A Guide to Bird Guides

By Elaine Farragher

There are times when bird watching can be a thoroughly frustrating pastime. Creeping up on some shy and elusive bird that’s retreating ever deeper into some brambly and swampy thicket, finally getting it into focus through your binoculars, hoping it will turn around just a little more so you can get a better look and then it’s gone, only a few feet to the left perhaps, but it may as well be in South America, that’s as much chance you’ll have for another look. At such times I tend to turn my attention to the bush that’s standing in my way. At least it’s rooted to the ground and I can examine it to my heart's content as long as I want.

When you only have mere seconds in which to observe a bird and identify it, and you aren’t already an expert ornithologist, the field guide you use, and your familiarity with it, become of prime importance. How it’s arranged, the clarity of its illustrations and verbal descriptions, are crucial when you are trying to identify a bird from what has really only been a fleeting glimpse of your subject.

A Field Guide to the Birds: East of the Rockies, by Roger Tory Peterson, is the most famous one, and the guide most often seen clutched in the hands of avid birders. Its drawings are meticulously and clearly arranged on the page in such an organized and uncluttered way as to greatly aid in the search for the bird which matches the one in your rapidly fading memory. What sets it apart as one of the most valuable field guides is its use of arrows to point out those field marks which set each bird apart from its fellows. The major drawback of the book from the point of view of the beginning birdwatcher is that the maps giving the range of each bird are grouped together at the back of the book, away from the descriptions of the birds themselves. A great help in deciding what a bird is, is being able to eliminate possibilities. If you can see from a glance that the brown headed nuthatch rarely if ever wanders into Canada, then you don’t have to waste time considering it as a possibility and you can devote yourself to studying other features if you still have the bird in sight.

For this reason, I’ve always preferred the Golden Guide, Birds of North America. Its drawback is that it covers the whole continent so that there are birds included that are not anywhere near your area. But having a map present immediately beside the picture saves a lot of time and effort flipping back and forth. Its illustrations, like that of the Peterson guide, are excellent, although it lacks the useful little arrows. An added feature of the Golden guide are “Sonograms” for each bird: visual reproductions of the bird songs which are produced electronically using a sound spectrograph. However, even though bird songs are a valuable way to identify a bird (especially since seeing it is sometimes out of the question), these spectrographs are not all that easy to interpret, so their value, especially for the beginning birder, I feel is somewhat limited.

When choosing any field guide, it is natural to assume that a photograph has to be more accurate and true-to-life than a drawing. Our third featured guide, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region, uses photos, unlike the other two guides featured here. But surprisingly, an artists rendition of a bird is usually clearer and more useful than a photo since the bird’s field marks can be emphasized, the most valuable position chosen, and colour more consistently rendered, not subject to changes brought about by sunlight and shade. However, the drawings sometimes make the bird appear brighter, and their markings clearer, than they actually are. This book helps to “clarify” a little how a bird really looks. The best thing about the Audubon guide is its verbal descriptions. The other two guides really tell you nothing more about the bird than physical description, its range and its calls. This book has much lengthier sections describing habitat, nests, migrations and feeding habits, as well as other interesting tidbits. For identifying the bird, it is probably less useful than the other two. But for finding out something more about it, it is of greater value.

However, any of these books will help turn a potentially frustrating search into a delightful and satisfying one.

Elaine Farragher, August 1988


A Field Guide to the Birds: East of the Rockies, by Roger Tory Peterson
Golden Guide, Birds of North America
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region

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