A beginning birder recently asked my advice on which field guide to invest in.  Certainly, a good reference is absolutely essential for learning the birds.  It is thus one of the first acquisitions of birding gear.  Here is a list of the more popular choices, roughly in my order of preference, together with ten-cent reviews.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds
ISBN-13: 978-0679428527

You’d think that the National Audubon Society would put out the definitive field guide, but alas that is not the case.  The fatal flaw is the use of photographs instead of paintings.  The result is you get one view of one bird at one stage of its life.  Furthermore, in order to get photos, it is often necessary to shoot the birds in positions and postures where they are not usually found in the field.  For instance, the swallow pictures are all taken at the nest or perched on a wire, whereas in the field they are far more often encountered on the wing, where the identification problems are entirely different.  A clever artist can convey a great deal more information by synthesizing impressions from manyexperiences.  Also, the text in the NAS guides is much too skimpy to be useful in any but the most obvious identifications. In short, this is my least favorite guide.  Comes in eastern and western versions and fits in a back pocket.

Stokes Field Guide to Birds by Donald and Lillian Stokes
ISBN-13: 978-0316818094

Very popular due to the visibility of the authors from their PBS series. Written for popular tastes, but not authoritative in any way. Illustrations are photos and leave a lot to be desired.  The emphasis seems to be on getting a pretty picture, rather than covering all the information necessary to make a good identification in all seasons and in all phases of the bird’s life.  The text is way too simplistic, and the text is one of the most important elements for a beginner.  This guide also comes in an eastern and a western edition.  Reasonably easy to carry.

Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification, by Chandler S. Robbins , Bertel Bruun, Herbert S. Zim, Arthur Singer (Illustrator)
ISBN-13: 978-1582380902

Many birders know this as the “Golden Guide,” as it appeared as part of the Golden Books series of the 50s and 60s.  The Golden books were primarily for the children’s market, but the Golden Guide or the “Robbins Guide,” as many called it, was a startling departure.  It was the first field guide to challenge the monopoly of the Peterson guides.  It was very innovative 40 years ago.  It was the first guide to put the illustrations and the text on facing pages, and Arthur Singer’s illustrations were very fresh.  All of its innovations eventually became standard, not only in the US, but all around the world.  Sadly, it has not kept pace and is rarely used by serious birders today.

All the Birds of North America : American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide by Jack L. Griggs
ISBN-13: 978-0062730282

Despite bearing the imprimatur of the American Bird Conservancy, this field guide can really only recommended as an additional source. It is organized according to habitat and food choices, rather than taxonomic order. This often sounds sensible to beginners, but such systems have been tried before and they have always come to grief because birds just don’t separate that easily on those characters. Thus you get closely related birds in distant sections of the book. Most beginners find taxonomic order confusing and difficult to catch on to, but it really is the only way to organize birds. (I am planning an installment of taxonomic order in the near future.) The author attempts to use a system of icons to denote a number of characteristics such as preferred food, nest site and constructin, etc., but it just adds to the confusion.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Virginia Marie Peterson , Roger Tory Peterson (Series Editor)
ISBN-13: 978-0395740460

Originally written by the dean of American bird-watching, the guy that invented the field guide in 1934, the version is posthumously updated by his widow and a number of well-qualified editors.  Long the acknowledged guru, in his later years Peterson fell behind the tremendous advances in the state of the art advances that he had put in motion to begin with.  Peterson died in 1996.  This new edition of Peterson’s eastern guide was published in 2002, but in my view, the revisions were not sufficient to restore the authority of the earlier editions.  Nevertheless, I think they are still worth a mention for two reasons.  First, the illustrations are superb.  In just about every instance, they capture the essence of the living bird like no others. Second, Peterson’s guides come in two flavors, east and west.  By starting with just the Eastern birds, you will spend a lot less time barking up wrong trees.  Moreover, Peterson’s guides are still small enough to carry in a back pocket, and that is not a trivial advantage.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America   
ISBN-13: 978-0618574230

The Kaufman guide is focused on the beginning birder.  It is written by a birder of unrivalled credentials.  The text is very good, maybe the best of the lot.  However, the illustrations are basically photos that have been heavily processed in Photoshop.  It is an interesting idea, but in  my view not very successful.  This technique fails to properly capture the impact of color.  The illustrations have the lok and feel of a colorized black-and-white movie.  Kaufman’s book does not seem to have caught on among serious birders, but it is certainly worth a critical look.  It may have charms for the beginning birder that are not apparent to those of us brought up on other books.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition
ISBN-13: 978-0792253143

Until recently, the Nat Geo guide was the US standard.  It is still an excellent choice for birders of all levels.  It illustrates every species that regularly occurs north of the Mexican border and almost all the well-differentiated subspecies, as well as juvenile and intermediate plumages, color morphs, etc.  However, for the beginning birder such profusion often results in sensory overload.  I can’t tell you the number of beginning birders in the east who have decided that a strange bird in their backyard was a Pyrrhuloxia when it was a female Cardinal all along.  If you haven’t got the picture of the Pyrrhuloxia, a bird of the southwestern deserts, in your book, you are not likely to bite on it.

The other reservation about the Nat Geo guide is that it is written and illustrated by committees.  The contributors are generally well-qualified, but it does lead to a certain unevenness from one section to another.  This is particularly true of the illustrations, although the fifth edition shows some improvement in that regard.  This volume is at the limit of luggability.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
ISBN-13: 978-0679451211

David Sibley is a terrific artist and this is thus largely a visual guide.  It is chock full of illustrations of birds perched, flying, feeding, doing just about everything birds do. The text is somewhat skimpy, though accurate.  The main deficiencies of the text is that there is little habitat information and the vocalizations are rendered poorly.  Furthermore, one must realize that Sibley’s illustration technique is highly stylized, particularly the colors.  He is obviously going for a schematic effect; he wants to conjure up the impression of the bird, rather than rendering a feather-by-feather portrait.

It is interesting to me that in Peterson’s first couple of editions, he did something similar. For instance, he did all the ducks in blocks of black and white on the theory that when one sees ducks at a distance in the winter, the light is not usually very good and that washes out the color. His aim was verisimilitude in the experience, rather than in the bird. As time went on, these illustrations were replaced by full color depictions of the ducks at close range in good light. I suspect that Peterson just could not resist the clamor of his public for more of his superb art. The same fate may eventually overtake Sibley.

The standard Sibley guide contains all the birds that the Nat Geo guide does and is so large that it is hard to use in the field.  Some say that this is a good thing because it teaches the student to make careful observations and THEN consult the field guide.  I tend to agree with this, but few have the patience to do it.  A middle way, perhaps, is afforded by the fact the Sibley’s also comes in an eastern and a western edition.  These are much easier to carry, certainly no more difficult than the Nat Geo guide.

Sibley also has out a beginner’s guide to birding. This is not a field guide, but a collection of field birding lore, something the beginning birder will probably be interested in. He has also published a much bigger book on bird life and behavior, a sort of guide to ornithology for birdwatchers. I think sooner or later, you will want that book or something like it in your library.

So, what is my answer to your question? Hard to say, because at some point it becomes a matter of taste. You may even come around to the approach I (and many others, I suspect) have taken: buy ’em all. Maybe not all at once, but most birders eventually wind up with a lot of field guides. Sooner or later, you will come across a problem that one of them treats better than the others and you will be glad you had the additional resource.

Where to buy

Most local bookstores will carry at least one of these titles. A big box bookstore will probably have three or four. Amazon.com has them all. But if you can stand to wait a day or two, I would recommend buying from the American Birding Association (ABA Sales) or the American Bird Conservancy Nature Mall. Prices are competitive and the profit gets cycled back into the organization’s programs.