Birds and Beyond
Picking a Field Guide
Claire Curry, January 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003
Everyone needs at least one field guide to identify birds, but which one to pick? There are guides with photographs, guides with paintings, regional guides, national guides, and even guides with digitally edited photographs. Hopefully this article will help you if you need some advice on picking one.
First, there is the debate between photographs and paintings. Photographs show a picture of a real bird, so it would be the most realistic, right? Not always, since lighting, angle, and individual variation can make a photo look much different than the bird you’re looking at. Paintings are a sort of “average” representation of a particular species or plumage. However, not all bird paintings are equal and some may not have accurate shapes, or may not capture the bird’s general appearance.
Many guides are available, but here I will describe several of the best. The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley, has (in my opinion) the best artwork of all the field guides. There are more plumages and forms than other books, and all birds are shown in flight. Some people don’t like it for a field guide because it is larger than most pocket-sized field guides. However, I find that the stunning and accurate artwork makes up for the bulky size. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, another very popular guide, is also illustrated with paintings. Several artists contributed to this guide, so the quality of the paintings varies from mediocre to beautiful. This book has many more rarities than the Sibley Guide, and also is smaller sized. Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman, uses digitally edited photographs. The birds are digitally edited to highlight field marks, which helps take away some of the limitations of photos. In addition to showing adult, male and female, and juvenile plumages, some species have several pictures showing different postures or views of one plumage. Stokes Field Guide to the Birds, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, has two volumes (one each for Eastern and Western regions.) This is a photographic guide, with its strong point being species accounts including some life history and behavior.
Finally, your field guide needs to be one that you like. If possible, browse through the pictures, and find a familiar bird. Does the painting or photo accurately capture the essence of the bird? Does the range map seem reasonably accurate? Are you comfortable with the format of the book?
Once you get your field guide, remember that sometimes, for that one hard-to-identify bird, you may need to consult several guides to make an identification. You can never have too many bird books!