Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bookshelf: Bird ID

You would think not much could change in the world of identifying birds. The birds themselves don't change. But I still have my mother's copy of Peterson's Field Guide (2nd edition), complete with her parent's phone number on the inside front cover and notes from her college ornithology class in the margins. And I will tell you, we've come a long way from the days of those mostly black-and-white plates.

In this post, we'll review three current field guides to birds in our area. As a case study, we'll use a bird that was an occasional visitor to our condo's flower boxes in Dupont Circle: the house finch.

Peterson Field Guides: Birds of Eastern and Central North America (probably about 600 birds, 450 pages): This guide covers the birds you might expect to see in the US and Canada from the east coast all the way west to Texas and North Dakota. The shot to the right is from Matt's copy, which is a 4th edition; the 5th edition fixes one of our pet peeves about the book by adding small maps to each entry to show each bird's range. This makes it much easier to quickly exclude the birds whose range doesn't even come close to the DC area when trying to make an ID. The text is minimal, but provides basic descriptions of distinguishing visual characteristics, song, and habitat. The strength of Peterson's is that it typically shows at least 4 species on a single page; this allows for side-by-side comparison of similar species. In most cases the illustrations are clear. However, for several years, we had trouble applying the distinctions between the illustrations of the house finch (top right corner) and the purple finch (below it) to the birds we saw in front of us, and had an ongoing debate over which bird we were seeing.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (650 birds, 432 pages): Sibley's covers about the same range as Peterson's, but makes several nice additions to the Peterson model. They still manage to fit about four birds to each two page spread, but by making the illustrations smaller, there is room for more information. Each description starts off with where you are likely to find each bird, which goes a long way toward settling our purple finch ("uncommon in woody and brushy areas") vs. house finch ("common and widespread in suburbs") dispute. The written descriptions of visual characteristics are associated with arrows to the relevant part of each illustration; this is much easier to follow than Peterson's method of stringing them together in a paragraph. Another nice bonus is a short section at the beginning of each group of birds (e.g. wading birds, raptors) with general information and comparing the genera or species within the group. Unfortunately, these sections don't really stand out as breaks; it's easy to skip over them as you're flipping through the guide.

Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of the Mid-Atlantic (328 birds, 400 pages): This guide focuses on a smaller geographic range (VA/WV through NY/NJ), and thus has room for a full page per bird. The benefit of this approach is much richer information about each bird, including notes on behavior, breeding, nesting, flight patterns, and what they're attracted to in bird feeders. The downside is that you lose the ability to compare birds side-by-side: you have to turn a page between our purple finch and house finch (we pasted them together here). The book tries to make up for this by including a small inset on each page about similar birds, but it's not as easy to use. This guide uses photographs instead of illustrations, which is helpful in the case of our finches. If the pictures are accurate, it's clear we never saw a purple finch at our flower boxes. In general, the photos are a mixed bag: some more difficult-to-photograph birds are a little blurry or in odd poses. And the photo of the great egret, a pure white bird, looks largely grey from a shadow. Failing to at least Photoshop that shot seems like a major oversight. One other drawback in this guide is that unlike the other two books, there's no label like "hawks" or "ducks" in the upper corners of the pages to help you flip to the right general area as you narrow down your search for a bird.

Bottom line: I think it might be time for us to move beyond Peterson's. Sibley's gained another edge last week when it was the only book of these three that clearly identified a juvenile starling (which is grey, instead of black like the adults). It had a clear picture and also an apt description of it "waddling," which was a clincher for my confidence that I had made the right ID. But I keep going back to the Smithsonian book, as well, for the longer descriptions.

Do you have a favorite field guide? What do you like about it? Click below to leave a comment.