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Bird Field Guides

Once you become interested in birds you’ll want to be able to identify the different species that you see.  A good field guide will be one of the two most valuable tools for identifying new species.  The other is a good pair of binoculars.

The late Roger Tory Peterson, a well-known wildlife artist, created the first field guide in 1934.  His guide pioneered the use of indicator marks.  The marks call attention to key identification points, or “field marks”, as an aid in identifying a particular bird.  This early Peterson guide spawned an entire series of Peterson field guides for different subjects, as well as a flock of competitors.

Selecting a bird guide

There are many different bird identification guides in publication. Some are targeted at the beginning bird watcher and some at the most advanced expert. When selecting a field guide you will want to consider several parameters.

The birds found in one part of the country are often very different from those in another. There are over 800 species found in the continental United States.  In order to accommodate the great diversity of species and still keep the book to a reasonable size some authors create two guides.  One guide covers the eastern United States and one the western United States.  Stokes and Peterson each have guides that take this approach.  Other guides provide less information on each species but cover all of the birds normally found in the United States. (Several field guides are often referenced by their primary author, such as Peterson, Sibley or Stokes.)

When purchasing a guide book make sure that it either covers the region you plan to go birding in or covers all of the birds in the United States. The National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America” is a comprehensive guide, and is considered by many to be one of the best all-around selections.

Check to see if there are any guides which are state specific.
Stan Tekiela has produced individual bird guides foremost states. The guides are targeted at the novice birder and features colorful photographic images. The birds are arranged by color. There are several other guides specific to New York.

Photographs or illustrations

Some guides use photographs, while others use illustrations (paintings).  Beginners often prefer photographs, more experienced birders prefer guides that utilize illustrations.

Bird order

Most guides place birds in what is known as phylogenetic order.  Basically this means the most primitive birds are in the front of the book and the most advanced birds are in the back.  Birds in the same family are placed in the same section of the guide.

A few guides group birds by color.  This approach is OK for the novice.  With even a little experience, the user will switch to one of the guides that places the birds in phylogenetic order.

Birding Quick Hits

Blue Jays do Johnny Appleseed one better.  After the retreat of the last ice age, oak trees spread back north faster than might have been expected.  There is speculation that Blue Jays helped the process by caching acorns underground, some of which grew into new trees.