I’m a great admirer of ambition, whatever its object. And this attractive book is nothing if not ambitious: the Stokeses have set out explicitly “to produce the most useful [italics in original] guide to identifying the birds of North America ever published; to cover more species than almost all other guides; to create the most complete photographic record of these species’ plumages and subspecies variations that has ever existed in one guide; to make sure the identification clues were both thorough and up-to-date [sic; no hyphens, please]; to clearly and quantitatively describe each species’ shape as a key element of field identification; and to summarize all subspecies ranges and main distinguishing characteristics.”
Whew. That’s a lot of ambition. I snorted ever so slightly when I read that list of goals, then raised my eyebrows higher and higher in happy surprise as I read the book: not every one of the authors’ ambitions is perfectly realized, but they have indeed succeeded in producing a very fine book, easily among the best photographic guides to North American birds ever, and one that–in the reviewer’s cliche–every birder with more than a casual interest in identification, distribution, and geographic variation will consult with profit.
This new guide is illustrated with some 3,400 photographs, most of them of very high quality and most (would it were more) reasonably large on the page. Many larger birds are shown in flight, but relatively few of the nightjars, woodpeckers, or passerines are accorded the same treatment; it seems to me that flight images of all the birds in a guide have been de rigueur since the publication of the big Sibley ten years ago, and an entire generation of photographers (witness the Crossley guide) has been busy creating startlingly accurate flight images of North American birds. Flight photos of meadowlark tails or goldfinch wings can be worth some dozens of words.
The flight photos that are included here are generally well chosen, but even more careful selection would have made some of them more useful to the birder. It seems to me very important that field guide images obey the principle of the minimal pair, reducing variation to just those differences that are significant to identification. It should not have been difficult to find shots of the upperwing of a Ring-necked Duck, for example, to compare with the beautiful facing-page image of Tufted, while it would have been helpful to replace one of the two photos of the upper surface of flying Lesser Scaup with one of the underwing–as in the facing image of Greater Scaup. Similar miscalculations are frequent, as a quick leafing through will demonstrate.
Twenty years ago, that observation would have introduced a tirade on the general inferiority of photographs to paintings in an identification guide. Nowadays, though, there is such an abundance of good–even great–photographic material available to field guide designers that scrupulous selection and a little computer manipulation can produce comparisons as precise as any set of paintings.
There are also photographs available out there that illustrate nearly every age- and sex-related plumage of nearly every species. This guide does not consistently take advantage of that fact; there are no juvenile Myiarchus flycatchers, only one juvenile wood warbler, and no female Aztec Thrushes (that last on a page with lots of white space). These and other omissions aren’t likely to bother most readers most of the time, but the absence of photos of any but adult Melospiza is not calculated to help beginners avoid finding so-called Lincoln’s Sparrows at strange places and strange times.
One of this guide’s great and welcome innovations (which I understand it will share with the forthcoming 6th edition of the National Geographic Guide) is the attention it pays to geographic variation. Thus, we have, for example, two dozen Red-tailed Hawk photographs, seven Fox Sparrows, 10 Common and six Hoary Redpolls, and so on. The subspecies taxonomy here–including group names–is based on that in Pyle’s Identification Guide. To their credit, the authors venture a subspecific identification only of birds photographed on the breeding grounds; that principle prevents the so-easy misidentification of migrants and wintering birds, but it also points to one of the lingering weaknesses of photographic guides: laudable caution prevents the labeling of the obvious March saltonis Song Sparrow here, while a painter need obey no such scruples so long as she or he has access to a good museum.
Perhaps the most interesting goal the authors have set themselves is to quantify and verbalize the shape “impressions” that most birders use to identify most birds; the authors believe that “every qualitative description of bird shape can be analyzed and more carefully conveyed to others through a careful, more quantitative description.” Giving us words and ways to talk about shape and structure is a great thing, and where the effort is carried out here, it is largely successful; rather than saying simply that the bill of Thick-billed Murre is shorter and deeper than that of Common Murre, the text tells us that the feathering on the former’s culmen is half as long as the gape and the exposed culmen three quarters the length of the lore. Such impressive precision isn’t without risk: there are cases where the photos, carefully measured, appear to put the lie to the descriptions. More disappointing is the book’s failure to be consistently “quantitative.” The bean-geese and the white-cheeked Branta, for example, are accorded the full numerical treatment, but the accounts for Ross’s and Snow Geese simply resort to descriptions such as “moderately long-necked” or “short stubby bill.” I would really like to have seen the “quantification” experiment carried through the entire book.
There are astonishingly few identification errors in the more than 3,000 photos here, eloquent testimony to the authors’ skill and the editor’s care. A first flicker through the pages turns up only two mislabeled Mallards; the drake diazi is clearly of mixed Mexican x Northern heritage, while the hen looks like a perfectly normal Northern Mallard to me. Even if more leisurely use of the guide finds other slips, it remains eminently reliable.
So where do we stand? With 854 species, the Stokeses’ new guide’s coverage compares very favorably to many other guides (but does not approach the comprehensiveness of the latest editions of NatGeo). As a photographic resource for geographic variation, it is without equal, and the project of “quantification” is an interesting way to inspire birders to look more critically and more carefully at their birds. This new guide is not the most useful North American guide ever published, but it is highly recommended as one that every birder can use with pleasure and with profit.