Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Review: National Geographic Birds 6th Edition

Last October I reviewed a few of the major bird field guides. This month the National Geographic Society has come out with a new, sixth edition of their Field Guide to the Birds of North America. At first glance, this book will appear to be similar to previous editions. A closer look will confirm that this conclusion is in error. This edition includes new illustrations and text, better identification tips, and features that make the book easier to use--amounting to a must-have volume for birders of all abilities.

Three hundred new illustrations appear in this edition. The number of extremely rare birds increases from 71 to 92. Rare birds are of little use to those of us who will never visit the Aleutian Islands and, in fact, may lead beginning birders astray. I would have preferred more illustrations of more common birds. As in previous editions, at least five artists have contributed to the plates in this book. This gives the illustrations more variability than the uniformly excellent artwork in the The Sibley Guide to Birds. For example, I dislike the backgrounds behind many of the sparrow plates, backgrounds that distract from the species and add little or nothing to aid identification. I suspect having both books will give birders multiple impressions of different species, and this diversity will aid in identification.

Field mark text-labels along side most of the illustrations, often with pointers to key field marks, make this volume more effective for species identification than previous editions. The plates in this new work achieve a parity with Sibley's work. Range maps have been updated and improved. Now the maps use six, rather than three colors, imparting more range information. For better or worse, extralimital distributions (shown as green dots in Sibley's book) are not included here. In an appendix, 59 range maps show the distribution of many field-identifiable subspecies. This feature, along with attention to subspecies throughout the book, brings birding to an almost full circle begun by early editions of Peterson's field guides that included subspecies. Subspecies information is essential in these days of flux in our understanding of avian taxonomy. You never know if a subspecies today will become a full species tomorrow.

The Geographic guide now includes 990 species (compared to 810 in Sibley). Despite these additions, this new book has smaller dimensions than Sibley's, making it hefty, but more portable in the field. One reason for the smaller size may be that the Geographic book averages about three illustrations per species compared to eight in Sibley. Exceptions, however, can be found for many species.

An illustrated index to bird families occurs inside the front and back covers (similar to family reviews found in Sibley). A new feature in this guide is inclusion of dictionary-like tab indentations along the book's outer edge aid in finding selected bird families. Unfortunately only seven families are tabbed, leaving the novice user to struggle to find untabbed families such as owls, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The bottom line? This field guide is excellent. It stands alongside its strongest competitor, the The Sibley Guide to Birds. Birders will want both. Owners of older editions of the Geographic guide will be happy with this upgrade.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review. Dave's well-thumbed copy of the NG's third edition is his birding "bible" -- contains his life list as well as personal annotations. In some sections he uses post-its to cover up species that don't occur here, to speed identification. We have other field guides, of course, but I don't know that he'll ever be ready to give up his old NG.