Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Several new field guides to the birds have been published in the last few months and The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America (NYC: Collins; 2008) by Ted Floyd is one of them. The most obvious distinction that sets this large book apart are the photographs of birds: most field guides rely on paintings instead of photographs. Despite the fact that I prefer paintings to photographs in my field guides, there is plenty in this new field guide to interest birders, regardless of their visual preferences, to guide them through the sometimes confusing array of birds that are out there to see and identify.


The Smithsonian field guide has a tough paperback binding and it organizes a collection of visual and behavioral information about each avian species of North America into sections based on taxonomic groups. Additionally, affixed to its back cover, there is a CD of 138 birdsongs that can be uploaded to your iPod or laptop — unique among bird field guides so far.

Like most field guides, this book is intended use by beginning birders as well as experts. So especially for beginners, it begins with an introduction to birds and birding, including sections on the parts of a bird, their plumages and molt cycles, food and feeding habits, migration, habitat preferences, conservation, and even tips on how to improve one’s bird watching skills. At the back of the book is a collection of recommended resources and references, a glossary, index and the American Birding Association’s checklist so one can keep their North American life list with them in the field as they add to it.

The book is divided into 46 sections, each corresponding to one taxonomic group of birds, beginning with short but informative essays describing basic taxonomy, feeding, migration, preferred habitats, characteristic behaviors, and conservation status for the species in that group. Within each section are accounts that focus on individual species. These species accounts feature brief descriptions of habits and ecology, age-related and seasonal differences, regional forms, vocalizations, and they include brief captions that point out the most important aspects of a bird.

The species accounts also note regional population differences, life stages, and distinctive behaviors and has a special section that describes vocalizations. The species accounts are comparable to those found in other field guides. For example, here’s the Smithsonian Field Guide species account for the Canyon Wren, Catherpes mexicanus;

  • one adult molt per year; complex basic strategy
  • weak differences between adult and juvenile
  • geographic variation in paleness of back and crown

Iconic species of rugged red-rock canyon country in the West; rarely seen away from steep rock faces. Scurries mouse-like up and down sheer surfaces, often detouring to explore a small cave or cranny; hard to catch a glimpse of, but clarion song is unmistakable.

Song is a decelerating series of 10-15 clear whistles, each note descending in pitch: dyeer! dyeer dyeer dyeer deer deer … Call a shrill beet; song often ends with a few call notes.

[p. 345]

This is the species account for the Canyon Wren in my own standard field guide, the National Geographic (2006);

White throat and breast, chestnut belly. Long bill aids in extracting insects from deep crevices. Loud, silvery song, a decelerating descending series of liquid tee and tew notes. Typical call is a sharp jeet. Range: Common in canyons and cliffs, often near water; may also build its cup nest in stone buildings and chimneys.

[p. 344]

Each essay includes a detailed and reasonably accurate color range map depicting summer (green), winter (blue), year-round (purple), migration pathways (orange), and rare but regular occurrences of every major species (yellow). Even though I enjoy having this amount of detail available in the field, I found the wide array of colors somewhat confusing, especially under low lighting.

In addition to the written species accounts, the book contains more than 2,000 color photographs of birds in their natural habitats. These images were chosen because they show the most important field marks necessary to correctly identify birds in the field, although distinct plumages that characterize different life stages are often pictured as well. I liked the photographs, but still admit that my prefernce is for paintings of the birds in their various plumages (especially those in the Sibley guide), although the photographs in this guide are a good back-up to my usual field guide.

On the back cover of the book is a plastic sleeve containing a DVD of birdsongs for 138 major species (587 vocalizations in all for 5½ hours of play) and each mp3 file comes with an image of the bird that can be viewed on your laptop and on portable mp3 players while riding the subway, for example. Some people have complained that they tore the back cover when trying to extricate this CD for the first time, so be careful! These are good quality recordings: my companion parrots were suitably impressed by the quality of these mp3s, and they are the experts when it comes to bird vocalizations. I was disappointed that only a small representation of all bird species’ vocalizations were to be found on this CD, although I suppose that the number of species’ songs and vocalizations will increase with each successive printing of this field guide.

I do have a few complaints about this book. First and most obvious, it is just too large to comfortably carry in the field for hours. It is too large to fit into a cargo pants pocket (or if you manage to jam it into your cargo pants, your pants will fall off within minutes) and into any of the pockets of the fisherman’s vest that has been adopted as a multi-purpose tote by many birders. Thus, it will need its own carrying strap or will have to be carried in a backpack. It also is quite heavy, weighing 2.2 pounds — a significant weight for those who are going on dayhikes already loaded down with binoculars, scopes, camera and lenses, water and lunch.

Second, the range maps rely on five different colors to denote the various ranges and movements of birds. Even though these maps are very pretty, I think the small size of the maps in addition to the large number of colors can lead to confusion, especially under poor-light situations.

Overall, this is a good book for birders who prefer photographs to paintings in their bird ID books and it is a great reference for all birders. It also is a good field guide for birding groups where each member is encouraged to carry a different book with them for in-situ comparison purposes.

Ted Floyd is the editor of Birding, the magazine published by the American Birding Association. He has published widely on birds and ecological topics, and is an instructor with the American Birding Association’s Institute for Field Ornithology program. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and other birding events, and he has led birding trips and workshops throughout North America. He has lived and birded in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, and Nevada. He currently lives in Colorado with his wife Kei, daughter Hannah, and son Andrew.

Comments

  1. #1 RM
    September 12, 2008

    That looks like a good book, but I am hooked on my Sibley.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    September 12, 2008

    i also like the sibley guide — the illustrations are superb — but it is so big and heavy, too much so to carry in the field. so i stick with my national geographic field guide, which is easy to carry and also has wonderful paintings in it.

  3. #3 RM
    September 12, 2008

    I have a small Sibley-Guide to Eastern North America that is very handy. Of course, I will likely buy the Smithsonian book as well. I like the anatomy references it contains.

  4. #4 JBlilie
    September 18, 2008

    GrrlScientist: Super review; very thorough. Thanks very much.