winged Warbler.
  • Female Illustrations - Wood Duck, Hairy Woodpecker, and Golden-winged Warbler.
  • Juvenile\Immature Illustrations - Wood Duck, Black-crowned Night Heron and Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and Little Blue Heron.
  • Hybrid Illustrations - Blue-winged Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler (Brewster's and Lawrence's Warbler).
  • Flight Illustrations - Wood Duck, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture, Barn Swallow, and Chimney Swift.

For the Habitat, Foraging and Diet, and Nesting criteria I was looking for information found within the specific species listing, not the group or family introduction pages.

Tabled results for the above criteria can be viewed here:
Birding Field Guide Review results - (including iBird Explorer Pro and National Geographic's Handheld Birds).

The information contained in this table is the basis for the following reviews and conclusions.

Birding Field Guides - printed format:

  • A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America
    A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson.

    This guide is limited to the birds in the eastern and central region of North America and is considered the book that launched the birding craze. Peterson's use of highlighted field marks specific to a particular species made this book invaluable in the early days of birding. The book is every bit as valuable today and continues to be considered one of the top field guides.

    One thing I did find a little odd was the separation of the Blue-winged Warbler and the Golden-winged Warbler on different pages. In other guides these two birds are generally found close to each other because they interbreed and produce hybrids. Both hybrids (Brewster's Warbler and Lawrence's Warbler) were listed but on different pages.

    This book had the largest and easiest to read range maps of all the guides. But the range maps are at the back of the book. There is a thumbnail range map next to each species with a reference to the larger maps in the back.

    There is limited foraging material and no nesting information in the book, nor does it contain a quick reference.

    I used this book when I was a child and still consider it as one of the best.

  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson.

    A larger book in physical dimensions than "A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America", the information included is nearly identical to the above with four notable exceptions. One, obviously there are more species listed since this publication is for all of North America. Two, the illustrations are larger therefore easier to view details. Three, this edition has a quick reference on the inside back cover. Four, illustrations and listings for Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Brewster's, and Lawrence's Warbler are all next to each other now.

    What I expected but did not find, was more variations of illustrations for a specific species. The illustrations and poses listed for species in the "A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America" are identical (though larger) for the same species listed in "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America".

    Overall the same quality you would expect from a Peterson's field guide but with larger illustrations.

  • Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

    Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman.

    Kaufman uses what appears to be a hybrid between photos and illustrations. Most of the backgrounds are removed from these digitally enhanced photos. The book features a pictorial table of contents that beginners might find beneficial. The side of the book pages are color coded so one can easily find a particular grouping providing you know what the colors stand for.

    While habitat, foraging, and nest information was somewhat limited, beginners or kids might find this book valuable.

  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region
    National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region by National Audubon Society.

    This publication uses photos as opposed to illustrations. The book gets poor marks for use as a means of bird identification. There is usually just a male and female photo with no field mark notations. Various angles and in-flight photos are missing. In addition, it is somewhat hard to use because all the photos are at the front of the book and the associated text is in the back. The range maps are in black and white which makes them hard to use.

    Where this particular book shines is the textual content. Compared to other field guides, this one has more information on habitat, foraging, and nesting. In fact the only other guide that compares in this particular area is the software program iBird Explorer Pro for the iTouch and iPhone.

  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
    National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Dunn and Alderfer.

    The colors and detail in the National Geographic Field Guide are slightly more vivid than the rest of the field guides reviewed that use illustrations. The amount of illustrations compare somewhat with that of "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America", but are larger, prettier, and easier to see than Sibley's.

    What is lacking is field mark notations for individual species. I could not find a single notation through out the book. While winter, breeding, and all-year ranges were included in the range maps, there were very few migration ranges included. There is no (or very sparse) information on foraging and nesting.

    Except for the lack of field mark notations, I really like this book. One of the reasons for my affection is all the quick ways there are to reference content. The inside front cover has content listed by family groups. In addition, there are higher level groupings accessed through the use of thumb tabs on the outside of the pages. There is also a quick reference index in alphabetical order of species, genus, and families on the inside back cover. I really like these quick references and their locations.

  • National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America

    National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America by Edward Brinkley.

    Overall this publication contains very good information and includes notable field mark notations in the photos. In fact, this is the only pure photo field guide I found that has field mark notations (excluding the "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" which uses a cross between a photo and an illustration).

    Unlike Kaufman's which removes much of the distracting background from the digitally enhanced photos, this book leaves the background. Normally this would not be a problem at all, but the inclusion of field mark notations over the backgrounds make the photos seem a bit busy. Also note the notations are text, there are no pointers to the specific area of the bird, though there is an attempt to make these text notations close to the related area.

  • The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America
    The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Allen Sibley.

    Both Sibley publications reviewed easily have the best field mark notations of all the field guides. In addition to normal standing and perching illustrations, most species also have in-flight illustrations. Sibley's cover every angle and flight illustration necessary to id a particular species with confidence. The illustrations are of very good quality and the field marks are always easily visible with added text notation where applicable.

    The only drawback I found with this book is that the foraging and nesting information is limited.

  • The Sibley Guide to Birds
    The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley.

    This is a much larger book than the "Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America", not just in content, but in actual size too. It might be more than you want to take in the field. Like Kaufman's, National Geographic, and the iBird Explorer Pro, this book covers all species in North America. And like its little brother, the field mark notation is excellent. This book includes even more varied illustrations of species standing, perching, and flying.

    Like the smaller Sibley's, the foraging and nesting information is limited. And some of the habitat information is in the heading for the family group or genus, as opposed to the individual species.

  • National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America

    Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd.

    In addition to being one of the better "photograph" field guides, this publication also includes a bird song DVD of 138 major species (587 vocalizations in all) in the back cover. The author also includes ABA (American Birding Association) codes for each species listed, along with molts per year, and a rating for differences between immature and adults.

    Like some of the other publications, the author includes much of the habitat information in the group listing introduction pages as opposed to the individual species listings. The format and layout are very pleasing to the eye and doesn't seem busy at all. The author is editor of Birding magazine, a publication of the American Birding Association. With a Ph.D. in Ecology and the affiliation with the ABA, this publication comes associated with some high credentials.

  • Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region

    Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

    This publication is the easiest on the eyes of all the books reviewed and has a great layout. Each species has individual sections for Identification, Feeding, Nesting, Other Behavior, Habitat, and Voice.

    This book contains photographs as opposed to illustrations and occasionally lacks examples of females, juveniles, and hybrids for a particular species. There is a quick index on both the inside and back covers along with a color tab index on the outside of the pages.

Birding Field Guides - software format:

  • iBird Explorer Pro
    iBird Explorer Pro version 1.6.1 by the Mitch Waite Group.

    This application along with "National Geographic's Handheld Birds", has the potential to revolutionize what we think of as a "field guide". Though it is not quite there, the features are none the less amazing. The product installs on the iPhone and iTouch devices from Apple. Current listed price is $29.99.

    The good:

    All the application and data is loaded on your device (except for the Birdipedia module and additional Flickr photo query, these functions need internet access to work). Once the software is loaded, you do not need an internet connection to use it except for the two exceptions.

    The listing of 914 birds can be sorted by first common name, last common name, and families.

    Allows searching/grouping on location, shape, size, habitat, primary color, bill shape, family group, wing shape, flight pattern, state and month.

    Includes information on habitat, foraging, nesting, and other behavior.

    Includes audio vocal sounds for most of the 914 birds listed. Also list birds with similar sounds.

    Includes illustrations for all species. Includes photos for almost all species (did not find a Bachman's Warbler photo).

    Includes color range maps.

    The bad:

    No field mark notations on any of the birds.

    Finding female and juvenile illustrations (or photos) were sporadic. Some species used for testing had them, some did not.

    My test for hybrid illustrations using Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Brewster's, or Lawrence's Warbler came up empty. I could not find an illustration or photo of one.

    The audio vocal calls came up a little short. Vocal variations for a particular species is not as complete as "Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs".

  • iBird Explorer Pro
    National Geographic Handheld Birds version 1.0 by National Geographic

    Handheld Birds is a birding field guide application for Apple's iPhone and iTouch devices. The current listed price is $14.99.

    The good:

    Like the iBird Explorer Pro, all the data for "National Geographic's Handheld Birds" is loaded onto your iPhone or iTouch device. You do not need an internet connection to use it.

    The application contains information on 867 species found within North America, including sound, foraging and nesting behavior, range, habitat, and appearance.

    The listing of 867 birds can be sorted by first name, last name, taxonomic name, and families.

    The illustrations include field mark notations.

    This application met all the conditions used for testing the illustrations. Juvenile/immature, female, and flight illustrations were found using the selected test species mentioned near the top of this page.

    "Handheld Birds" also included hybrid illustrations of both Brewster's and Lawrence's warblers on both the Golden-winged and Blue-winged warbler listings.

    The included bird sounds are from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

    The product includes color range maps.

    The bad:

    Unlike "iBird Explorer Pro" which includes both illustrations and photos, "Handheld Birds" only includes illustrations.

    Does not include an alphabet index on the screen for jumping to the starting letter of a common bird name within the sorted lists ("iBird Explorer Pro" has this capability).

    Does not include sorting by location, shape, size, habitat, primary color, bill shape, wing shape, flight pattern, state and month ("iBird Explorer Pro" has this capability).

  • Final verdict for the iBird Explorer Pro and National Geographic's Handheld Birds:

    Both the iBird Explorer Pro and National Geographic Handheld Birds are fun and have actually come in useful a time or two when no printed field guide was available. Both have the "potential" to be even more useful with future updates. Not sure either will ever replace a field guide for me, I'm a little too old fashioned. But the products are slick and useful, make no doubt about it. So far the most comprehensive field guides reviewed.

    "iBird Explorer Pro" - Much better search and sorting capabilities than the "National Geographic Handheld Birds". You will get to your bird quicker with this application. Also includes photos while "Handheld Birds" does not.

    "National Geographic Handheld Birds" - More thorough illustrations when examples of juveniles/immatures, females, or hybrids, are needed. Illustrations also contain field mark notations, while "iBird Explorer Pro" does not.


  • For Bird Identification: It's a toss up between the Peterson's series and the Sibley series. Both have excellent illustrations and include highly important field mark notations.

    Peterson's field guides have the better illustrations, they are somewhat larger and more color saturated than the Sibley series. The Peterson's series also include sections highlighted in bold for "Similar species" and "Habitat", Sibley's does not include these sections.

    The Sibley's series has more varied illustrations of individual species, including many more in-flight illustrations than the Peterson guides provide. Sibley's also has the better field mark notations that include pointers and textual information surrounding the subject. Peterson's just includes pointers to the field marks..

  • Photographs: Again another toss up. The "Smithsonian Field Guide to the Bird of North America" and the "National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America" had the best quality photos while presenting the photos in a useable layout. Using photographs instead of illustrations can be a tricky business for a birding field guide. Realize both publications contained both good and some not so good photos.

    The National Wildlife Federation gets an added plug because of the field mark notations surrounding the subjects. Though the added field mark notations made the book appear a little busy. The Smithsonian's guide was a little easier on the eyes to view without the notations overlaid on the photos. The Smithsonian's also included a bird song DVD.

    Another book in this category I would like to mention is the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region. I really liked how this book was laid out and enjoyed the larger photos it contained. One of the reasons it was not selected as a top pick was my frustration that the book combines the listings for the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee. The book also combines listings for the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker. I prefer individual listings for all four.

  • Quick Reference: For built in quick navigation, "National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America" easily takes the lead. This publication contains a quick reference in the front cover for "family groups", a quick reference in the back cover for individual species/genus/groups, and higher level groupings accessed through the use of thumb tabs on the outside of the pages.

    One thing to note is that many birders create their own tabbed indexes for the other publications using sticky tabs. Having an in-house quick index is not a requirement for a good field guide because you can make your own. Also note some birders mark up their field guides with notes and observations. Field guides are a tool not a coffee table book.

  • Most Comprehensive: Hands down the "National Geographic Handheld Birds" and "iBird Explorer Pro". These software applications have more textual content per bird species than any of the printed field guides above. Both include information on foraging, nesting, range, habitat, appearance, and voice. The illustrations and photos are good. National Geographic Handheld Birds has the better juvenile/immature, female, and hybrid illustrations, including field mark notations. While iBird Explorer Pro has the better search and sorting capabilities.

  • For early teens (easiest to read and hold your attention): My top pick is "Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region" from the publications reviewed, though I don't consider it just for teens. I really like the layout and it is easy to read through, and not just as a reference. The layout for each species contains highly discernable sections with labels in bold for "Identification" , "Feeding", "Nesting", "Other Behavior", "Habitat", "Voice", and "Conservation". No need to search through a species listing for a specific piece of information, you can find it easily with this layout.

    In second place for youth is the "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America". This book contains a pictorial table of contents. Under each group in the table of contents is a selection of illustrations representing some of the species in the group. Unlike Stokes, this publication does include some limited field mark notations.

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