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THE TOP 10: Books Every Birder Should Have

Perhaps the only items we birders love as much as our binoculars are bird books. Happily, there is no shortage of titles. What follows is a suggested list of books that any birder would benefit from owning. Some titles and authors will be familiar, but others may have flown beneath the radar. Some are easy reading, while others require a reader’s actively applied attention. Each has its place.

Books image_MG_5612

In composing this list I’ve pretty much neglected the ever-popular question, ”If you had to choose one North American field guide, what would it be?” I’ve thought a lot about the question, yet still have trouble answering it. Each guide has its strengths. I own all of them, using each for different purposes. So, putting aside the field guide question for the time being, the question this list seeks to answer is: “If you were starting a new birding library, which titles would you begin with?” Here are some good choices for ABA Area birders, in no particular order.


10.            The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by D. A. Sibley, C. Elphick, and J. B. Dunning 

                    (2001 Alfred A. Knopf)

 Superbly written and edited, this book makes a lot of complex concepts about birds accessible to the layperson. A fun, informative and easy read.


9.                Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman

                   (1997, Houghton Mifflin)

 For us, this is our “On the Road”. This is our “Dazed and Confused”. Kingbird Highway was “the big year” before there ever was The Big Year. The latter being indeed a fine piece of writing by a fantastic author, but it’s hard to imagine that story ever existing without Kaufman’s vintage coming-of-age journey paving its way. When Kaufman hit the road at age 16, hitchhiking around the country over the 12 months of 1973, there was no Internet, no GPS, no text alerts, and certainly no smart phones. This was in many ways the golden age of birding. The ABA was just blossoming, Peterson’s guide was the only one really available, and people birded using the Jim Lane bird-finding guides, and also word-of-mouth. Kingbird Highway shall remain forever a classic. A review in The Smithsonian (Jan. 1998) by Richard Wolkomir states that, ”This book is only tangentially about birds”, and it’s true, but it is very much about birders and birding, and because of that it’s a book many non-birders enjoy.

Roger Tory Peterson & ABA board member Kenn Kaufman (right) birding together.


8.            Birds Over America by Roger Tory Peterson

                (1948 Dodd, Mead & Co.)

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “knowledge begins with putting a name to something”. That was what Peterson’s field guide in 1934 allowed people to do, for the first time really. Accomplished Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote of Peterson in his Birder’s Handbook (1988) that, ”In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide.” If Peterson’s field guide allowed people to finally put names to feathered things, then Birds Over America was the book that really conveyed his love of birds, and the thrills he experienced while birding.


7.                    Feather Quest by Pete Dunne

                       (1992 Dutton)

 In the same vein as the two previous entries, and this book too is a masterfully written chronicle about a year’s worth of birding. The reader is treated to chapters on Roger Tory Peterson’s take on the future of our most cherished past-time, a recounting of the tale of the “Bird of the Century” (the famous Newburyport Ross’s Gull), and profiles of unforgettable characters, such as Louis Banker. Like Kingbird Highway, and the Peterson entry above, this book is itself a piece of North American birding’s history.

  Puschock ROGU17548

A basic-plumage adult Ross's Gull at Barrow Alaska (photo by John Puschock), referred to in The Feather Quest as the "pink pukka of the north". This individual isn't especially pink, but still shows the elegant features associated with this ghost of the arctic.


6.               Molt in North American Birds by Steve N.G. Howell

                        (2010 Houghton Mifflin)

Howell’s Molt book is a masterpiece. As arguably the most prolific bird book writer today, Howell dives headlong into a subject seldom tread upon, yet instrumental in birdlife. Molt is a subject that makes many birder’s eyes glaze over, and this book is not always easy reading, but it richly rewards the efforts by the reader to disentangle this interesting subject. Consider that molt is a taxing process, if you are a bird, requiring a lot of energy. This means that for most birds, molt will not overlap with breeding or migration, both of which also require heaps of energy. Most of us know when a bird breeds and when it migrates, and if you learn when and how it replaces its feathers you suddenly have a much more complete picture of a bird’s life. Learning the differences of molt strategies between species and subspecies is yet more illuminating, as these often speak to differences in breeding and migration strategies, allowing one to consider how taxa evolve. The family accounts of this information-rich book are replete with examples of how and why molt strategies evolve, allowing for conclusions to be drawn about “big picture” concepts in bird evolution.  


5.                      A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names by James A. Jobling

                         (1990 Oxford University Press)

                          Dictionary of Birds of the United States by Joel E. Holloway

                          (2003 Timber Press)

Here I submit a dual entry as these two books cover a lot of the same ground, but I think it’s worth having both. Jobling’s title covers most of the scientific bird names for the whole world, while the Holloway title covers both English and Scientific names for the birds of the U.S. The Holloway title also has nice line illustrations by George Miksch Sutton. The two together provide good basic information about bird names, and answer a lot of questions that arise on long car rides that involve discussions about birds.


4.                     Birds of North America Online

                        (2012 Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

This reference is a treasure trove of information on all the birds breeding in North America, including Hawaii. A tremendous reference that really flies below the radar of most North American birders, in part because it is meant more for ornithologists. This series is the primary source of information for North American bird species. Parts of the species accounts are easily digestible to the layperson, while others require a handle on some ornithological terminology. (Gill’s book below can help one suss out most unknown terms).


3.                   Collins Bird Guide by L. Svensson, K. Mullarney, and D. Zetterstrom

                      (2009 Harper Collins)

So why would a field guide to the birds of Europe make it on this list? Well, many authorities agree that this is the greatest single regional field guide ever produced. That is reason enough to buy it, but there are others too. This book has sold around 1 million copies (combined sales of both editions (1st ed. 1999)). It covers over 700 species, yet is quite small and portable, and the front half of the book covers a great many species found in North America (waterfowl, loons, grebes, seabirds, herons, shorebirds, etc.). Also, a great many of the most regular vagrants to the ABA Area are treated. The artwork is superb, the text is concise and information-rich, and the layout and design are unsurpassed.


2.                   Ornithology by Frank B. Gill

                      (2006 W.H. Freeman & Co.)

 Now in its 3rd edition, Gill’s classic textbook, provides the perfect foundation for students of birds to build upon their grasp of all things avian.


1.               ABA Checklist: Birds of the Continental United States and Canada, 7th ed.

(2009 American Birding Association)

If you are an ABA birder having one of these checklists on hand provides you a quick and easy summary of a bird’s status in the ABA Area. This list has lots of interesting and useful information on vagrants to North America.


Other suggestions:

Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds has a lot of information that is not easily found elsewhere. Some readers complain that it is not user friendly, but if you are willing to put a little time in this book is a wealth of information.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World series, edited by Josep del Hoyo and published by Lynx Edicions, is a phenomenal resource, richly illustrated, and provides endless hours of happy perusal. It’s only drawback is that it ain’t cheap and it takes up a lot of shelf space. If money were no object I’d have every volume (as opposed to merely three).

The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma, provides birders an excellent introduction and summary to the study of birdsong.

The state breeding bird atlas projects that have cropped up around the country are great resources, where one can easily see the value of amateur ornithologists.

Of course every birders should have an ABA Membership! Having Birding magazine, Winging It and North American Birds arrive on your doorstep is always a treat. They are jam-packed with information, and being an ABA member connects you to thousands of other birders all across North America.


So what did I miss…?


Thanks to Dan Lane and Al Jaramillo for chatting about bird books with me and for offering suggestions. Also thanks to Kenn Kaufman for granting permission to use the photo of him and “RTP”.

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George Armistead

George Armistead

George Armistead is a lifelong birder and since April 2012 is the events coordinator for the ABA. George spent the prior decade organizing and leading birding tours for Field Guides Inc. He has guided trips on all seven continents, and enjoys vast open country habitats and seabirds most of all. Based in Philadelphia, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time birding the coast between Cape May, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC.
  • As a non-recovering bibliophile, I would say a birder should have every bird-related book he or she comes across. For the price of a new scope you can put sixty new bird books on your shelf!

    I love collecting local guides from places I travel to bird. Half the time they aren’t even that useful as ID guides, but there’s often a local take on the natural history and they serve as travel souvenirs. It’s a good feeling to support anyone with the guts to be out there writing natural history these days, too.

    Speaking of which, if you haven’t picked up Julie Zickefoose’s “The Bluebird Effect”, do it.

  • These are some really great books. Two of which I don’t have currently. But plan on asking for them for my birthday at the end of this month. ; ) I should get at least one and Christmas isn’t that far off. I really enjoyed your take on your choices and especially the photo of Kaufman and Peterson!

  • Kirby Adams, your check is in the mail. Here’s a link to a description of The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds.


  • And for #11, Jeffrey V. Wells “Birder’s Conservation Handbook – 100 North American Birds at Risk”. A must have and must read for today’s birder.

  • Great list, George. My response when this came up again on birdchat a couple of weeks ago is here:

  • I’m not sure the bank will cash it with Chet Baker’s signature, but we’ll see.

  • Hmm, I only “own” four of these: three books and a subscription to BNA. I’d have added “Big Sibley” (for ID), the Nat’l Geo guide (for status and distribution), and Pyle I and II (for minutiae).

  • Bob Winckler

    Great list, but two questions:

    Is the Princeton Field Guides “Birds of Europe,” 2nd Ed., pub. 2009, by L. Svensson, K. Mullarney, & D. Zetterstrom, the same book as the “Collins Bird Guide” by the same three authors?

    None of the field guides that I’ve seen provide pronunciation help for the English names of birds. Unlike regular dictionaries that do give pronunciation, the Holloway “Dictionary of Birds of the United States” doesn’t. Other than the ABA’s “The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife” by Leahy, are there any field guides that provide pronunciation help for new birders? For several years after I first started birding, I pronounced “phalarope” “Fah-lair-oh-pee,” before I was corrected.

  • The Collins Guide is indeed the same as the Princeton Guide you refer to. I should have clarified that, so that’s for asking.

    You also make a good point about pronunciation. I hope some of the other readers can provide some titles that would help (Rick? Ted?). I remember the John K. Terres Encyclopedia of North American Birds providing some help with pronunciation of English names, but I haven’t looked at that in a while.

  • whoops, that was supposed to read “thanks for asking.

  • The Jobling “Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names”, at least the one in your photo, is out of print.

    Thankfully, a new edition came out in 2010 published by the British outfit Christopher Helm and is called “The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names”. I picked it up a year ago and I’m happy to say it’s been updated significantly!

  • James Jobling has a new, third edition coming out soon. Meanwhile, it’s available on line at most university libraries and I think here, too:

    The 1966 Golden Guide provided pronunciation aids for scientific names, taken from the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list. The Century Dictionary is an excellent source for the pronunciation of English names, though given the editor responsible for the bird names, it’s a bit on the opinionated side now and then (but almost always right). Terres’s wonderful Audubon Encyclopedia provides syllabifications of scientific names, using a fairly strict system of Latinizing pronunciation, and offers some help with English names, too.

    The rule to remember: hang out in the field with reasonably well-educated native speakers and talk like they do. You can’t go wrong.

  • Can’t really argue with the selection, but I think I would have had to put The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation in there. And I assume that books focused primarily on ID have been excluded (although a field guide did make the list!), otherwise Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion would be very high on my list.

    I have to admit that I don’t own the top two books on this list. I’ve been considering getting the ABA Checklist, but was waiting for an updated version. Speaking of which, anyone know if that will be anytime soon?

  • Ted Floyd

    #11. Your state or province’s “Birds of…” book. That is to say, the book providing detailed information on the status and distribution of all bird species known to have occurred in your state or province.

    #12. Your state or province’s breeding bird atlas.

    Regarding the immense value of such works, please see Geoff Malosh’s comments on p. 65 of the current (July 2012) issue of Birding magazine.

  • Marian Quinn

    “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul (1999) belongs in the Top 10… The first sentence alone of this book was a revelation and education to me that I turn over in my mind often even to this day:

    “At whatever moment you read these words, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies of the Western Hemisphere, migrating.”

    As with the number of planets, American history, and a few other things, bird migration was taught as a false absolute when I was young, as in “birds migrate in fall and return in spring”. Okay maybe not false exactly but certainly a statement of egregious omission of the facts, details, and pure wonderment of what’s really going on year-round above us. This book was a life changer for me. It opened my eyes to what migration really is and made me realize I knew nothing about it and had everything to learn. It gave me a much greater sense as well of the year-round lives of migratory birds, not just the brief slice we see when they are among us in North America, and the terrible threats they face as they make their arduous journeys, both natural and man-made. I recommend it whenever I can.

  • They’re talkin’ ’bout this very idea, here:


    Which reminds me: I should get a bit of sleep now, before heading out for a few hours before dawn for migrating sparrows (and manuscript work).

    Folks we still have 24+ hours of July, a month when “birds are aloft in the skies…migrating.” Go on! Get out there! Go birding!

  • Laura Sebastianelli

    Agreed, Marian! Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul is on my top 10! Was just going to add it to the comments, when I saw your reply beat me to it!

  • Marian Quinn

    Thanks Ted. I posted at your post, I love it! Sleep… what’s that? 🙂

  • Marian Quinn

    Laura, I’m glad you agree. It’s truly a wonderful, must-read book. Between the two of us then that’s four thumbs up! 🙂

  • Phil

    Check out a A Treasury of Birdlore by Joseph Wood. ERIKSSON, Paul S. KRUTCH 1962

    The book consists of many short essays by various early birders writing about bird ecology, authors favorite birds, favorite birding experiences and much more. Don’t be intimidated by an old book; I learned a lot from this book and I know any birder would love this. You can get this cheap off amazon.

  • Brian

    Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.

    I’ve been working on getting away from colors and focusing more on behavior and habitat to identify birds. I love this book. It is a must own for any serious birder.

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