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Bird Field Guides

bird guides

Once you become interested in birds, you’ll want to be able to start identifying the different species that you see. A good bird guide will be one of the two most valuable tools for identifying new species. The other is a good pair of binoculars.

The late Roger Tory Peterson, a well-known wildlife artist, created the first bird guide in 1934. His guide pioneered the use of indicator marks on his illustrations to call attention to key identification points, or “field marks”, as an aid in identifying a particular bird. This early Peterson guide spawned an entire series of Peterson field guides for different subjects, as well as a flock of competing bird guides.


Selecting a bird 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.

The birds found in one part of the country are often very different from those in another. There are over 800 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 each 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. (Several field guides are often referenced by their primary author, such as Peterson, Sibley or Stokes.)

When purchasing a guide book, make sure that it either covers the region you are in or covers all of 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 national guides. The National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America” is one such guide, and is considered by many to be one of the best all-around selections.

Also check to see if there are any guides which are state specific. Stan Tekiela has produced individual bird guides foremost states. The guides are targeted at the novice birder and features colorful photographic images. The birds are arranged by color.

Photographs or illustrations
Some guides use photographs, while others use illustrations (paintings). Beginners often prefer photographs, more experienced birders prefer guides that utilize illustrations.

Bird order
Most guides place birds in what is known as phylogenetic order. Basically this means the most primitive birds are in the front of the book, and the most advanced birds are in the back. Birds in the same family are placed in the same section of the guide.

A few guides group birds by color. This approach is OK for the novice. With even a little experience, the user will switch to one of the guides that places the birds in phylogenetic order.


Bird Guides for beginners

In addition to the Tekiela guides, these are some of the better guides for novice birders or children. They focus on a limited number of more common species.

In our opinion, however, these guides have often selected birds based on their 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 only as a supplement to one of the more complete field guides.

Stokes – Beginner’s Guide to Birds (Eastern and Western United Sates versions.)
A nice series for the beginning bird watcher, containing 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.

National Audubon Society – First Field Guide – Birds
Contains 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, it is more suggestive of a beginner’s “coffee table” book than a field guide.

Bird Watcher’s Digest – “Enjoying Birds More”
Covers 80 or so of the more common species. A very good book for the price.


Bird Guides for more experienced birders

Here is a brief comparison of several of the more popular, comprehensive guides.

Peterson Eastern Series
(Houghton Mifflin Company)
Paintings Eastern U.S. and Canada Beginning to Intermediate
Experience Level
The ORIGINAL Guide and still one of the most popular.
Peterson Western Series
(Houghton Mifflin Company)
Paintings Western U.S. and Canada Beginning to Intermediate
Experience Level
Part of the popular Peterson series.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America Paintings Entire United States and most of Canada All Experience Levels A favorite guide for many birders.
Field Guide to Birds by Don and Lillian Stokes
Eastern Region
(Little, Brown and Company)
Photographs Eastern U.S. and Canada Beginning to Intermediate Experience Level Many beginning birders prefer guides with actual photographs of the birds they see. The Stokes series also includes more natural history information than most field guides.
Field Guide to Birds by Don and Lillian Stokes
Western Region
(Little, Brown and Company)
Photographs Western U.S. and Canada Beginning to Intermediate Experience Level Many beginning birders prefer guides with actual photographs of the birds they see. The Stokes series also includes more natural history information than most field guides.
Kaufman Focus Guide – Birds of North America
(Houghton Mifflin Company)
Digitally Enhanced Photographs Entire United States and most of Canada Beginning
Bird Watcher
This guide is the first one to use digitally enhanced photographs to ensure key identification marks are shown. It was specifically designed for the beginning bird watcher.
The Sibley Guide to Birds
(National Audubon Society)
Paintings Entire United States and most of Canada Advanced Bird Watcher This guide was designed for the advanced birder and is currently the most advanced general guide on North American birds. An outstanding work.
Birds of North America – Golden Guides
(St. Martin’s Press)
Paintings Entire United States Beginning to Intermediate Experience Level At one time this guide was one of the best and most popular in the U.S. Its original authors were leaders in the field of ornithology. While it still has its fans, it is perhaps more dated than other guides.
The Audubon Society “Field Guide to North American Birds” Photographs Eastern and Western versions Beginning to Intermediate Experience Level All the pictures are in one area and the bird descriptions in another. Colorful but not the best choice for identification purposes.


Bird Books

There are many other books about birds.  Some bird books focus on different behaviors, such as bird migration.  Songbird Journey’s by Miyoko Chu is an excellent, easy-to-read example.

There are also many bird books about bird feeding and gardening for birds.  Here are a couple of good choices.

Garden Secrets for Attracting Birds: A Bird-by-Bird Guide to Favored Plants (Gardening)

The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible: The A-to-Z Guide To Feeders, Seed Mixes, Projects And Treats


About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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