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Which bird field guide is best?

More than 45 million Americans claim bird-watching as a hobby, and millions more pay attention to the birds that are around them wherever they go. You don’t have to join bird-watching clubs or exhibitions to enjoy watching birds. You already know which ones stay in the neighborhood all year and which ones migrate to other climates. All you need are some binoculars and a good field guide to learn more about the birds that live or visit your area.

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date guide to the birds of North America, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a top choice as it’s one of the most respected names in nature and science.

What to know before you buy a bird field guide

Types of field guides

  • Small children need smaller books, so they will benefit from pocket guides that fit small hands and don’t go into too much detail. Kid’s guides will generally have photos of commonly found birds like robins, sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, goldfinches, orioles, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and chickadees. Along with these common birds often seen in backyards, simple guides will include hawks, eagles, and falcons as well as different kinds of waterfowl, from Canadian geese to marsh birds like egrets and storks.
  • Adults and beginners need bird field guides that include lots of birds with less-common names and books that dig deeper into the habits of one specific species. Everyone knows red-headed woodpeckers, but not as many know pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
  • Serious birdwatchers will probably want a very comprehensive guide with lots of details.

Field guide authors

Some bird field guides are edited and published by individuals while others are put together by organizations. Look for guides that are written by people who are well respected in their field and associations that are well regarded. Even better, look for guides that are the work of teams of collaborators so you get different perspectives and well-rounded answers.

Publication date

Newer publications are continuing to update their collections with enhanced imaging and digital remastering. The act of updating to a new edition allows new material to be added from new contributors too.

What to look for in a quality bird field guide

Photographs vs. illustrations

Photographs of real birds out in the wild are beautiful with lots of detail and visual appeal. Illustrations are hand-drawn and hand-painted renderings. Many hand-drawn images and paintings are beautiful works of art. The work of famed painter, naturalist, and ornithologist John James Audubon combined his love of painting and birds into a complete pictorial record of all the bird species of North America one hundred years ago. Audubon went on to found the National Audubon Society. Not practical as a field guide, Audubon’s Birds of America is the grandfather of all modern bird field guides.

Level of detail

Avid bird watchers will benefit from comprehensive catalogs that include identification guides, habitats, ranges, diets, nests, behaviors, migratory patterns, and much more. Super-serious bird watchers may want to buy a series of separate volumes that dig even deeper into local birds and other things that interest them.

How much you can expect to spend on a bird field guide

Simple field guides for kids cost less than $10. Bigger and more comprehensive field guides typically cost between $10-$25.

Bird field guide FAQ

What do I need to do to be a birdwatcher?

A. Learn how to stay still and quiet so you can actively watch and listen. When you become interested enough to go beyond merely observing, buy some binoculars and a good field guide.

What can I do to attract more birds to my yard?

A. The easiest way is to provide the types of food that are preferred by the birds you want to attract. Even better is to provide fixtures like bird feeders, nesting areas, and birdbaths for drinking and bathing. Birds have favorite plants and trees, so landscape with these in mind.

What are the best bird field guides to buy?

Top bird field guide

The Sibley Guide to Birds

The Sibley Guide to Birds

What you need to know: This is David Sibley’s guide is the nation’s most comprehensive guide to American birds.

What you’ll love: In this second edition, all illustrations have been reproduced at least 15% larger for better detail. This bird field guide includes more than 600 new paintings, including illustrations of 115 rare species, as well as more than 700 range maps. The nearly 7,000 paintings have been digitally remastered from the original art for even finer print quality.

What you should consider: Even with what is sometimes a very tiny font, this volume is too heavy to take into the field.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top bird field guide for the money

Field Guide to Birds of North America

Field Guide to Birds of North America

What you need to know: Roger Tory Peterson’s guide is a large field guide that looks great as a coffee table book.

What you’ll love: This centennial edition is the result of a collaborative effort of renowned birding experts and artists to enhance and preserve the Peterson legacy. The text has been rewritten to cover both the US and Canada in a single guide and also includes access to video podcasts by the contributors and more.

What you should consider: While this is a great general guide, it’s not easy to find local birds with small ranges.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

What you need to know: The most up-to-date bird field guide to the birds of North America comes from one of the most respected names in nature and science.

What you’ll love: This guide for beginners and advanced birders contains photos, drawings, facts, and figures on more than 1,000 species of birds. The size of this volume is small and light enough to take into the field on birding excursions, and it has handy thumb tabs and a clever fold-out visual index.

What you should consider: The binding is not up to National Geographic standards.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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