OK, not so new, but still relevant. The following is a repost of a review of this book.

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New Smithsonian Field Guide
Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd is a newcomer to the bird field guide scene. This guide offers a new combination of features that may make it the best choice as the primary guide for a small number of birders, and as an excellent second (or third) guide for most birdwatchers. Given the guide’s qualities and price (it is not expensive) if you are a North American birder (anywhere in the region) this is a must-have for your collection, and if you know a birder who is having a present-able event (birthday, etc.) any time in the next couple of weeks, get this as a gift because they might not even know about it yet and you will gain mucho brownie points.

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.

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Range maps described in the front matter
The front matter is typical for a bird book, giving the usual advice as to how to watch birds, and so on. Before going into detail I want to mention range maps in their own right, and also as an example of an editorial criticism I’d like to make of the front matter. As you can see in the photo, the range maps have a reasonable (and standard) level of detail. As far as I can tell, the range maps are good. For species that are frequently seen well outside their typical range (for example, the spoonbill) there should be a dotted line indicating their presence above some level of accidental sightings .. like two per state per decade or more. Most bird books don’t do that, but they should. Otherwise, I think the range maps are pretty darn good in this book.

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.

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Bird anatomical reference zones are described for several different types of birds.
There two features worth special note in the front matter: One is a better done and more useful than I’ve seen in most guides overview of the external anatomical landmarks on birds. This is not esoterica. This is worth learning, because the best way to identify birds in the field is to note the features you see in relation to the landmarks. So, when you see a bird with a rusty rump, you think “rusty rump” not “rusty color somewhere around the bottom of the bird.” When you are looking among various possible matches in this or some other guide, where the word “rump” is a technical term, you’ll be glad you knew the anatomy.

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:


  1. 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);

  2. 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

  3. 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.

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For some birds, there are many photographs often showing specific behaviors or aspects that provide valuable identification cues.

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:

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More than one species may appear on the same page. Detail comparison in visual cues, description, and range is easy with this guide.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 mark
    April 26, 2009

    I’d like to see a DVD that showed bird flight (particularly raptors) as an aid to identification. “Hawks in Flight” (1988) by Dunne, Sibley & Sutton is a book that attempts to cover this aspect, but a narrated video would be a great improvement.

  2. #2 CalderaGal
    April 26, 2009

    This is a good guide. and yes, a serious birder needs to have several guides. I like Sibley’s the best. Audio files are great but bird calls and songs can vary widely. For example, the Clark’s nutcrackers at our Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project FeederWatch site – one has no voice. It rattles its beak. When it is triangulating on a cache, the two other birds in the trio make different sounds. A few have learned to speak an English word or two. They winter with Stellar’s jays, who can imitate red-tail hawks, snowmobiles, nutcrackers, crossbills, and more. The nutcracker and jay recordings we have made (on video) sound quite different from any we have downloaded. Obviously, bird feeder sites, like ours, that have been active for several years, have an effect on bird sounds and other behavior.

  3. #3 CalderaGal
    April 26, 2009

    Updating your field guide library.
    This should be done every 5 years or so, but don’t pitch the old editions – save them for comparisons. Due to hybridization, climate changes, urbanization, and other factors, species appearance and ranges change. So older guides are not as helpful as newer ones. Also photography gets better and better.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 26, 2009

    Good point: I someday hope to own all of the old Peterson guides. I have most of them already.

  5. #5 Lou FCD
    April 27, 2009

    Yes, but what if the goldfinch is angry AND lost in the woods?

    What if it is angrily mating while lost in the woods? What then? I bet you don’t have no fancy schmancy CD for that, do ya’?

    And what if the goldfinch is angrily mating with a member of the same sex while crapping on the heads of a bunch of Republican Bachman/Palin supporting fundies at an Easter Sunday sunrise blood cult cannibalism service… hmmm.. did I put way too much thought into that, or what?

  6. #6 Lou FCD
    April 27, 2009

    Oh, P.S. Thanks for the review. My birthday is Friday and I’ll ask for that to add to my Peterson’s and Audubon guides.

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