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YOUR TURN: What Makes a Good Field Guide?

That, or some variation thereof, is one of the questions I most often hear from beginning birdwatchers. This article in the December 2014 issue of Birder’s Guide to Gear attempts to answer that question by offering the advice of a diverse set of birders from various corners of Canada and the U.S. These are not only experienced birders, but more importantly, they are experienced in the art of mentoring beginners. I was interested to see how divergent their answers would be, so their responses were not shared with one another, and they were not guided toward a particular answer or set of advice. In the end, I think they nevertheless reached a pretty clear consensus. To read the article, just click here to access the e-magazine and flip to page 12. Don’t worry–it’s free!

What do you think makes a good field guide? Do you agree with the authors? It would be particularly interesting to hear from folks with experience mentoring beginners, but everyone’s voice is welcome. Please join in the conversation by offering your questions and opinions in the comment section below!

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Michael Retter
Michael L. P. Retter is the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide. He also wears his ABA cap while working as a Technical Reviewer for Birding magazine. When not at home, Michael is often leading tours in Middle America (Mexico through Panama). He currently lives with his fiancé, Matt, in Fort Worth, Texas. In his fleeting free time there, he pursues interests in horticulture (especially orchids), music, cooking, and numismatics. Michael also runs GBNA, the continent's informal club and email list for LGBT birders.
  • Ted Floyd

    Accurate illustrations and diagnostic photos are nice, but first things first. First, a field guide must be well written. Thus:

  • Morgan Churchill

    Completeness of coverage for one: IF bird x has multiple plumages, or extensive geographic variation within the region of the field guide, I want it covered well.

    Organization is key as well. Not meaning to lob a grenade into the discussion, but I really prefer a taxonomic framework for organization. Even with a changing taxonomy as a result of new discoveries, too me at least, taxonomy is less arbitrary an organization tool than color, shape, or habitat.

    • Adam Roesch

      Though it’s not really a _field_ guide, Crossley’s organization into a few classes “Swimming Birds”, “Wading Birds”, “Raptors [& Owls]”, “Flying-over-Water Birds”, “Game Birds”, “Other Land Birds [Including Corvids]”, and “Songbirds” (with a somewhat-taxonomic ordering within) seems to work well and doesn’t require constant revisions based on evolving taxonomic categorization. I’m still getting used to looking for Falcons before Passerines rather than after the other Raptors.

      I would like to see Crow and Raven silhouettes for comparison to flying Raptors, if ever anyone wants to make a guide to my complete tastes.

  • Brooke McDonald

    Too many guides try to be all things to all people. A guide can be beginner friendly or it can be comprehensive, but being both might be impossible.

    A particularly notorious example of this is the old Audubon photo guide, which has probably led more birders astray than any other guide. The plates are arranged by color and the text is arranged by habitat, so on facing plates (for example) it has male Western Tanager, immature Summer Tanager, Painted Redstart, Elegant Trogon, Red-faced Warbler, and Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. The “Wet Tundra” habitat has Parasitic Jaeger, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-tailed Duck, King Eider, Spectacled Eider, Steller’s Eider, Yellow-billed Loon, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Long-billed Dowitcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Lapland Longspur.

    Kaufman did a pretty good job of balancing beginner friendliness and comprehensiveness in his guide, but I think it would be a stronger guide if it had fewer species. For example, the plates with the rare sandpipers are just going to cause confusion.

    There are things that I really like about the ABC guide, but in an effort to be beginner friendly, they came up with a really wonky organizational system that makes finding anything a hassle.

    On the flip side, I see too many birders suggesting Natty or Big Sibley for beginners, and that’s too much, too fast. I suspect that a lot of people are daunted by gulls because at one point they looked at Sibley, saw that there were 27 gull species in there, and lost their will to live. (Sibley should have all 27 gull species, but let’s not kid ourselves that that’s not scary for beginners.)

    I haven’t seen any of the ABA’s state guides yet, but I’m eager to.

    Not every guide needs to be beginner friendly and not every guide needs to be comprehensive.

  • Gallus Quigley

    All birds shown including rarities. Illustration of multiple plumages and ages. Good range maps and descriptions all next to bird illustrations. I really hate book with plates in center and information elsewhere. Up to date taxonomy. Be nice if tied to app with additional information and calls.

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December 2014 « ABA Publications()

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