Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bird Field Guide Recommendations

Beginning birders might find this bird difficult to identify.  During my 30 years of teaching ornithology, I am often asked to recommend bird guides. Here are some quick suggestions.

I believe the best book for beginners is Peterson's Eastern Birds.  Birders in western North America will want the Western volume (Minnesota counts as East).  The bird portraits in the Peterson book are large, accurate, and clear.  The patented Peterson system of arrows pointing to the most important field marks is also a plus.  Finally, Peterson's introduction presents a fine essay on how to identify birds.

Many advanced birders use The Sibley Guide to Birds.  Sibley also paints his birds large, but with much more detail than Peterson.  This detail is great for the more advanced birder, but may tend to confuse a beginner.  The Sibley book contains all the birds of North America, which is good for a traveling birder, but gives the novice more chance to make mistakes. When the Sibley book first came out, it was criticized for being too large to carry in the field.  Since then he has published smaller guides to eastern and western birds, but I feel the bird pictures in those two books are too small for effective identification.

I usually carry Sibley with me at all times, but lately I have been enjoying the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of
North America Folio Edition
.  It is a coffee table-sized book that I keep in my house for when I return from the field.  The book is also effective for teaching to groups. For my old eyes, the large format is quite enjoyable.  In many respects this latest edition of the National Geographic guide is comparable to the Sibley guide, and most advanced birders own both.

Finally, during my later years of teaching, I assigned my students Thayer's Birds of North America DVD. Be careful to order the correct version for your computer, Windows or Mac (the lower link to is a Mac version). I never liked field guides based on photographs because I felt it hard for a birder to focus on the most important field marks.  This DVD, however, contains multiple images of most birds (which can be shown side-by-side), song files, range maps, videos, and even a short ornithology textbook.  Most importantly, you can build bird quizzes with the birds you want to learn.  After using these quizzes, my students commented that identifying birds was pretty easy.  I replied that most things become easy if you study as hard and as often as they did while using their Thayer bird quizzes.

The bird above?  A young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--complete with dried sap on its chin!   Sapsuckers will drink sap from the holes in the trees they drill, and will also dip insects into the sap.  Perhaps they like their arthropods to be sugar-coated.

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