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Choosing a Field Guide: Which Bird Book is Right for You

The essentials of birding. Photo Credit: William Haffey
Several different field guides. Photo Credit: William Haffey
A comparison between the first editions of David Sibley's national, left, and regional, right, field guides. Photo Credit: William Haffey
The marked pages of a well-worn Sibley Guide to Birds. Photo Credit: William Haffey

The diversity of species and their natural desire to avoid detection often makes bird identification less than simple. Therefore, birders constantly use field guides to give a name to individuals whose identity is not immediately apparent.

For both the beginning and advanced birder, field guides enhance the enjoyment of the hobby by allowing a more accurate identification of the birds one may encounter.

While a wide variety of field guides are available, some make the identification process with their clarity and abundance of helpful information. Though some photographic guides are reasonably good, those with illustrations are generally better, as they depict all birds in a consistent way, uninfluenced by lighting or individual variation found in photographs. Furthermore, some guides cover the entirety of North America while others simply focus on a specific region in an effort to make the book more convenient in the field.

For beginners and veterans alike, "The Sibley Guide to Birds" remains a popular field guide, both for its superior illustrations and its intuitive organization. The second edition of this national guide, published in 2014, is complemented by the newly revised regional east and west books. Many experienced birders use National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, primarily because of its attention to rare and exotic species and the depiction of regional subspecies.

Those newer to the hobby would enjoy the clarity of Roger Tory Peterson’s classic field guide, famous for its use of arrows indicating the key features of each bird. There are many other regional guides, some of which are quite good, though all the birds depicted in them can be found in the guides mentioned above.

The value of a good field guide cannot be understated, and it remains an important tool for enjoying birds wherever one chooses to watch them.

William Haffey is a seminarian for the Diocese of Bridgeport and has a background in avian ecology. He has birded extensively in the United States and Latin America.

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