Be Your Own Birder

Do You Need to Update Your Field Guide?

A birder’s field guide is more than just a book, an identification tool, or a reference. But with new field guides published every year, is it time to update your guide and get a new one?

Beloved Old Book - Photo by latteda
Beloved Old Book – Photo by latteda

What Is a Field Guide?

On the cover, a field guide is an identification reference that allows birders to properly identify and name the birds they see by comparing field marks, range maps, and notes on behavior. But the adage “never judge a book by its cover” is completely true with field guides, and a single beloved guide is far more than just a book. It becomes a reminder of good times, new sightings, exciting views, time spent in nature, and those mystery birds that still may not be puzzled out. A field guide is a trusted friend, a reliable source of detail, and a logbook of one’s birding experiences. It is an essential piece of birding gear, and an indisputable reference of avian lore.

Until it isn’t.

How Field Guides Change

One would initially think that non-fiction, fact-based books such as field guides don’t ever change. After all, the birds don’t change – or do they? In fact, field guides change in a number of ways, including…

  • Updated range maps as species shift ranges due to habitat changes, climate change, population growth or loss, or general movements.
  • Refined illustrations or enhanced photography that better shows key field marks and subtle differences between similar species.
  • Renamed birds due to greater ornithological study, species splits or combinations, refined nomenclature, or cultural changes.
  • Expanded listings of additional birds, including new introductions, vagrants, rarities, and other regional sightings.
  • Improved printing techniques to enhance practical book use with more authentic color, text legibility, or binding strength.

Any or all of these reasons could lead to a new edition of a field guide or the release of a completely new guide. But is it worth purchasing?

Eastern Towhee or Northern Towhee? Both! - Photo by NPS/N. Lewis
Eastern Towhee or Northern Towhee? Both! – Photo by NPS/N. Lewis

Why You Should Update Your Guide…

Whether or not you choose to update your field guide is a personal decision, but there are times when you might want to consider the purchase as a good investment. Anyone working in a birding-related role, for example, should have access to the latest information, including wildlife officers, bird rehabilitators, birding guides, bird photographers, festival organizers, or bird conservation researchers, as well as scientific ornithologists.

Old Book - Photo by Janet Ramsden

Similarly, birders involved extensively in volunteer efforts, citizen science projects, or competitive birding events would also be well served to have the most updated field guides on hand. Having the most recent information available can help make the work more accurate and authoritative, keeping communication clear and confusion about species and identification to a minimum.

…Or Not!

But not all birders fall into those categories. Many birders enjoy the birds they see, are excited to learn more about each species, and seek out new birds regularly (all part of the Universal Truths of Birding), but don’t necessarily need the latest, newest, shiniest field guide to meet their birding needs. If the lists you keep are for your enjoyment alone, it doesn’t much matter if your naming may be a bit outdated. If you live in one area and don’t intend to move, you don’t necessarily need a guide to tell you how a bird’s range has changed well outside your region. If your guide is comfortable in your hand, familiar to your eyes, and meets your personal birding needs, no new guide is necessary.

Let the Book Tell You

A good way to decide if you really do need a new field guide is to let the book itself decide. If your old field guide falls apart in your hands despite a layer of tape, if the pages are so loose that they may scatter in the wind, or if the page edges are so worn that there are no margins any longer, it just might be time for a new guide. If your field guide has been dropped in one too many puddles (or even deeper), if it’s had a playful day with your dog, or if it has met your morning coffee a few times, a new guide might be called for. You might also want a new guide if you move to a new region and anticipate seeing new birds, if you are traveling to distant birding hotspots, or if you just enjoy the armchair birding of browsing a new and exciting guide.

The Ultimate Solution

Of course, getting a new field guide doesn’t at all mean your old one has to be recycled, dismantled, or destroyed – it can be gracefully retired to your bookshelf or could become a backup in the car, near the kitchen window, or at the office for those unexpected sightings when your go-to guide might not be readily available. Starting a field guide collection can be the best of both worlds, and opens all new pages of bird exploration to you. Personally, I still have my first and oldest field guide, one I happily bought used more than 20 years ago when it was likely already outdated. Will I ever get rid of it? No – it’s the cornerstone of my field guide collection that happily stretches over several bookshelves and encompasses more than 70 volumes of all types birds from all over the world (I might have a slight problem). I happily look forward to new guides, but I don’t consider them replacements, just enhancements to the birding library I love.

Are you in the market for a new field guide?
Check out the Field Guide Directory for honest assessments of guides of all types!

North America Field Guides
Just a Few of My Field Guides – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

2 thoughts on “Do You Need to Update Your Field Guide?

  1. Clair de Beauvoir

    Thank you for the reminder to update ones field guide. It is time to retire the old 2011 sixth edition.

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