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Once you become interested in birds you'll want to be able to start identifying the different species that you see. A good filed guide will be your most valuable resource for identifying new species.

Roger Tory Peterson, well known wildlife artist, created the first field guide in 1934. His guide was the first to tie an indicator mark to a drawing. The mark and related text provided key identification points or "field marks" as an aid in identifying a particular bird. The early Peterson guide spawned an entire series of Peterson Nature guides (published by Houghton-Mifflin) and a raft of competitors as well.

Selecting a Field Guide

There are many different bird identification guides in publication. Some are targeted at the beginning bird watcher and some at the most advanced expert. When selecting a field guide you will want to consider several parameters.

Location -
The birds found in one part of the country are often very different from those in another. There are 800 plus species found in the continental United States. In order to accommodate the great diversity of species and still keep the book to a reasonable size some authors create two guides. One guide covers the eastern United States and one the Western United States. Stokes and Peterson both have guides that take this approach. Other guides provide less information on each species but cover all of the birds normally found in the United States.

So, when purchasing a guide book make sure that it covers the region you are in or makes an effort to cover all the birds in the United States. If you live in the middle of the country you may need to purchase both an eastern guide and a western guide, or purchase one of the more comprehensive guides. The National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America" is one such guide and is felt by many to currently be the best all around selection.

For those living in some of the more popular bird watching states, such as Texas, Florida, California and Arizona, guides are available targeted at the birds specifically for that state. Some of these are available from the Birdzilla store. Your local wild bird store may also carry several good guides for a particular state or region.

Guide Design -
Many guides follow the Peterson tradition by presenting a series of paintings and drawings of the different birds. Often several plumages are shown as well as both male and female birds if the plumages are different (referred to as sexual dimorphism).

Other guides provide full color pictures of the birds. This approach is sometimes more popular with the beginning bird watcher. The National Audubon Society Field Guides take this approach. Some guides group birds by colors and others by body type and habitat. Most guides place the birds in phylogenetic order (from the most primitive to the most advanced).

With some guides all the photographs are together in the middle of the book, with the related text located elsewhere. Other guides, such as the Stokes Series, have the picture of the bird on the same page as the textual information.

You will probably not know which method you prefer until you have tried different field guides with the different designs.

Most basic field guides are relatively inexpensive, usually costing between $12.00 and $25.00.

Another approach -
A company called Ramphastos has developed bird identification software. It allows the user to select colors, bill shape, size, etc. and will assist the user in identifying a particular species.

Here are a few suggestions and comments (our own opinions):

For Beginners

The beginners guides seek to make things easier for the novice bird watcher by selecting some of the birds that are most likely to be seen thereby greatly reducing the number of birds in the guide. The theory is that by having fewer birds to select from it will be easier for the new bird watcher to find the bird they have seen.

In our opinion, however, these beginners guides have often selected birds with localized ranges and those species with good visual appeal, not necessarily the birds most likely to be seen by those new to the hobby. If you are serious about learning to identify the birds you see we suggest using the beginning guides as a supplement to one of the more complete field guides.

These are some of the better beginner's guides:

Stokes - Beginner's Guide to Birds (Eastern and Western United Sates versions. $8.00)
A nice series for the beginning bird watcher. Excellent pictures and species information. Some birds are shown twice, apparently when the male and female differ substantially in plumage. Many of the selected species do not qualify as those most likely to be seen by the beginning bird watcher.
To order.

National Audubon Society - First Field Guide - Birds ($10.95)
Nice pictures and species information. Shows some of the more visible species and comparisons with similar species. Birds selected cover a wide range of habitats and parts of the country. In some ways, more suggestive of a beginners "coffee table" book than a field guide.
To order.


Bird Watcher's Digest - "Enjoying Birds More" ($4.95)
Covers 80 or so of the more common species. A very good book for the price.
To order.

Comprehensive Guides

These field guides include most or all of the species in the area that they cover. Even beginners can use these guides but need to be prepared to spend more time in trying to locate and identify the different species. The birds are in phylogenetic order (most primitive to most advanced species) which is not an aid to the beginner.

1. National Geographic Society's "Filed Guide to the Birds of North America"
One of the more comprehensive field guides available and the favorite of many birders. Utilizes drawings and paintings.
To order.

 


2. The Donald and Lillian Stokes - "Stokes Field Guide to Birds" ($16.95) (Eastern or Western Birds)
An excellent series, includes information on breeding, nesting, calls, and feeding for each species. Utilizes excellent photography. Beginning birders clearly located in the east or western US may prefer the Stokes series over the National Geographic guide.
To order.


3. The Peterson Series, Eastern, Western and Texas guides.
The grandfather of the guides. Used by many birders, but pictures and text may be less helpful than those found in the Stokes or National Geographic Society guides .

 


4. The Golden Guide by Chan Robbins
Another good guide that was a leader in the field for many years.
To order.

5. The Audubon Society "Filed Guide to North American Birds" -
Eastern and Western versions with color pictures. All the pictures are in one area and the bird descriptions in another. Some users swear by these guides, but they are not as popular overall and provide fewer pictures of immature and winter plumaged birds.
To order.

Most of the guides are available for purchase directly from Birdzilla.



Computer Software

Ramphastos software is a good tool for both the novice and more serious bird watcher who also likes to use a computer. Includes songs, range maps and additional species information.

The software is easy to use and can be very helpful. It can be ordered online from Birdzilla.


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