Having said that, I do think there is room for improvement in this product, so do please read the fine print:
First, I’m going to bullet point you on the key features, roughly in the reverse order in which I shall address them below:
- The guide includes a data DVD with many bird songs. This is a potentially good feature that may not have been executed in the best way for many (most?) users. Do not buy the book for this feature alone.
- This guide has more species in the area covered (The Rio Grande to the arctic) than most or perhaps any other comparable guide. You will therefore find those important comparative descriptions of rare and not so rare but similar species.
- This is a photograph based guide, and does not use Peterson-style drawings. This aspect of the guide is well executed.
- Range maps appear to be very well done. I have not found reason to quibble significantly with them.
- The back matter is well organized and useful. The guide uses American Birding Association (ABA) coding system in several ways, including on the life list. This is interesting.
- The front matter is informative and useful, but perhaps too ‘literary’ in presentation.
- The guide covers a large area and is fairly comprehensive in species coverage, and therefore is biggish and somewhat crowded even though it is constructed properly to be a field guide. It may not be the guide you carry with you in the bush when you are only carrying one guide, but if you train yourself on it you will use it all the time.
Bird books can be big. I saw one in the book store two day ago that was easily 1.5 by 2.8 feet by 2 inches, weighing about 30 pounds or so. That was a coffee table book (or maybe just a coffee table?). But a field guide needs to be small, as it needs to be carried around.
The smallest guides are pocket guides, and I have yet to see a pocket guide that is of any interest beyond something a very young kid may play with for about a week until she learns every bird in it. The typical Petrides/Peterson field guide, such as the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds, is the size most people are accustom to, and the size for which many spaces/pockets/holders of field guides are made to fit. The more recently invented (but no so new any more) Audubon guides are a slightly different shape from the Peterson guide, but again, small.
The guide under examination here .. the Smithsonian, is at the absolutely maximum size a book can be and still be a “field guide.” Anything bigger than this, and it’s not a field guide, but a bird book. This borders on a down-size for this volume.
However, there are good reasons for this book to be biggish. The Smithsonian guide has more species in it than any North American book that I would call a field guide. There are three reasons for this.
First, The guide covers a larger area than most field guides. Covering everything from the Mexican Border north to the top of the planet (excluding Greenland but including a 200 mile wide pelagic zone), the Smithsonian opts for wider coverage than the more traditional “east of the Rockies” or “western states” approach. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? If this is your primary guide, this is not necessarily a good thing. But as I’ll argue below that this is a book you must have but won’t use as your primary guide, I think it is a very good thing. I like the continental coverage.
Second, the guide includes more species within any given area than most guides, covering even rare birds. There is a detailed description in the volume of what it covers, using the American Birding Association (ABA) coding system. Essentially, the book excludes birds that are “extinct” or “impossible to find in the wild” but does include most of everything else. Third, the rarer species are actually covered, and not simply noted as variants or similar looking species. This takes more room.
But, look at the way the range maps are described in this scan of part of the front matter. The different zones are detailed in a paragraph, not a key. This is too literary, less useful, less quick and easy to use, and probably takes up more space than needed. The front matter as a whole is like this. Nicely written, but too literary. Give me a day with this material and I’ll chop it down by 25%, make it easier to use, and remove nothing in the way of information. Style over function is not good in a field guide. No wonder they had to make the margins so small! I suspect this was a marketing decision.
The second is something that some may argue needs not be in an identification guide, but they would be wrong. This is a detailed description of the habitats. Now, I have to tell you that I have not carefully reviewed (in the context of the broader literature) the habitat descriptions provided here. As far as I can tell they are reasonable and useful. Ecologists working in specific areas of the region may differ, or may be not. I think they are useful in helping birders understand the context in which they are observing these animals, and this can have a very positive impact on success in identification as well.
The back matter includes a life list, an index, and a ‘quick index’ at a higher taxonomic level than species. The life list includes the ABA coding system, which is neat because you can get extra jollies when you check off a bird that is very rare as opposed to some common little brown bird.
Speaking of indexes: The birds are grouped in a fairly typical manner in this guide (I have no comments one way or another on this). The start of each section has a colored bleed, so as you learn your way around the book, you’ll find it easier to locate specific sections.
Now we come to the meat of the book: The guide itself.
The number one question at hand is this: Drawings vs. photographs? Most people who claim to have an interest in bird watching will tell you that they have a preference for one or the other, and many of those will tell you they like the photographs better. Those people are wrong, of course. However, for three reasons (two good ones, one bad one) most newly produced bird books are photograph based, not drawing based. Here are the reasons:
- There already is a guide for your area, quite possibly a Peterson Guide, that has the drawings. This guide can not be and should not be replaced with an entirely new guide (good reason);
- Given that there is already a drawing based guide, having photographs is useful in the second/third/fourth book one may have at hand. In fact, once you’ve got a good drawing based guide, the more photographs the better (good reason); and
- Marketing (bad reason).
There are reasons that drawings are fundamental to birding and one’s primary guide must be drawing based. However, I shall refrain from making extensive remarks about this topic at this time (I hope to later), because it is not really relevant to evaluating this guide. I have already made the assertion that this is one of the best second-guides that you should have for the region.
So, what about the photographs in this volume? They are actually quite nice, and exceed in quality other comprehensive guides that I have seen. Local guides that are well done are hard to beat because of the importance of local variation. The recently reviewed Young Birder’s Guide, which is not comprehensive, may have better photographs of many of the included birds. But the photographs in the Smithsonian guide are quite nice. They are diverse, showing many views, numerous variants, and a range of lighting. There are photographs showing behavior. The grebe example I reproduce (at low resolution … the original is much nicer!) here is not typical … not every bird comes with a behavior shot … but this example demonstrates the care taken in the Smithsonian guide to have enough pictures to leave little ambiguity as to what one is looking at.
Since species coverage is virtually comprehensive, there are often several closely related species visible when the book is open to a given page. This allows the photographs and the range maps to be quickly compared for close calls, as demonstrated with these chickadees:
Throughout the guide, I found examples of excellent hints for identification and in particular telling similar birds apart. For example, the photos, range maps, and information provided for the tundra swan vs. the trumpeter swan are excellent, and the subtle (but often visible at a distance) distinction in the face of the bird (when looking head on) is nicely described and shown clearly in the photographs. Where photographs are misleading (as in the neck ring for some of the brant/Canada goose group) … showing only one variant … I can only assume that high quality photos were not available, and the shortcoming of the photographs is noted (at least in some cases) in the text. Only a few of the photographs are simply not very good. considering the number of photographs in the guide, I’m impressed with the standard of quality.
Now, on to the last item. The Smithsonian guide contains a DVD/CD with 587 bird songs on it. The bird songs are associated with photos served up as “album art” so you can, in theory, see a picture of a bird and hear its song at the same time on your media player (on the computer screen or on an MP3 player). But there is good news and there is bad news.
First the good news. As far as I can tell, the audios are good quality and good examples. Also, for each bird there are multiple songs. The pictures are a nice feature. There is no human voice along with the song explaining details. I have bird song recordings that have the expert commentary along with the bird’s vocalization. Expert commentary is not necessarily a bad thing, but for a major collection like this, I don’t want it. I just want the songs so I can play around with them as is (using them in a class, testing willing or unwilling friends and family, messing with the birds little heads, etc.).
The down side: The format of the DVD/CD will play only on a subset of DVD/CD players. Many people will have to seek outside help to get at these recordings. I should also note that there are not recordings of 587 birds. There are 587 recordings distributed among a much smaller number of bird species. (As noted above … so this is both a good thing and a down side). Finally, as far as I can tell, an MP3 player or software will see each species (the different vocalizations of which which occur in folders organized by species) as a separate ‘album.’ This means that if you put these songs in your electronic music collection, you will have a mess. The ibis will be found between Ike and Tina Turner’s Greatest Hits and Indigo Girls Live.
These down sides are not the inevitable outcome of providing a large collection of bird songs with a book like this. They are poor editorial (or marketing?) decisions. The songs should have been supplied on a more widely accessible medium, even if that meant having more than one CD . They should all be on the same “album” with different vocalizations being different ‘songs’ with named as “species – variant,” such as “goldfinch, mating” and “goldfinch, angry” and “goldfinch, lost in the woods” etc. That would make it much easier to keep them organized.
But, that’s OK, the guide and the bird songs are great, and the price on this baby is pretty reasonable. I strongly recommend the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd.