The Best Birder Book

About a year ago I began “birding”. Birding is a common term for bird watching as a hobby; birdwatching and birding are interchangeable words. It’s all about people paying attention to birds in their environment. Birdwatchers can be called birders. Though the term “birder” is usually reserved for someone who is very serious about birdwatching. In practice, I’m more a birdwatcher than a birder.

Watching a hummingbird

Watching a hummingbird

My interest in birding began with the 2011 movie, “The Big Year“. It starred Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as fanatical birders. I liked the movie and the appealing story of a passionate group of people traversing the globe in search of unique birds. Hundreds and hundreds of different species of birds. The movie was a critical and financial failure, but it motivated me to venture into a new arena.

Arriving home from the film, I instantly began paying attention to the birds in my landscape. There were big ones and little ones. Plain ones and colorful ones. I knew the robins and doves and jays, but it wasn’t long before I realized I had no clue what I was doing when it came to unfamiliar birds. Without formal training or reference material, I couldn’t identify most of what I was seeing.

I researched birder books. My friend Deb recommended a few field guides of birds in my area and I followed her advice. A Field Guide is a very handy book filled with pictures and descriptions to help in identifying birds. Most are pocket-sized guides that can be taken into the field, literally.

I chose three books and decided to compare the attributes of each as I learned about birding. They are: “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America”; “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds”; and “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela. I discuss each book below. All of the books are written with the assumption that the reader doesn’t know what kind of bird they’re seeing and the field guide will help identify it.

Three field guides

Three field guides

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America” is physically the largest of the field guides and doesn’t fit into a jacket pocket easily, though it’s fine for a day pack. It includes birds from throughout North America. This means that it has a shorebird section even when its owner resides in the Rocky Mountains. That translates into many wasted pages for an amateur birder like me.

It has a nice section in the front of the book that tells “where, when, and how to find birds.” Designed for a beginning birdwatcher, this part explains just about everything you need to know about looking at birds, choosing binoculars, documenting finds, and bird conservation. It’s a marvelous section for beginners, while experienced birders can skip this part and use just the reference material.

Kaufmann has the most interesting Table of Contents of the field guides. It’s pictorial. The hardest part I found when using all of the field guides was in trying to find the bird I was looking at within the book. When you spot something you want to be able to identify it quickly. Kaufmann groups birds by their primary attributes and shows actual photos of these groups in its table of contents. Groups like “Chicken-like Birds”, “Wading Birds”, and “Typical Songbirds”.

Kaufman's index

Kaufman’s index

When you see a bird you look for a picture of it within these groupings in the front, then turn to the section that offers more information about it. The table of contents color-codes each group and the rest of the book has headers and tabs that match the respective color code.

When you flip to the corresponding section for any given bird, you see many more photos. The book has more than 2,000 images. Each section begins with basic identification factors of the major bird groups in that section. In successive pages you look for the photo that matches the bird you’re seeing and then read about it. Generally, the book has water birds first, then large birds, and then progressively smaller birds.

Similar birds are listed together. On one page you’ll have descriptions, to include the taxonomic name, of Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Cave Swallow, Bank Swallow, and Northern Rough Winged Swallow. There are photos of each for comparison. One of the best attributes of this field guide is that it often displays photos of juveniles and adults, in resting, flying or nesting postures. That can make identification much easier.

Typical Kaufman page

Typical Kaufman page

The text for each bird describes its attributes. Characteristics of size, activity, nesting, and flight are mentioned when appropriate. It highlights distinctive coloring on wings, head, and body to help in identification. For some birds it describes their voices.

For each bird, a small map of the United States depicts its range. The range map shows migration areas and where the bird is in summer and winter. This can be very helpful because identifying birds is harder than it seems. Many look quite similar. If you have a preliminary identification and the range map matches where you are viewing the bird, it helps confirm your guess. However, if you identify a bird and it doesn’t normally reside in your location, that means you should continue looking for a bird that does match.

At the end of the book, all of the hundreds of birds represented are listed in alphabetical order with a little box preceding each. When you see the bird you can check the box. This is a very effective way to keep track of your birding.

The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds” is compact and easily fits into a jacket or your back pocket. National Geographic has many field guides available for different regions of North America. My book is the Colorado edition; field guides are available for Michigan, New York, the Carolinas, Arizona & New Mexico, and other locations.

This field guide has a brief section at the front that describes how to use the book. It explains “field marks” and shows where to look on the bird for physical identification features; places like the head, wings, and tail. It does not include any information for a beginner birder on how to bird watch.

National Geographic uses the table of contents and two indexes at the back of the book to help in bird identification. The contents page is just a list of primary bird families with no pictures; sections like “Swifts”, Shrikes”, and “Swallows”. If you are a beginner and have no idea what kind of bird you’re looking at, this is useless. For an expert this can be a quick way to turn to the appropriate section.

In the first index, birds are grouped by color. You determine the color of the bird you’re looking at, look at the small thumbnail images within headings like “Mostly Black” or “Mostly Brown” or “Prominent Yellow”, and then turn to the page corresponding to your guess. The second index is just an alphabetical listing of the birds in the book with a small square to check off when you see it.

Color-coded index

Color-coded index

Each bird in the book is given two pages with a large photo of the bird on the first page, usually in a resting position. The heading of the second page identifies the bird’s taxonomic name and general size. It begins with “Field Marks” that describes primary physical coloring. There is a color-coded, seasonal range on a small state map. Paragraphs on “Behavior”, “Habitat”, and “Local Sites” follow. The description concludes with “Field Notes” that describe a unique characteristic of the bird, often with another image.

Typical Nat'l Geo page

Typical Nat’l Geo page

Similar birds are usually described on successive pages. So the American Tree Sparrow is described, you flip the page to the Chipping Sparrow, and then turn to the Vesper Sparrow next. This can be helpful in comparing similar birds to decide on your specific subject, but it’s not consistent. The House Sparrow is described 40 pages later in the book, in its own section, right after the Evening Grosbeak, a totally different kind of bird.

The “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela is slightly larger that the National Geographic book, but still pocket-sized. It has a thorough section in the beginning for beginner birdwatchers. Like National Geographic, Tekiela offers field guides for many locations throughout North America.

The first section is “Why Watch Birds in Colorado?”, with very specific details about the state and how birds fit in with terrain, habitats, and weather; I assume he includes similar detail for other regional books. The guide includes sections on observation strategies, bird coloring, nest building, and migration.

The first page of the book is an index that lists birds by prominent color, like National Geographic, with similar headings like “mostly gray”or “prominent green” and directs the page for that color. There are no pictures of birds. The corner of each descriptive page corresponds to that color, so that the “mostly black” birds have a black tab on the page and the “mostly black and white” birds have pages with black and white tabs. This helps in thumbing directly to that section once you become familiar with the guide, something National Geographic lacks.

Color-coded index with no image

Color-coded index with no image

Within each color section, the pages are organized with smaller birds listed first. That can be helpful with identifying some birds because the 6-inch Black Rosy-Finch is at the beginning of the mostly-black section while the 30-inch Turkey Vulture is last. But I find it hard to differentiate between a 5-inch bird and a 6-inch bird, so you have to thumb through every page of the mostly-brown section to find the numerous types of Sparrows.

Like National Geographic, each bird gets two dedicated pages with the first page being a large photo, usually of a resting bird. When the male and female differ greatly, there is often a photo of each. The second page has the scientific name, a small range map, and descriptions of: size, the male, the female, the juvenile, nest, eggs, incubation, fledging, migration, food, and a comparison of similar birds. Helpful information about the bird’s activity, song, features, or history are included in a helpful section at the bottom called “Stan’s Notes”. The book concludes with an alphabetical index with a check box for keeping track of identifications.

Typical bird page

Typical bird page

Of the three books, I found the “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds” to be both the most difficult and the easiest to use. While being the easiest to carry, it required that I have some basic understanding of the bird I was watching to be able to identify it. Many of the descriptions only included a single photograph and the subject birds were rarely in that pose. The text adequately described prominent coloring, but it was often hard to understand for a beginner (i.e, “Underparts whitish with bold dusky bars; bar on tail in males”).

That being said, the primary index was color coded and had a small image of birds so I could thumb to the suggested page with a good feeling I was headed in the right direction. For a birdwatcher who wants to know what that brown bird is, this was the easiest way to find the bird in a guide. I could find the suspect bird quickly, but couldn’t always be sure I was reading about the same bird.

“The Birds of Colorado Field Guide” was similarly easy to use but required looking at multiple pages once you found the appropriate color section. The information in the beginning of the book is very good and the layout of each bird’s description was easy to read.

This book and the National Geographic book were very similar in their descriptions and include specific location information about where specific birds could be found in Colorado. Surprisingly they each include birds not found in the other, and don’t list many birds that probably call Colorado home. For example, Tekiela has a two-page spread on the Olive-Sided Flycatcher while National Geographic has nothing; National Geographic has a brief mention of the Cordilleran Flycatcher in the Field Notes of the Western Wood-Pewee, while Tekiela has nothing. These are the only two Flycatchers mentioned in either book.

“Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” is easy to use and has both Flycatchers described, along with many more. However, the small national range maps are difficult to read, so I can’t quite tell if Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, and Gray Flycatcher reside in my part Colorado, but they are definitely birds in this state, something the other two books overlook.

Overall, I give “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” the best score for a beginning birder’s field guide. The thousands of photos make identification relatively easy and while the birds aren’t categorized by their color, the index of basic size, shape, and family is easy to use after a few tries. While it includes many birds that I will never see, it does offer the opportunity to take it on a vacation and identify birds throughout the country. Most important, while I have to wade through birds that are irrelevant it is very inclusive of birds in my region.

The specific descriptions aren’t as thorough as the other books, but do include good information for identification. The front sections that talk about binoculars and bird physiology are very important for a beginner. Kaufman’s was the best for me to positively identify a bird.

What I found in practical birdwatching was that no single field guide was completely adequate. While Kaufman made final identification surest, it was best to use the books in conjunction with each other for the entire process. National Geographic made initial guesswork easy, then a referral to Kaufman made it definite.

This morning I encountered a woodpecker on our big Ponderosa Pine tree as I fetched the morning paper with Lily. I looked at it closely and took a photo.

Today's woodpecker on the trunk

Today’s woodpecker on the trunk

I began with the National Geographic field guide and, using the quick index, was able to identify it as a Downy Woodpecker within about 30 seconds. Using Stan Tekiela’s guide took a few seconds longer and led me to a page for the Hairy Woodpecker; the key factor is the size of the bird, the first characteristic listed in that book. There is also a page for the Downy Woodpecker so I was able to thumb back and forth comparing the two birds and tentatively ID it as a Hairy Woodpecker. Score a point for Tekiela. Tekiela has photos of both male and female birds for each type. National Geographic only has a photo of the female Downy Woodpecker, but has a small image of a male Hairy Woodpecker in the Field Notes at the bottom of the page.

Turning to Kaufman’s guide involved thumbing through quite a few pages before finding the woodpeckers, definitely more time than the other two, but only by a few seconds. It has side-by-side male and female photos of both birds. The text for Hairy Woodpecker begins: “Like a bigger version of the Downy, usually less common, requiring bigger trees.” It goes on to say, “…can be told from Downy by much longer bill, larger size.” The tree it was on is the biggest in the neighborhood and it had a long bill. Kaufman got straight to the most important factors and confirmed my identification. Home Run by Kaufman.

Because “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds”, Colorado Edition, and “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela are so similar, there are virtually interchangeable. For a beginning birdwatcher who needs to learn about the activity, Tekiela’s guide is clearly the best between these two. It has more photos, better explanations, and allows for better comparisons.

There are many other birder books on the market and many field guides. These were recommended to me and I’m comfortable in recommending them to others. When seeking a good field guide, my experience suggests that an easy, color-coded index is best.

Quick, easy-to-read descriptions are ideal. There were many times that I spotted a bird and pulled out my field guides. Often, by the time I finished reading the description, the bird was gone and I couldn’t confirm identification. Becoming familiar with a favorite guide and learning to use it quickly would help in those situations.

Regardless of the guide, I suggest you get one and begin birding. It’s fun, gets you outside, and keeps you active. Before you know it those little boxes in the back of the book will be checked off in great numbers.

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