American Birding Podcast



Dunn and Alderfer: Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Few are the bird books that go through six editions in their authors' lifetimes, and fewer still those every edition of which takes another considerable step up in accuracy, completeness, and usefulness. Precious few indeed.

But here's one.


I remember well my first sight of the then-new National Geographic Field Guide, twenty-eight years ago (!), and I couldn't wait to get my own copy. I've leapt on each new edition ever since, and nearly three decades of living with the book has only affirmed my conviction that this is by far the best book of any for learning the birds of the United States and Canada. And this new, sixth edition is by far the best of this splendid guide's incarnations so far.

Buy It Now!There's no need here to rehearse in detail the NatGeo's many advantages over even its most worthy competitors. Some of those advantages–the rich text, the emphasis on variation, the comprehensiveness even at the outermost edges of the area covered–have been present ab ovo, but they have been strengthened, and new strengths added, by the increasingly unified authorial leadership provided by Jon Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer (with Paul Lehman supplying his usual excellent maps).

The editorial history of the book is as fascinating as it has been complicated: starting in the late 1970s as a true team effort forged in sad circumstances, this guide has with each passing edition become more and more the child of one of North America's very finest field ornithologists, and each new edition should be read as approaching ever more closely to Jon Dunn's ideal conception of the field guide.

Mirroring Dunn's interests and expertise, this sixth edition adds considerably to the status and distribution information available in earlier versions of the guide. We are given population numbers for many rare taxa, and the accounts for many casual and accidental species include precise dates and locations, a great boon for the watchful seeker of repeat occurrences; quite detailed historical information is often provided for species whose ranges or abundance have changed notably. Several species still relegated to an appendix in the fifth edition have been moved into the main text, and some rarities once crowded inconspicuously among the "normal" birds of the area have now been given their own plates and more extensive texts. 

Even a few species not yet recorded in North America north of Mexico are treated: the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher account urges careful separation of apparent vagrants from the Streaked Flycatcher, and ambitious East Coast birders are furnished with an illustration and brief identification material for the Common Scoter that is certainly lurking out there in the flocks of the (newly re-split) Black Scoter. 

A trademark of this guide since its first edition, geographic variation is accorded especially full and sophisticated treatment here. Some such information appears on the plates; the seventeen figures of the Horned Lark, for example, are larger than in the immediately preceding edition and more amply annotated (one of the very few layout errors in the book finds the label alpestris for one of the flying birds attached to a perched strigata). For other taxa, such as the Common/Holarctic/Californian/Chihuahan Ravens, significant portions of the text are devoted to introducing the complications of their geographic relationships. And for nearly 100 species that are especially complex, the maps–either those accompanying the species accounts or additional, larger maps in an appendix–indicate the breeding range and often the migration routes and wintering grounds of field-identifiable subspecies and subspecies groups. Study a few of these maps carefully, and I think you'll agree with me that no self-respecting field guide of the future will fail to imitate them. Just think what an e-guide could do with this idea, adding layer upon layer to a species' base map….

Unmatchable in so many ways, the NatGeo guide, even in this newest edition, still reveals weaknesses in its paintings. Thanks to the involvement of Jonathan Alderfer in the last couple of editions, though, the less satisfying illustrations–the troublesome legacy of the book's origins as a committee project–are slowly but surely being replaced with far better images. Something like 300 new figures were painted for this edition, by Alderfer, Killian Mullarney, David Quinn, John Schmitt, and Thomas Schultz; a quick leaf through the art credits finds many of my favorite plates and images attributed to these artists.

More noticeable, and perhaps more important, than the new figures is the new design of very many of the plates, permitting the enlargement of many birds that in previous editions were tucked into corners and margins. At the same time, the redesign has left space for sometimes extensive annotation directly on the plates themselves, an innovation with an obvious and estimable forebear

The sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide is, simply put, the one book every North American birder needs to have on the shelf. Beginners will find it attractive, easy to use, and portable; intermediate and advanced birders will refer to it again and again with profit–and with surprise at how much it can teach even the most experienced among us.