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.
Thanks, I've made a note of your recommendations for our trip to the US next year.
I tend to agree about drawings versus photos but I have a different approach to using guides. Picture this, you're out in the field, you see a flash of feathers, you pull out the old tome and start flicking through the index?
Not for me. I prefer to get the biggest and most beautiful field guide I can, the coffee table book I will enjoy browsing through on cold winter evenings. By looking in the book regularly, I learn to recognize a lot of birds on sight. If I see a bird I don't know, I photograph it if possible and either way look through the book when I get home. It works for me and I have lighter pockets.
Have you looked at iBird Explorer Pro? I use it as often as Peterson's, largely because it has good recordings of calls, drawings, and photos (some of which are crappy).
Hmm, I thought I had all of them, but I haven't seen the Kaufman. What about the Kaufman guide impresses you?
They all have their good and bad points, but the National Geographic is the most useful to me in the field, I never leave home without it.
For home use, nothing beats Sibley.
I agree, drawings are best. Actually photos would be better, if you could find perfectly representative birds that would allow you to pose them just so and hold still while you set up studio lights to make sure the proper field marks show up. Yah right.
I have iBird Explorer Pro too, that's actually the best of both worlds. It has both drawings and photos, and if you have an internet connection you can hook up to Flickr to see more photos. And it's always with me, taking up no extra pocket space (other than flash memory in my phone).
The guide I want is a reverse field guide that starts with the things I know, to get rid of the LBB ID problems. Most guides assume you can make a stab at the ID.
Most people can tell a hawk from a duck, but it;s those danged warblers and sparrows.
Bird's Activity if it would help ID
Size (compared to common birds)
Striking markings, if any, like the oriole's hood or blackbird's wing patch.
Less apparent markings (eye stripes, breast stripes, etc.)
Pen: It is very common for less experience birders to go for the book right away, and it's important to reminds oneself that the best field guides do not have wings so they won't fly away! But the birds will.
Also, it is probably a good idea to thumb through the field guide frequently. You don't get to know the guide by only looking up birds you don't know. You get to know the guide by looking through it for a half hour every evening during a stint when you are out every day looking at birds for a few days in a row.
Rob, I've played around a little with the audobon iBird ap, but not the one you mention. I like the idea. I've not gotten into the habit of using it yet, but over time I'm sure I will.
Benton: Yes, the iBird is looking more and more attractive. I like Kaufman because I like the illustrations it uses. They seem to have taken the best of all prior guides with all of the Kaufman guides (insects, birds, etc.)
Tsu: Some guides have visual indexes. I point in the post to African guides: The Sasol guide (to birds of southern africa) has a great visual index which serves some of the purposes you are talking about.
Tsu: That's another advantage of iBird Pro- it has a "search" feature, where you can put in features you know, along with location, season, and habitat, and it will list possible matches.
The Richard Crossley I.D. Guide, due out in early 2011, is likely to set a new standard for bird field guides.
My favorite by far is the National Geographic guide. Excellent quality in the illustrations, concise written information.
I really like iBird for the iPhone. Thanks for the tip to take pictures to compare with the App. I always count on my not too reliable memory!
I agree that Roger Tory Peterson's book is a fine resource. I have a copy my granddaddy got way back when (I'm no spring mud chicken myself) so it might not be in print anymore, but it is "Field Guide to the Birds of Texas." Less geography, less volume, so it's easy to carry around. If you live anywhere in the south-central states that's the one for you.
I usually like the Sibley Guide first- probably for the reason you gave, the hand-drawn pictures are easier to decipher than the photos.
I'm still an amateur though, so I'll check out these other guides. Thanks.
@11 Greg: Yes, that's the one. Although the old hardcover is what I have -- I swear it's around here somewhere. Living in Oregon now I don't refer to it anymore. The roadside silhouettes and the voice descriptions were so helpful to me when I was learning birds.
John: I used to use that very guide when I lived on the Eastern Slope of Colorado, where both eastern and western birds occur. It was much handier than carrying both the eastern and western Petersons, and much (MUCH) better than the Golden guide, which was the only alternative at the time.
Nowadays I don't actually carry a field guide into the, you know, field, as long as I'm birding in my home area. Sibley makes a good car guide, but it's too big to be very handy for carrying around. The regional Sibleys are an alternative, but the compression of the material makes them a little difficult for me to use. I do keep both the National Geographic and Kaufman in my home library for reference purposes.
Greg: it's worthwhile to have several. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and cross-checking is a valuable process. You can sign me up for painted plates as opposed to photographs (though I'm an obsessive photographer) for exactly the reasons Benton mentioned. Comparison is often a critical factor, especially for those subtle distinctions between two otherwise very similar species, but it's virtually impossible to get comparable photographs. Artists can pose their subjects to emphasize the differences, and that problem disappears. BTW, if you ever think of branching out, Kenn has several excellent guides for other groups. I regularly refer to the Focus guides for insects and butterflies.
Made DO. I carefully packed several field guides (trees, etc.) and especially the Sibley's guide to birds of North America, intending to give it a workout as we drove across Canada, then left the whole book bag at home. Sigh.
Don't disparage books for kids. If you want to quickly quintuple your knowledge of any unfamiliar subject, head for the Children's section of your public library.
If you're into the Peterson drawings, a company called Wildtones makes Peterson Field Guides for iPhone and iPod Touch (I have it for my iPod Touch). It's pretty cheap, only about $3 for each--and there are 3 (Birds of Prey, Warblers and Backyard Birds). Backyard birds has about 180 birds, which is all most people need anyway. Plus, it's nice and compact (you don't even need those big pockets). All the info is the same as the actual Peterson Field Guide books, but with the additional feature of being able to hear the bird calls and songs as well. All of them also have a nice quiz feature. Super easy to use, including a search function. I throw my iPod in my pocket every time I go birding now, and especially during migration I the programs every day to help me ID birds.
Asking a birder which field guide he likes best, is like asking,"who
makes the best vanilla icecream", you'll 10 different answers. I agree
drawings are best and I feel the 2008 eastern or wester national
geographic is best (I especially like the cut out scalloped tabs that
quickly get you to the right family). And Kaufman's book of photos
is my next choice.