Selecting a Field Guide to Birds

Prior to the field guides used today to identify birds biologists and bird enthusiasts would shoot birds and study them once they had them in their hand. In 1934 at the age of 25 Roger Tory Peterson revolutionized bird identification by creating the first Field Guide to Birds of North America using his artistic talent. Today anyone can identify hundreds, if not thousands of birds using the field guides available.   

Birding has become a very popular pastime and one of the best things about it is this activity requires very little equipment. Beginning birders simply need a basic pair of binoculars and a good field guide to get started. Experienced birders will tell you that picking the right field guide will allow you to quickly and effectively identify birds, and enable you to build your knowledge of birds in your area. Thousands of field guides exist, so understanding the characteristics that create an good guide is a must.

Your location or the location in which you go birding most often is one of the first considerations in purchasing a field guide. Some field guides contain all the birds of North America. However if you live in the eastern or western U.S. a field guide specific to those regions are more popular since they only include species likely to be found there. This makes the book lighter (an important feature if you intend to carry it on long hikes). Popular guides with eastern and western editions include Sibley’s, Stokes, National Geographic, and Peterson’s. These guides generally cover the central U.S., northern Mexico, and southern Canada, since many eastern and western species also occur in these areas.

The dividing line for eastern and western bird species is roughly the 180th Meridian which bisects Nebraska. Along this division is a hybridization zone where some eastern and western birds may interbreed within their species.  Nebraska also has ten distinct ecological regions where specific birds occur. These are the reasons why Nebraska is undoubtedly one of the best birding locations on the continent, and why birders in the state may want to consider having both an eastern and western field guide for birds. Having both may be especially useful during the spring and fall bird migrations when one never knows what bird may appear traveling through the Central Great Plains or Missouri River flyways.

For birders who travel often or live in central U.S. states, a coast-to-coast guide encompassing all North American birds is an alternative. These guides have the advantage of covering all existing species in the U.S. and generally southern Canada and northern Mexico. But again these guides are often much bulkier and heavier than guides specific to the east or west. The national guide referred to as “the birder’s bible” is The Sibley Guide to Birds, an extremely comprehensive and user-friendly field guide but a rather large edition. Other popular field guides to North American birds include National Geographic, Peterson’s, and National Audubon Society.

There is field guide available that covers all the birds from the Missouri River Valley to the western panhandle of Nebraska. The Birds of the Central Great Plains by Jennings, Cable, and Burrows contains 325 of the most common or notable birds found in the Great Plains states including Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and the Dakotas.

Another characteristic to consider when buying a guide is your preference for how the birds themselves are presented in the book. Field guides can either feature true-to-life illustrations or photographs of each species. Illustrations have an advantage over photographs when it comes to bird species that are hard to photograph, like certain sea birds, because even the best existing photographs can be low-quality. Illustrations also provide an opportunity for the artist to highlight certain identifying features of birds know as “field markings”. Those are  items which help with identifying birds. However, some birders prefer photographs because they often depict the bird in an accurate habitat and posture, which can also help with identification.

There are a few other personal preferences to consider when purchasing a field guide. The layout of each field guide is different so select one that fits your needs and that you are comfortable with. Field guides have become increasingly user-friendly over the years, and two organization schemes are common. Some guides separate the photo or illustration of the bird from its description while others dedicate a single page to the bird and its description. Neither scheme is better, but some birders develop a strong preference for one or the other.

A feature that is very useful is range maps. They can immediately show if the bird you are selecting is a permanent resident or a migrant. If the bird is a migrant the range map will show the birds summer and winter range and give a clue to its migratory route. These maps however only provide a baseline as to seasonal locations of specific birds. It is somewhat common that birds will appear out of their range in winter or during migration. This is one of the reasons bird watching can be so exciting. Often one will identify a bird far from its normal range and it may be a once in a lifetime occurrence. While some field guides may show this map on the page where a specific bird species is located, other field guides contain a separate map section which is assigned a key to reference the range map for a specific bird.

Many guides include an additional feature that can be very are helpful to quickly reference a group or family of bird species.. The Stokes guides contain a unique index system where birds are grouped by related species and labeled by different color codes that can be viewed even when the book is closed, allowing the user to look up a species and find it easily according to the label color.

Birding field guides have been instrumental in the development and popularity of bird watching. There is a field guide designed for every skill level from the beginning birder to the expert. They can offer basic information about birds to very detailed data. Many other quick guides are available for identifying backyard birds, water birds, shore birds, and even raptors. There are even bird guides for children.  Just remember to select a field guide you are comfortable with and that will fit your needs. In the end, personal preference plays a large role in choosing a favorite bird guide.Thankfully, most guides are inexpensive, so you can buy several to test out!

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