Birding Field Guides, Rated

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Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

We are constantly on the lookout for information useful to birders, for birding. Clara Chaisson made some choices for Wirecutter on which field guides to rate and which was best, and she had us at methodology:

Birding together is a bonding activity in my family in the same way that game night is in other households, so I’ve been casually birding for most of my life. Since studying ornithology in college, I’ve had opportunities to make my enthusiasm for bird observation more than just a hobby; I’ve done seasonal fieldwork that required me to know how to identify all Northeastern birds by sight and sound. Even now that I have a desk job and live in a city, I still get out as often as I can.

field-guide-to-birds-top-2x1-lowres1024-1702I spent a week testing nine of the most-recommended and best-selling bird guides at Mount Auburn Cemetery—the first garden cemetery in the US—and Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both of which are hotspots, or popular public birding locations, on the online birding database eBird.I also interviewed Kenn Kaufman, one of the world’s preeminent bird experts and the author of his own series of field guides (which happens to be one of our culture and development editor’s personal favorites), and Nick Lund, author of The Birdist, to learn more about the pros and cons of different guides…

…I evaluated the birding guides based on qualities that I’ve found useful in my own experiences birding, as well as what the experts told me. First and foremost, a field guide should live up to the “field” categorization. That means it should be small and light enough to carry around without becoming a chore. It should also be reasonably durable, standing up to frequent paging and whatever weather you’re willing to endure on your birding escapades.

Next, a field guide should be complete—it doesn’t serve its purpose very well if it doesn’t contain the species you’re trying to identify within its pages. Some guides cover the entirety of North America north of Mexico, while others are limited to a particular region (in the latter category, I evaluated only those field guides divided between East and West). The visuals in the guide should be clear and reflective of the variation within a species, showing the differences between males and females, juveniles and adults, individuals in different regions, and seasonal changes in plumage. Illustrations have traditionally been the most reliable way to capture these differences, since the artist can draw the bird in whatever position and lighting necessary, but the advent of digitally enhanced photos has put photographic guides firmly in play. That being said, some birders actually prefer less detail, in that the illustration highlights only what’s unique and therefore essential to quick identification. Range maps and habitat preferences, descriptions of distinctive behavior, and field marks—or identifying characteristics—are all key features, too.

Lastly, a guide should be organized to enable a speedy ID. (Birds have a tendency to fly away.) Some guides arrange species by their taxonomic relationships, while others group them based on similarity in appearance.

Beyond those essential elements, I looked for any extra or unique features that made a book easier and faster to use for someone who doesn’t have previous ornithology experience.

Read the whole rating here.

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