Monday, February 14, 2011

If you were on a desert island and could only have one bird book...

Red-tailed HawkDoes this photo remind you of a particular popular bird book cover? Red-tailed Hawk, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Birders love bird books. And it seems a new one comes out every week, making your library obsolete.

Recently I moved residences and had to pack up most of my library and put it in storage. Yikes! I could only "keep" one small shelf of bird books, and none of my birding magazine series--they all went into storage. What would I keep out and available for day-to-day use?

Here is a partial list of the books I kept available to me. These are general bird watching and reference books. I also kept local status and distribution works and bird-finding guides. And, of course, I kept out most of my seabird reference guides for my ocean bird watching trips.

Here are my "must-have" bird books.

Field Guides

  • Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer. 2006. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

    The "National Geo" guide has been my favorite guide since the first edition was published in 1983. I love the 5th Edition. It is quite updated from the 3rd Edition (1999) with redesigned cover and the addition of thumbtabs to help newer birders. There are some new illustrations and map corrections. It has a nice clean layout with larger illustrations than many other guides. It has all species of birds ever recorded in North America up to 2006--967 species total.

  • National Audubon Society--The Sibley Guide to Birds. David Allen Sibley. 2000. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

    This is the "big Sibley" and so very well done. Averaging 8 illustrations per species this book has most of the plumages you may expect to encounter in the field. The advantage this book has over others includes the arrows and supporting text pointing to and explaining the illustrations. And it is unsurpassed in showing even passerines in flight. But it is showing its age, being quite behind the times in new bird names and family sequences that have occurred in the 10 years since it was written. It doesn't cover the most rare North American birds. And, of course, it is too large to fit in a pocket for field use and becomes damaged laying loose in the vehicle.

There is a smaller "Western" Sibley [The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. David Allen Sibley. 2003. Alfred A. Knopf. New York.]. I especially like the 5-color maps, far exceeding the 3-color maps of the National Geographic and most other guides. However, even fewer species are covered. Frankly, some of the rare birds to the West are just the ones I need in a field guide, since I am quite familiar with the common ones. So I want a continental bird book, not a regional one. Thus I own the "big Sibley" and not the Western Sibley. (The same can be said for the regional National Geographic guides on the market now.)

There really isn't any competition (yet) with the above field guides. Peterson has an updated guide suitable for beginning/intermediate birders.

No photographic guide is acceptable as a primary field guide, though John Rakestraw thinks the new Stokes guide is quite good. Here is a June 2008 review of photographic field guides by Rob Fergus. And here are some plates for an exciting new photographic field guide "under construction" by Richard Crossley.

Advanced Bird Identification

  • The Peterson Field Guide Series--A Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Birding challenges and how to approach them. Kenn Kaufman. 1990. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

    Though a bit dated, with line drawings rather than photos, this is still a good reference for learning how to identify gulls, Empids, sparrows, peep, jaegers, dowitchers, winter loons, etc. It covers only a select group of the more difficult to identify birds.

Bird and birding references

  • Birding Essentials: All the tools, techniques, and tips you need to begin and become a better birder. Jonathan Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn. 2007. National Geographic Society, Washington DC.

    My old 1969 Peterson field guide had 20 pages in the Introduction entitled "How to Watch Birds." Newer field guides ran out of room to tell the user essential information about bird identification, birding tools, and bird watching fieldcraft. This 224-page book is the "introduction" on "how to watch birds" that has been "left out" of modern field guides since Peterson was supplanted as the most popular field guide in the mid '80's.

  • The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. John K. Terres. 1980. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

    At nearly a million words this large volume covers each bird in North America, birding term, and historical person you are likely to encounter. Species accounts give scientific name and meaning, description and measurements, feeding habits, nest, eggs, incubation, other names, age, host to cowbirds, hybrids, weights, and range. If you want to know about bird smell, who Smith's Longspur was named for, smoke bathing, or songs and singing, here it is alphabetically. There is a newer 1995 version available.

  • Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, 4th Edition. Olin Sewell Pettingill, Jr. 1970. Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, Minn.

    All birders should own an ornithology manual. Such a book details topics such as feathers, anatomy, distribution, field and laboratory identification, behavior, migration, eggs and young, ornithological field methods, and more. [A more modern textbook is Ornithology, 3rd Edition. Frank B. Gill. 2006. W.H Freeman & Co. New York.]

For many birders, getting a brand new bird book is akin to getting a new car. You may baby it for a while, but before long you've driven it to the top of the forest service lookout and through some "roads" that were barely rabbit trails and your new books look like these.

Thus, I recommend buying used from online book sellers such as I visited a Powell's book store a couple of month's ago and came away with 5 "previously viewed" bird books in great condition, all for under $80.

My shelf runneth over....


  1. I agree with you - the NGS and Sibley are the 2 best field guides avaiable

  2. I like the big Sibley. I just find ways to bring it (big pockets, backpack on me or my dog, bribe other people, or on the seat as I drive-and-bird).

  3. Please note that the Nation Geographic has a 6th edition for 2011. Also Kaufman's Advanced Birding was completely re-done in 2011.