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Field guides – we all have them, we all use them, we all get a bit unreasonably attached to our favorites. We can argue passionately about the pros and cons of illustrations versus photographs, the necessity or distraction of pointers, the demand for multiple views, how essential it may be to see different plumages, whether field maps should be on the same page or in a different section, the benefits of regional guides or how families ought to be grouped. Ultimately, however, our field guides become as much a part of us as our preferred binoculars, well-worn birding attire or the field bag we carry.
I’m not going to try to convince you that any one field guide is better than another, or that you ought to favor one guide, author or style above another – it’s a personal choice for your birding. What I am going to try, however, is to regularly bring you reviews and commentary so you can learn about the vast library of field guides available, and make your own choices for the guides you want to carry or those you want on your shelves, in your car or on a windowsill where you regularly watch birds. Some of these guides I’ve purchased and some have been provided by authors or publishers for review purposes, but I am reviewing all objectively – the good, the bad and the birdy.
To this day, my first field guide remains my go-to reference for bird identification – the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. My first copy, an older edition, was plucked from the shelves of a used book store after I was fascinated by a swallow-tailed kite and thought it would be a good idea to have a reference available. After I got more interested in serious birding, I realized just how fortunate I’d been with that first selection, and how very suitable the Kaufman guide is for my type of birding. Eventually, that older edition was supplanted by a revised, newer edition that continues to see hard wear and frequent use. In fact, I’ve given up trying to even keep this book on my shelves, as I use it on a near-daily basis and it’s easier just to keep it handy on my desk, my kitchen counter or in my field bag, ready to go.
Title: Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
There’s a lot I love about this guide. It’s a relatively compact size and lightweight for comprehensively covering a very broad geographic area (Canada to northern Mexico). It’s a photographic guide, but the photos have been digitally enhanced to ensure field marks are visible but without creating the stylized, unrealistic images common to many illustrated guides. Range maps are on the outer margin of left-hand pages, so they’re not lost in the crease or tucked in the back of the book. Different plumages, genders and ages are portrayed where necessary, giving a solid overview of a bird. A few minor pointers are used on most images, though to be honest, I hardly ever pay attention to them. The text descriptions are brief but thorough, allowing for even more identification clarity. Finally, the binding is strong and the cover durable, and even with the years of brutal use and thousands of miles of travel my guide has seen, there isn’t a single loose page.
Of course, despite my love for the guide, there are some things I wish were better. The index (pages 385-391) does have check boxes for tracking one’s life list or sightings, but I’d be happier if those boxes were located on the actual bird pages rather than in the index. There are also some rarer color morphs missing altogether (which actually led to my second field guide purchase), but that’s really incidental as the variations are so uncommon. There is no index of scientific names, but I’m rather indifferent about that, though it would be more useful for non-North American birders. I’m also indifferent about the pictorial table of contents (pages 2-5) and the “Getting Started in Birding” introduction (pages 7-23), but only because I no longer have need of the information myself – it is wonderful that the information is present for more novice birders, and makes this a very solid, practical guide for anyone just getting started birding, as well as more advanced birders who want a reliable and convenient reference.
This is only one of many field guides I own, but I can say without hesitation it is my most frequently used, most trusted and most friendly guide. Is it yours? Share your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for more field guide reviews to come!