There are several characteristics that make up a field guide. It should be “pocket size” (and birders have huge pockets, so this may not be as much of a restriction as it sounds). It should cover the geographical region in which you are watching the birds, although in some remote areas of the world you may not have this luxury. During my years working in Zaire, we had only a Southern African bird guide, and made due. And the book should be of the right kind and level for your needs.
By level, I mean beginner or advanced. Sadly, most bird book publishers assume that there is a gene for birding, and a person has it or does not have it, and it is always expressed when a person is a child. Therefore, most beginner bird books are also children’s or adolescent bird books, as though no adult ever started to watch birds.
By “kind” I mean mainly photographically based vs. drawing. Photographs have the advantage that the bird in question is depicted as it exists in real life, ore at least, as one example of how a particular bird looked in a particular real life setting with certain lighting on a certain day. Drawings have the advantage that they are specifically designed to demonstrate key features of the bird useful in identification. They are not merely drawings of birds, but systematic diagrams of the birds telling you what to look for.
In truth, both methods of depicting birds in field guides are good, and if you are even a little serious about birding, you’ll want one of each under (or attached to) your belt. But, if you are going to get one book to learn with, or to be the main one you carry around, to be the one you can easily look stuff up in because you know the book so well, and to be the one from which your mental images form, make it the drawing type of book, not the photograph type of book.
That will seem counter intuitive to many people, but it makes sense. If you want to know what birders look for, what works in identification of birds, what you should be looking for in real life, I promise you that a well done set of drawings will get you there much more quickly than a couple of photograhs. And, simply put, if used correctly, a guide like Peterson’s standard bird guides, with the drawings, will give you more successful ID’s than the books based on photography.
Having said that, over the last few years, books that use photographs have improved significantly. The first photo based bird book I used was the first Audubon Society book on Eastern Birds, and it sucked. Some of the photographs ere even not that good. Now, there seems to be a kind of bird book that uses photographs, but altered and adjusted to make them look a bit more like drawings. That seems to work fairly well. Which, of course, proves my point.
The ultimate bird book for North America has always been two books: both Peterson’s field guides, one for the east, one for the west. Now, the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series) combines the two, but in a format that is not field ready (it’s a bit large) but it is quite nice for the home bookshelf.
The Smithsonian guide uses the modified photograph approach, and it works quite well. I’ve reviewed it here.
There are other guides … search around for National Geographic’s guides and Sibley’s guides. I am especailly impressed with the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America.
For kid starting out … pretty much of any age, but certainly up through high school or a bit younger, you might look at The Young Birder’s guide. And, if you are going on a trip to Africa and wonder what guides to consider (for both birds and mammals), click here for some suggestions.