American Birding Podcast



The Most Up-to-date Field Guide Available

A review by Charlotte Wasylik

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th ed., by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer

National Geographic Society, 2017

591 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books NGFG7

Released last autumn, after a six-year wait, the new, seventh edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America describes a total of 1,023 species. Thirty-seven of those birds had not been covered in the sixth edition, of 2011; the very first edition, now 35 years old, listed only 800 species. This new edition also offers 330 new illustrations, 50 new species maps, 16 new subspecies maps, banding codes, and an updated text.

The most immediately noticeable change in this edition is a new taxonomic sequence, with pigeons, cuckoos, goatsuckers, swifts, and hummingbirds sandwiched between the grebes and rails–thus much closer to the beginning of the guide; falcons and parrots are placed between the woodpeckers and the passerines. This arrangement, reflecting current thinking about evolutionary relationships, is based on the North American Classification Committee’s 2016 Supplement to the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list. An expert in bird taxonomy, Jon Dunn sits on that committee. As we have seen in the 2017 and 2018 Supplements, taxonomies continue to change, but Nat Geo is still the ABA Area field guide most closely aligned with the official AOS sequence and nomenclature.

The cover of the new edition, like that of its predecessors, is dominated by a prominent portrait of a Bald Eagle. Thumbtabs instantly take the reader to the sections treating sandpipers, gulls, hawks, flycatchers, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows; if that triangulation is not enough, there is also an alphabetical quick finder on the inside cover. The front and back covers fold out to reveal a visual index to 86 groups. These thoughtful elements will be especially welcome to beginning birders—but this guide has much to offer to even the most seasoned birder. 

The introduction is brief and to the point, introducing some birding vocabulary and explaining the guide’s layout, including the species selection, taxonomy order, scientific names, and range maps. The topography diagrams neatly point out the differences in passerine and non-passerine birds and their plumages. 

As has been the case from the beginning, Nat Geo places the text and range maps on the left-hand page and the illustrations on the right. Each family is prefaced with a brief and efficient description. The species accounts give the common and scientific names, size (including the length of all species and the wingspan for some), a four-letter banding code, extensive but not overpowering identification details, and descriptions of voice and range. Especially challenging or variable species are given more extensive treatment. 

Accidental and extinct species are treated well in this edition. Scaled-down accounts are dedicated to four extinct species and to 94 extant species with fewer than three North American records in the past 20 years or fewer than five records in the past 100 years in North America north of Mexico. Each is given a single illustration and a brief account of its distinguishing features and the timing of sightings and specimen records.

The up-to-date maps are one area where this guide really shines. Created by Paul Lehman, they cover all but some non-breeding species and certain introduced birds of extremely local distribution. They are “zoomed in” for species with limited range, and unlike the maps in most other field guides, many here show a species’ range far south into Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Dotted lines trace the extent of irregular occurrence, and spring and fall migration paths are distinguished where necessary. The back of the book maps, in incredible detail, the ranges of subspecies of 55 species that show marked geographic variation.

Like many birders, I’ve found the illustrations to be the greatest weakness of earlier editions of Nat Geo. Many talented artists have contributed plates over the years, but that variety has also resulted in inconsistency. For this new edition, Jon Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer (himself a distinguished artist, of course) and their team have put considerable effort into making the images more consistent; this time around, more figures are based on photographs rather than museum skins in an attempt to make the birds more life-like. 

With the sole exception of the Lucifer, all of the hummingbird figures have been redone, with great attention to the details of tail feathers and wings–of immense value in this age of photographic identification. This seventh edition emphasizes the differences between juvenile and adult plumages, and there are new close-up comparisons of the bills of the Calliope, Rufous, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. Other groups with large numbers of new illustrations include the diurnal raptors, alcids, vireos, swallows, nuthatches, sparrows, and blackbirds. All of the plates are heavily peppered with comprehensive annotations indicating key identification features; those telegraphic notes never make the plates too “busy” or detract from the attractive and informative nature of the illustrations themselves.  

Bursting with illustrations, text, and maps, this new edition is still surprisingly portable for use in the field. Nevertheless, I always recommend leaving field guides at home or in the car to study afterward; or as Dunn and Alderfer put it, “There will be plenty of time to consult your field guide later.” Whether you put the guide in your backpack or leave it on the shelf, you’ll want to keep it handy. 

Change is a constant in the world of birding and ornithology, and National Geographic’s commitment to continual revision and improvement is laudable. The new edition is comprehensive and authoritative, written clearly enough for a beginning birder to understand and yet highly detailed enough for those who are more experienced. Dunn’s expertise in bird taxonomy and Alderfer’s artistic skills are a boon to this latest update of the venerable Nat Geo, a most worthwhile addition to any birder’s library.

Charlotte Wasylik has been a birder since the age of nine, when American Goldfinches at the feeder sparked her interest. Her formative experiences as a birder included Young Ornithologists’ Workshops at Long Point Bird Observatory, Ontario, and Beaverhill Bird Observatory, Alberta. Having recently completed her post-secondary studies, Charlotte is working in international agricultural marketing–but always keeps her binoculars handy.

Recommended citation:

Wasylik, C. 2018. The Most Up-to-date Field Guide Available [a review of National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th ed., by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer]. Birding 50 (4): 71-73.