Birding Tip #1: The Old Testament vs. the New

One frequent question novice birders ask is which field guide they should purchase? You can find a bewildering array on store shelves. Which ones are actually useful in the field and which ones are essentially coffee table books? Fortunately the decision isn’t hard. North American birders (more specifically AOU area birders) generally divide into two groups, followers of the old testament and followers of the new.

The Old Testament is Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. This is the original “field guide”; and after numerous updates over the years, it’s still an excellent book. It’s available in both Eastern and Western editions. Birders usually only carry only one into the field (the choice depending on location). This is partially for weight and portability, but more importantly to reduce the number of birds you have to consider when an unfamiliar bird pops its head up out of the grass.

You’ll still see birders carrying Peterson’s in the field; but these tend to be older, more exerienced birders who’ve been using it for decades and who can cite page number and paragraph for any species you care to name. These birders rarely need a field guide in the first place, at least not in their home territory. For most birders, I recommend one of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America, either Eastern for east of the Rockies or Western for West of the Rockies. Since the Sibley Guides were released a few years ago, they’ve almost completely displaced Peterson’s among birders who actually need field guides.

One warning: Sibley’s Eastern and Western field guides are both derived from the much larger Sibley’s Guide to the Birds. Sibley’s Guide to the Birds is an attractive coffee table book and an excellent reference. This book covers the entire AOU area, and has larger, prettier, and more numerous pictures. It also feature more alternate pumages than either of Sibley’s field guides. For instance, the full book has seven pictures of the Wandering Tattler, but the Western Guide only shows four, omitting juvenile plumage and two of the breeding adult in flight. However, the full book is much too heavy, large, and comprehensive to make a good field guide. Most experienced birders have a copy at home, but few would take it into the field.

I have occasionally found a birder who swears by the National Geographic Guide, though most birders swear at it instead. It does show more accidentals than the other guides which is nice if you happen to spot one, but also means more birds to look through to find the more common species. This problem is exacerbated because, unlike the other guides, the National Geographic doesn’t publish separate western and eastern editions.

There are numerous other field guides out there. The Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is an interesting hybrid of photographic and painting techniques, but hasn’t really caught on. The photos in the Audubon Society Field Guides are very pretty, and make it nice bathroom reading; but they aren’t really suitable for field identification. Before I knew what I was doing I used the Audubon Guide as my primary guide. I only ever successfuly identified one unknown bird out of that guide (the relatively easy Gray Catbird), and misidentified many more. (Identifying sparrows from photographs is hopeless.) I’ve been far more successful since I switched to Sibley.

Any guide you enjoy reading is fine for perusal and entertainment, but for serious field use in the AOU area, it’s either Old testament or New.

8 Responses to “Birding Tip #1: The Old Testament vs. the New”

  1. Jan Renfrow Says:

    I agree with you about the Audubon field guides. Their layout is inconvenient, and the photos aren’t the best for accurate identification.

    I have the National Geographic Field Guide, and it’s okay, but way too heavy and cumbersome to use in the field.

    Since I live in Idaho, I have a special field guide of just Idaho birds, titled, BIRDS OF IDAHO, by Stan Tekiela. I have a problem with some of the photos in it, too.

    You haven’t commented on the Stokes Field guides. Some birders find these pretty good. What is your opinion of them?

    I haven’t gotten either Petersons or Sibleys, but after reading your comments, I might invest in both of these, then after using them, decide which is best for my field experiences.

    I also have a very large coffee table book that my grandparents got me when I was a pre-teen. It has huge, beautiful color plates in it, and I know that it is somewhat outdated, now, but generally remains reasonably accurate. It’s great reading and viewing at home.

    Thank you for your article. And thanks for the link to it on the google ebird groups forum. My user name, there, is Larklady.

  2. Jan Renfrow Says:

    One more comment: I also have the Reader’s Digest book of North American Birds, a hardcover, coffee table edition for home use. I like it. The pictures in it, which are much larger than those in the pocket field guides, have often helped me clinch doubtful IDs after I have referred to it as an additional source. No photos in it, but paintings, instead. These are quite accurate, and are clearer representations than some photos are. What is your opinion of the Readers Digest bird book?

    I still have the old, dog-eared Little Golden Book of Birds that I referred to as a kid. And when I was very small, I had a series of hard-covered, postcard-sized bird books that came with solid-colored covers in green, red, blue and gold. They may have been the fifties versions of Audubon pocketbooks, I no longer recall. I think each one dealt with different categories such as seabirds and waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, woodpeckers, etc. Don’t know what ever happened to those.

    I guess I have or have had so many different bird books that I just never bothered to obtain Peterson’s or Sibley’s. I know I should.

  3. Jacqui (BirdKat) Says:

    Hi – Wow what great page! Thanks!

    I wanted to add a book that has helped me ID more birds (especially Hawks, fyi) than any other book – let me clarify though – as a relative beginner, living in Sf bay area (now in Portland, OR).

    The book is called Sierra Birds – A Hikers Guide, by John Muir Laws. It’s a small book-great size for hiking, birds arranged by color mostly for quick field reference. The illustrations are fantastic – the birds look alive – they have texture! The images have pointers showing field marks (“Peterson style”) and great field tips for ID. A specialized guide – not all inclusive, but for a specific, small region. In any case many of the birds featured are found and even common in many regions.

    FYI J. Laws is a fellow at the California Academy of Sciences in SF, a great teacher, artist and naturalist. He is currently working on other Sierra Field Guides for plants, mammals, etc…

  4. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Local field guides are always very nice because they can radically reduce the number of birds one has to hunt through to find the one you’re looking for. The more improbable species you can eliminate without even considering them, the easier it is to find what the bird really is.

  5. Ken Januski Says:

    I have to say that I’m one of those hearty souls that has carried the big Sibley in the field since the day it came out. I don’t say I’m wise to do so, just that once I got started carrying it I kept doing so, though I did have to buy a daypack in which to store it……

    I’d recommend the Sibley over Peterson and the others because it is so rich. Like a good movie you may find more each time you look at it and a particular species account. I began with Peterson and it might be if I went back to it I’d also find things I’d missed before. My guess is that I probably would. But right now I’d still go with the Sibley, though one of the individual books not the combined one. The wealth of info, AND great drawings, is just an unbeatable mix.

    I also can’ t recommend highly enough Sibley’s Birding Basics for someone who has just birded for a few years. The section on feathers includes informativel drawings and also extremely useful information on how the appearance of birds changes based on molt, feather wear, weather, etc. Eventually most serious birders come to this understanding through experience. But for beginners my guess is that it’s nice to be told about it early on.

  6. Justin Says:

    I agree on most points made here. Sibley’s books are by far my favorite. In the field I take the appropriate Silbley field guide (East or West) and the Kaufman guide. The pictures in the Kaufman guide are a great resource to have when Sibley’s paintings aren’t enought to make a positive ID. I started out using the Stokes Guide to Eastern North America. It is also a very good guide, esp. for beginners as each bird has its very own page. That said, one can never own too many field guides, buy as many as you can afford. Each one is important in its own way, Sibley just happens to be my favorite.

  7. Jan Renfrow Says:

    The Audubon field guide, itself, is inconvenient to use. However, they do still publish separate pocket guides featuring birds of particular categories, like “waterfowl”, “songbirds and familiar backyard birds”, “birds of prey”, etc. These little paperbacks do have single, full-page photos of each particular species, with text immediately following on the adjacent page. However, you have to buy several of these little books if you want to cover the whole gamut of bird life.

    In their main field guide, they mostly have three photos per page, which means each photo is much smaller, and all the photos are lumped together in a separate photo section, with all the text lumped together in a separate text section, so you have to flip back and forth. Not good, in the field, when time is of the essence because a bird can be there one moment and gone the next.

    I often wonder if the photos were digitally taken and manipulated on a computer, or if film was used, and the photographer used a filter over the lens. Some of the background colors look a little artificial, and while polarizing filters are supposed to eliminate excess glare, it sometimes appears that they also distort color. This isn’t good when you’re trying to get an accurate ID by coloration of plumage and markings. I can understand the aesthetic motives behind it, but it hinders especially beginning birders when they need clear and correct references for visual IDing.

    In some field guide photos, the angle and lighting are such that the field markings don’t show up that well, or the size and shape of the bird looks distorted. This is why I like guides that have accurate paintings of the birds in addition to the ones that have photos. Nature artists, as a whole, seem to strive for the best possible accuracy while simultaneiously maintaining good aesthetics.

    This is why it pays to have several different field guides — if one isn’t helpful, another will be.

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