The Young Birder's Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler

Bill Thompson's The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America is a book that I highly recommend for kids around seven to 14 years of age. (The publishers suggest a narrower age range but I respectfully disagree.)

This is a new offering written by Bill Thompson III and published by the same people who give us the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds and many other fine titles. The book includes excellent illustrations by Julie Zickefoose.

A birder since childhood, Thompson says he would have loved a book like this one when he was just getting interested in birds. Now a father of two, he spent many hours over a two-year period with his now eleven-year-old daughter's class getting their advice on what to include in the book.

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, a bimonthly magazine with 70,000 subscribers and the author of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. He lives with his wife, author and illustrator Julie Zickefoose and their two children on eighty birdy acres in Ohio.

~ A repost for Back to School Special ~

Let me tell you what I think about this book.

As an identification guide, it is pretty good. It uses a one bird per page layout, which means fewer birds per book, but lots of information on them. Although you can get a fair amount of info from a Peterson guide, this book gives more yet remains useful as a field reference. Each bird has a "wow" fact associated with it, highlighting something that we presume a kid around this age would find interesting. A random example:

Herring Gulls sometimes carry large shellfish such as mussels, clams, and oysters in the air and drop them onto a hard surface in order to break them open and eat them.

The info page for each bird has a very good distribution map, and the photos (there are often two, one per sex) are supplemented with black and white line drawings.

it is slightly disturbing that the loon is not listed as the first bird, but I can get over that.

Perhaps the most useful part of this book is the pre-ID guide material, the stuff in the beginning that gives advice for how to watch birds. All Petrides/Peterson guides have a section in the beginning that is oriented towards the beginner, and this is in some ways just another example of this. But it is better than average, more detailed, repeats some of the important stuff in a couple of different formats, and is oriented towards kids in that pre-tween/tween/early teen age group.

Sit still. Stop fidgeting, you are scaring the birds away. Don't start looking up the bird until after it flies away. The birds have wings and will use them. The book does not have wings. Really, put the book away until after the bird is gone. And stop fidgeting, please.

You get the idea. The book does a good job of telling the young birdwatchers how to ease into the birdwatching culture, tells them about bi-nocks, bird counts, cats, the whole nine yards.

Most importantly, the book encourages the kids to look at the birds, and gives advice on how to see the birds and the key features that help identify them.


Phoebe Thompson demonstrating the birder's stance and birder's gear. Notice that Phoebe is looking at the bird, and not fiddling with the book.
All field guides have advice on gear. This field guide goes one step further, much to the chagrin of Phoebe Thompson, daughter of the author, who was forced to don her best bird watching outfit to pose for the obligatory shot of the bird watcher in full regalia. Reproduced here. Sorry Phoebe, but the picture is just too cute to not spread all over the internet. Don't worry, the friends who abandon you because of this photo were not really your friends.

People often say, "if you have to have only one bird book, then..." I say this is a really really dumb thing to say (though I've said it myself). If you are into birds at all, you are going to have a few books. One of them will be the standard Peterson Guide, and then you'll have a few others. If you have a kid anywhere near the indicated age range, this book should be one of them.

Oh, and I have some excellent news for you. Most bird guides are a bit pricey new. This one is cheap. It is not badly made .. in fact it is pretty well bound and printed on nice paper, etc. But it lists for 14.95, and I think the link above will get you to a cheaper price, closer to 10 bucks. Not bad. Perfect gift for a 10 year old who's birthday is in late spring or early summer. Maybe your niece.

What's bad about the book? Not much, but there are a couple of things missing that I would like to see in the next edition.

First, all field guides need that little 6 inch ruler printed on the cover. No one has ever used this ruler, but it has to be there for the world to not seem all topsy turvy.

Second, it might be nice to have bleeds showing the taxonomic sections from the edge of the book. A lot of field guides don't do that, but they all should. (A bleed is ink that goes to the end so you can see it at the edge of the page.)

Third, and most importantly, I like the one-pagers that are often found in guides. Like the one page comparing all the hawks in flight, scaled to each other. I think people use these less often than they should, but they are very useful.

These are minor shortcomings, or perhaps they are actually brilliant editorial decisions or decisions made to keep the price down (which is good). These issues do not translate into any reservations on my part on buying this book. Just go get the book. You will be happy. Even more important, your 7-14 year old daughter, son, niece, or nephew will be happy.

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Thanks for posting this. Will get 2 copies for my kids - they're ready.

"it is slightly disturbing that the loon is not listed as the first bird..."

Ah, you Minnesotans!

Actually, I know exactly what you mean, Greg. I've been birding long enough that I to am used to older versions of the taxonomy, which for their own inexplicable reasons always considered the loons 'primitive'.

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 21 Sep 2010 #permalink