Birding begins with a desire to put a name to something. What bird is that? Eventually, many birders become active in environmental and conservation organizations, volunteering at sanctuaries and refuges.
Birders can practice their avocation in their own backyard, attracting additional birds with feeders, or they may fanatically range far and wide, or go to the ends of the earth to pursue their interests. Urban areas are fair game, too. There is no single best way to be a birder.
It’s a hobby that’s growing fast, and while the average enthusiast is older, there are now more girls and women among them than before. Participation in citizen science projects—Christmas bird counts, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and the North American Breeding Bird Survey—has grown exponentially as well. Birding “trails” run the length of many states, and this country sees more than 100 birding festivals annually. NPR nature programs inspire many, as have several recent major motion pictures and documentaries.
Golden age of bird publishing
All this activity is reflected in the market; now is the golden age of bird book publishing. There are hundreds of bird-finding guides, often covering a state or province. Hundreds more describe foreign areas, and dozens of books chronicle state and provincial species.
There are biographies of ornithologists, books of/about bird illustration, titles on bird conservation, tales of birding adventures, and a deluge of books on specific groups of birds, e.g., birds of prey. Topping it off—for those willing to pay sometimes $1,000 or more—are multivolume compendia on birds of Africa, Australia, Russia, Europe, and the 20-volume Handbook of the Birds of the World. Meanwhile, the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (SORA; sora.unm.edu) provides full-text, open access to 15 major ornithological journals (except for the latest five years), starting from their first issues.
Birding literature has a long shelf life. Older books, such as David Allen Sibley’s guides, should not be ignored. Pe rhaps the best book ever written on birding is Roger Tory Peterson’s 1948 Birds over America. Northern European and British bird literature is excellent. Princeton is currently a powerhouse on this subject, with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the National Geographic Society also major players.
Masters of identification
Beginners should start with mastering identification, which means getting a good field guide; this article will concentrate on those resources. Peterson, recipient of 22 honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was godfather of modern field guides. Inspired by his pioneering A Field Guide to the Birds (1934), there are now hundreds of guides available. Note that within these works paintings are standard as they capture much better the gestalt, the impression of a species, and are a sort of stylized composite of it. They highlight what birders call giss—general impression of size and shape. While photographs are subject to infinite vagaries of distance, lighting, differences among cameras, postures, etc., books with multiple photographs, and advanced guides to individual bird groups, are valuable as a supplement to guides with paintings.
Starred titles () are essential for all collections.
Alderfer, Jonathan & Paul Hess. Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic. 2011. 254p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781426207204. pap. $18.95.
This title covers 150 common species and offers excellent range maps. An attractive, inviting basic guide to some of our birds for the novice. Laura Erickson and Alderfer’s Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic, 2013) provides comparable but shorter species accounts, smaller maps, and less introductory material but covers 160 species.
Robbins, Chandler S. & others. Birds of North America. rev. by Jonathan P. Latimer & others. St. Martin’s. (Golden Field Guides). 2001. 359p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781582380902. pap. $15.95.
A de facto third edition, in 1966 this was the first comprehensive guide to rival Peterson’s revolutionary book and the first to have illustrations, text, and maps on facing pages. As handy and compact as they come.
Thompson, Bill. Bird Watching for Dummies. IDG. 1997. 384p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780764550409. pap. $24.95.
Loaded with solid information, Thompson’s work includes details on optics, the best birding hot spots, feeders, nest boxes, and plantings. It is complemented by 48 color illustrations and lists of suppliers and of birding tour companies, with all material written in the inviting, often humorous style of this series. Suitable for advanced birders, too.
Dunn, Jon L. & Jonathan Alderfer. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 6th ed. National Geographic. 2011. 574p. illus. maps. index. ISBN 9781426208287. $27.95.
The most frequently revised guide available since the 1983 first edition. Notable for including all species recorded on the continent, the book offers more of an emphasis on races/subspecies than most other guides. For many birders at all levels, this conveniently sized text is their favorite.
Peterson, Roger Tory. Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Houghton Harcourt. 2008. 527p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780618966141. $26.
Finally, 76 years after the landmark first Peterson guide, there is one to the entire continent. Smaller, handier, Western North America and East and Central North America editions are also available.
Sibley, David Allen. The National Audubon Society Sibley Guide to Birds. Knopf. 2000. 544p. ISBN 9780679451228. $39.95.
This excellent guide, preferred by birding cognoscenti, has made a huge impact and deservedly so. Schematic paintings of birds in all of their plumages are enhanced with a unique circular pattern of informative paragraphs and a range map. A thoroughly revised second edition is due out in 2014. Like the Peterson guides, there are regional Sibleys: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (both 2003).
Dunne, Pete. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Harcourt. 2006. 710p. index. ISBN 9780618236480. $29.95.
Of necessity, most field guides skimp on text. Dunne avoids that fate. His unique title is all text and lots of it.
Howell, Steve N.G. & others. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton Univ. 2013. 400p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780691117966. $35.
Birders thrill to see rarities. This superb book covers 262 rare species, featuring Ian Lewington’s unsurpassed artistry in 275 color plates. Species accounts discuss patterns of vagrancy, identification, seasons, regions, and migration.
Kaufman, Kenn. Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Understanding What You See and Hear. Houghton Harcourt. 2011. 448p. illus. index. ISBN 9780547248325. pap. $21.
Expert text and hundreds of drawings and color photographs show how to identify and appreciate 24 challenging bird groups, preceded by 140 pages of conceptual discourse on methods and techniques of identification. The attractive presentation features many breaks in the text. Excellent.
Stokes, Donald & Lillian Stokes. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Little, Brown. 2010. 791p. illus. maps. bibliog.index. ISBN 9780316010504. $24.99 w/CD.
At 3.4 pounds, this book is too hefty for birders’ pockets. It is the most complete photographic guide on the market, however, with 3,400 color shots of all phases of 854 species’ appearance. The title also offers more text than most guides and a CD with calls/songs of 150 species. As with some other guides, there are discrete East and West versions: The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region and Western Region (both 2013).
Svensson, Lars & others. Birds of Europe. 2d ed. Princeton Univ. 2009. 448p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780691143927. pap. $29.95.
By consensus, this is the best field guide ever, boasting unsurpassed art, detailed captions, and a superb, authoritative text. The book includes the Middle East and North Africa, to where many birders travel; around 150 of the species treated are found in North America, too. Many Americans use Birds of Europe to supplement domestic guides.
Gentile, Olivia. Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. 2009. 344p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781596911697. $26.
Phoebe Snetsinger (1931–99) was obsessed with becoming the person to see and identify the most bird species. Given only months to live, she survived to spend years on her quest and succeeded, seeing 8,000 types, which is more than anyone else.
Kaufman, Kenn. Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder. Houghton Harcourt. 2006. 320p. illus. maps. ISBN 9780618709403. pap. $14.95.
In Kaufman’s picaresque big year as a teen hitchhiker, he traveled 69,000 miles, living on less than $2,000. A coming-of-age memoir with intimations of Kerouac, Tocqueville, and Walt Whitman.
Obmascik, Mark. The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession. Atria: S. & S. 2005. 288p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780743245463. pap. $15.
In this riveting narrative, three competitive birders vie to see the most birds in one year. This enjoyable read was made into a movie starring Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.
BirdWatcher’s Digest. bi-m. $19.99. ISSN 0164-3037. firstname.lastname@example.org.
BirdWatching. bi-m. $26.95. ISSN 0269-1434. www.BirdWatchingDaily.com.
Both publications have wide appeal, with abundant color and eye candy, expert articles, site descriptions, and news items. Even the advertising is interesting.
Lehman, Paul, ed. A Birder’s Guide to Metropolitan Areas of North America. American Birding Assn. 2001. 508p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781878788153. spiral $28.95.
Nothing else has this indispensable book’s scope. It offers excellent maps and expert advice from local authorities on the following cities and far afield into their surroundings: Albuquerque, NM; Atlanta; Boston; Buffalo; Calgary, Alta.; Chicago; Cleveland; Dallas/Fort Worth; Denver; Detroit; Halifax, NS; Houston; Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles; Memphis; Miami, FL; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Montreal; New Orleans; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, OR; St. Louis; Salt Lake City; San Diego; San Francisco; Seattle; Toronto; Vancouver, BC; Washington, DC; and Winnipeg, Man.
Baicich, Paul J. & Colin J.O. Harrison. Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds. 2d ed. Princeton Univ. 2005. 416p. illus. index. ISBN 9780691122953. pap. $29.95.
With 64 color plates featuring 600-plus illustrations and 100 more in black and white, this work is the current authority on identifying basic bird nidification, as nest making is termed. Depicted are eggs and young but not many nests, with text on the nest, eggs, incubation, nestling, and nestling period.
Kress, Stephen W. The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small. 2d ed. Cornell Univ. 2006. 466p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780801488641. pap. $24.95.
This beefy, authoritative guide has extensive information on feeders, nest boxes, small wetlands creation, landscaping, gardens, and squirrels or predators. For the many whose only birding will be in their yards, and for others, an excellent sourcebook.
Rhodes, Richard. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. Vintage. 2006. 514p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780375713934. $21.
There are myriad Audubon biographies (three major titles in 2004 alone), but this is the best and most recent. (LJ 9/15/04)
Rosenthal, Elizabeth J. Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. Lyons. 2008. 437p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781599212944. $34.95.
In addition to Rosenthal’s own entertaining, well-researched text, the fruits of her interviews with 112 key figures comprise a major component of this definitive biography of birding’s Grand Master.
Crossley, Richard & others. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton Univ. 2013. 286p. illus. maps. index. ISBN 9780691157405. pap. $29.95.
This revolutionary guide to hawks, eagles, falcons, and their allies features 101 arresting, full-page color plates that are each composites of multiple individual photos against natural backgrounds of raptors in varying distances and attitudes. An expert, substantial text.
Dunn, Jon & Kimball Garrett. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. Houghton Harcourt. (Peterson Field Guides). 1997. 656p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780395783214. $21.
Dunn and Garrett’s work is still the best guide to our 60 species of these bird gems. It includes 32 plates, 141 photographs, and 60 large, detailed maps, all in color. [See the starred review of Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, p. 142.]
Howell, Steve N.G. Petrels, Albatrosses, & Storm Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide. Princeton Univ. 2012. 482p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780691142111. $45.
With 975 quality color photographs and 66 maps plus lengthy text accounts, this is another Howell tour de force. An indispensable guide to these pelagic species that visit our coasts.
Laman, Tim & Edwin Scholes. Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds. National Geographic. 2012. 228p. illus. ISBN 9781426209581. $50.
Knockout color photographs of birds with the world’s most extravagant plumage and courtship rituals, most of them found in New Guinea.
Mikkola, Heimo. Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide. Firefly. 2012. 512p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781770851368. $49.95.
Who doesn’t like owls? Offering not only photographs, this fine book has excellent, detailed text and range maps, plus 750 high-quality color photographs of the world’s 249 species of owl.
O’Brien, Michael & others. The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Harcourt. 2006. 477p. illus. bibliog. index. maps. ISBN 9780618432943. $24.95.
Three of Cape May’s top birders (including Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson), from New Jersey’s illustrious colony of naturalists, produced this stunning book on the many families of shorebirds, e.g., plovers, oystercatchers, and sandpipers. The expert text is complemented by 870 excellent color photographs.
Weidensaul, Scott. Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Houghton Harcourt. 2007. 368p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780151012473. $25.
A compelling story from Colonial times to the present by one of today’s best natural history writers, describing not just birders but also scientists and conservationists. (LJ 8/07)
American Birding Association; www.aba.org
A treasure trove of books, including guides to birding in particular states and regions, plus a title describing 33 metropolitan areas.
Bird Banding Laboratory; pwrc.usgs.gov
Results of millions of bird bandings.
Buteo Books; buteobooks.com
A source for thousands of birding books.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology; birds.cornell.edu
America’s largest bird research facility.
A vast new resource where one can input daily lists.
Daily results from hundreds of hawkwatch sites.
National Audubon Society; audubon.org
Click on “birds.”
North American Breeding Bird Survey; pwrc.usgs.gov
Thousands of breeding bird surveys.
VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology); vireo.ansp.org
The world’s largest collection of bird photographs.
A compilation of bird sounds.