Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Ed.

Today, 7 October 2014, National Geographic is publishing the second edition of its book, Complete Birds of North America. This 744-page guide lists for $40.00. The book is edited by Jonathan Alderfer, and written by “America’s top birding authorities.” The guide is touted at a “companion” to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

This guide is in search of a slightly different niche than other bird books on the market. It is not a field guide. For one thing, it has slightly larger dimensions than the Sibley Guide to Birds, and is about 140 pages longer, and relatively heavy, making it impractical to take into the field. You would use it to identify birds after a field foray. This new book has much more text than a typical field guide, and that is its strength. Birders’ attention is verbally directed to salient field marks.

Twenty-one artists contributed the uniformly excellent color illustrations for this book. Frustratingly, the illustrations often do not allow multiple, side by side species comparisons. Many of the illustrations are the same as in the 6th edition of the National Geographic Birds of North America. The back cover, however, boasts that 600 art “pieces” are new. About a 44 species are new to this edition; there are about 200 more pages.

Range maps are large, clear and updated. Unlike Sibley’s field guide, accounts that deal with subspecies have maps showing the races’ ranges. Racial range maps were included at the end of previous Geographic field guides, but having the maps on the same page as the account is more convenient. Furthermore, the illustrated subspecies are clearly labeled, unlike in Sibley, which does not include a race’s scientific name.

Unique in the new Complete Birds of North America are box-essays on difficult identifications. These essays include photographs. Photographs of single species also accompany family introductions throughout the book. These family accounts also mention pertinent taxonomic issues. The text includes sections on identification, similar species, geographic variation, voice, status and distribution, and population trends.

Curiously lacking is any in-depth discussion of other aspects of avian biology and ecology. For example, heat conservation by small birds does not seem to be mentioned. Hybridization is not discussed between Black-capped and Mountain chickadees in areas where both species overlap but are scarce. On the other hand, hybridization between Black-capped and Carolina chickadees is mentioned and the reader is wisely warned “where the two species occur together, it is probably best to leave many of them unidentified.”

The Complete Birds of North America's target audience is probably the intermediate to advanced birder. I think any birder should give it a close examination, either at a bookstore or by clicking on the link at the beginning of this review. Finally, no birder would turn down a gift of this book.

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