Saturday, January 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Part One

It happened to most people who are now bird watchers. They saw some bird that was so colorful, or so unusually-shaped, or behaved in such an interesting manner that they decided to find out more about it. They picked up a field guide to birds...

If they are like most people they couldn't immediately find the bird. The birds seemed to be arranged randomly throughout the field guide. Eventually, in frustration, they began a page-by-page picture search trying to match what they saw with the bewildering array of birds in the field guide.

Most field guides are arranged in taxonomic order, with birds presumed to be closely related next to each other. The trouble is, birds may be closely related and not look like each other. Other birds, not closely related, can have the same basic appearance. The sequence of birds on a checklist or in a taxonomically-oriented field guide is necessarily linear, but bird relationships are web-like. And scientists are constantly rearranging the sequence!

But, if the purpose of a field guide is to truly help people identify a bird they have seen, shouldn't birds that look alike appear together in the book, regardless of constantly-shifting presumed relationships?

For instance, the Great Blue Heron (below) is known by birders and non-birders throughout North America.

Of course, many non-birders call the Great Blue Heron a "crane" or "blue crane." But herons are not cranes. They are not closely related, and are not found near each other in most field guides.

But they do share long neck and long legs in common. They are both similar in bill shape, size, and coloration. They may even be found in the same locations at the same time. Why shouldn't the Sandhill Crane (below) be placed in the field guide next to the heron?

The crane is, however, very closely related to the American Coot (below), at least, internally. But they don't look that much alike on the outside. The coot looks more like a duck than a heron. But in the field guides the coot is next to the crane, not to ducks or other waterbirds.

In fact, the coot looks quite a bit like the Pied-billed Grebe (below). But are the coot and grebe close together in the field guide? You know the answer. They are nowhere near each other!

Part Two will discuss proposed arrangements to address this problem.


  1. Yes. They are working on that here, kind of:

    Like a key, it could be.

    I think that is better than arranging it say by habitat, which has alot of overlap and variability. One young birder I know has an id guide of photos based on colour, not sure who did it. But it only has a few species, and wasn't regional.

    Dianne C.

  2. This same problem is dealt with in field guides to plants. Some are arranged by color, and/or season of bloom. I know more plant taxonomy than bird taxonomy and find the color guides to be useful as a quick check, but they are never as good as the taxonomic guides. Neophytes in any field have to make many errors before learning the basic outlines of how experts organize data. This is what separates the neophytes from the more expert. I don't know if there is any single way to get around just learning the taxonomy. After all, we humans like to organize things and organizing birds or sea shells or plants or license plates or books all follow some kind of logic which it won't kill us to learn.

  3. Yes, for birds or flowering plants, color is what many people notice first. But arranging field guides by color has never worked to help people really learn how to identify birds or plants. As a "next step" toward learning taxonomy, my next post will propose a limited number of field-friendly bird groupings. Then I'll discuss each group individually in monthly posts.

  4. A couple of years back in Birding (Nov. 2009: Vol 41, No 6) There was an article dealing with this issue as well: The Purpose of Field Guides: Taxonomy vs. Utility? by Steve N. G. Howell, et al.

    A link to the archived pdf file can be found here:

    I'll be interested in your take on this puzzle Greg.

    greg haworth

  5. Stay tuned, Greg Haworth. Part two will discuss the Birding article you mention and several other ideas along this line--including field guides published using field friendly sequences. This article is scheduled for February 21...