One of the most important tools a birder can have is a good field guide. There are bazillions of guides available to choose from. This post will attempt to help you determine what kind of guide you want, and offer some suggestions within those categories.
The first decision to make when choose a field guide is what region you want your guide to cover. There are numerous guides available for each state and region of the USA, as well as comprehensive guides for all of North America. If you don’t bird much outside your local area, a state or regional guide will probably suffice. The benefit of these guides is that they are typically much smaller than a comprehensive guide, and you won’t have to worry about sorting through birds that are rare for your area. The downside to this is that if you see a rare bird, odds are it won’t be in your guide.
Print or Electronic
Another important decision to make when choosing a field guide is if you want to use a hard-copy book, an electronic guide (online or mobile app), or both. I personally believe that both have great benefits, so I use some of each. It’s nice to have an app on my phone that I can pull up no matter where I am. It is also nice to have bird songs readily accessible in the app, and some apps have great comparison tools. Oftentimes, however, a paper guide can be easier to look at. You don’t have to worry about bad lighting making the screen hard to see, the pictures are bigger than a phone screen, and you can look at several different plumages of a species at once rather than having to scroll back and forth.
Illustrated vs. Photographic
Some guides are filled with beautiful color photographs of each species, while others are composed of drawings and paintings. Illustrated guides tend to do the best job of pointing out specific field marks and subtle differences between similar species. Individual birds may not exactly match the typically species characteristics, so photographic guides can be less reliable. Sometimes a photographic guide can help when it is tough to envision what the illustration looks like in real life. Oftentimes beginners prefer photographic guides. For some reason photos are just easier for the untrained eye to compare. I started out with a photographic guide and have now graduated on to using an illustrated guide as my main resource. There are times that I pull out both of them and compare when I’m having a hard time with an ID.
Especially after you’ve purchased one of each of the types of guides mentioned above, specialized guides can provide great insight to specific families of birds. These guides will help you fine-tune your eyes and ears to differentiate between tougher to identify species of the same bird families. They also provide more information about specific species than can be included in a comprehensive field guide.
The Best Guides
Once you’ve made all the decisions about what type of guide you want, there are still many out there to choose from. Below is a list of my favorites for each category, with Amazon links for samples, reviews, and purchasing information.
Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds Approx $27
This is my everyday bird guide. I use both the print version and the app (see below). The illustrations are highly detailed, and there are lots of comparisons between various species throughout the book. Sibley does a great job of pointing out what subtle differences to look for between similar species. Another thing I love about this book is that at the beginning of each bird family, there is a page that shows all species next to one another.
National Geographic – Approx $19
This guide is smaller and more portable than the Sibley’s guide. In most instances, the information is good enough to get a solid ID. It doesn’t have some of the more detailed information that Sibley’s does, but it is still a great guide. Hubby uses this one as “his” guide.
Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds – Approx $18
*I don’t personally own this guide. Peterson’s Guide was initially published in the early part of the 20th century, and his artwork has been digitally enhanced for the most recent editions. Birds that weren’t included in the original guide have been added in, with artwork by a different artist. As an older guide, this guide has had to undergo many changes throughout the years to keep up with science, but the publishers have attempted to keep Peterson’s original format and style. It is a great guide to have, although it may be missing some of the things available in newer guides.
Golden Guides Birds of North America – Approx $12
*I don’t personally own this guide. This is a good guide for beginners at an affordable price point. It is easy to follow and small in stature for carrying around. It is not as detailed or exact as the other guides listed, but it would be a great starter guide for a beginning birder.
The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds – Approx $25
*I don’t personally own this guide. The Crossley ID guide uses photographs, but it lays out its pages more like an illustrated guide. The birds have the backgrounds removed from their photos and then multiple birds are placed on a habitat photo for where they might occur. It’s a totally different take on a field guide than any others, and it’s very interesting. Some people may prefer this, while others might not enjoy it as much.
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America – Approx $14
*I don’t personally own this guide. This guide uses computer-enhanced photographs to ensure that the photos are representative of species characteristics. This guide groups birds in a slightly different taxonomic order than most guides. Some people find this easier, others more complicated. This guide is smaller than some other guiders and it has a thumb index for quick searching. There are a series of Kaufman guides available covering many varieties of wildlife.
Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America – Approx $18
The Stokes guide offers a wide variety of photographs for every species in nearly every plumage. Some species cover multiple pages to fit all the photos in. Because of this, it’s a very large book. This was the first field guide I’ve purchased, and it has since been relegated more to a coffee-table book. It’s just so big that it isn’t as feasible as a portable guide. That being said, it’s still very interesting and oftentimes helpful when I’m trying to make a tough ID. This guide also includes a CD with 150 species of bird calls. Even if not used in the field, this guide is a joy to look through.
Online/Mobile Field Guides
All About Birds – FREE online photographic field guide
Audubon Online Guide to North American Birds – FREE online illustrated field guide
Birdwatcher’s Digest Bird Guide – FREE online photographic field guide
National Geographic Backyard Bird Identifier – FREE Bird ID Tool
Mobile Apps for Phones & Tablets
iBird Pro – Price varies depending on version, from FREE – $15
Merlin Bird ID – FREE
The Warbler Guide – $24
Hawks In Flight – $18
The Shorebird Guide – $18