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Which butterfly field guides are best?

More than 700 of the world’s 20,000 butterfly species live in North America. We know that they are usually brightly colored and have striking patterns but rarely know more about them than that. 

From a simple field guide for kids to a comprehensive resource on butterflies and caterpillars, field guides are a great way to learn more about how they behave throughout their life cycles. If you are looking for an in-depth and comprehensive guide, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies is an excellent choice. 

What to know before you buy a butterfly field guide

There are several ways to organize a butterfly field guide, so choose the approach you like best.

By color

This is a popular way to match up the butterfly you see with the one in the book so you can learn more about it. Sections are devoted to reds, yellows, blues and so on. Starting with the section on blue butterflies, for example, you narrow down your identification by increasing levels of detail, such as light blue, dark blue and deep purple. 

By shape

Butterflies have two pairs of wings: one set of upper wings and one set of lower wings. Their wings are one of five basic shapes. You select the wing shape that most closely resembles that of the butterfly you are watching and narrow your search from there.

  • Milkweed butterflies have the well-known classic butterfly shape, where the upper wings are much larger than the lower wings. The most well-known butterfly, the Monarch, is a part of the milkweed butterfly family. 
  • Fritillaries have top wings that are only slightly larger on top than their bottom set of wings. Their name comes from a Latin word meaning checkerboard. Some resemble the Monarchs because they are also orange and black, but the patterns are quite apparent when you know what to look for.  
  • Longwings have long, slender top wings and short rounded bottom wings. They eat pollen in addition to nectar and sleep in groups at night, perched on twigs.
  • Swallowtails have extended tail-like appendages and a very slender tip on their bottom wings. They are the largest type and there are about 600 species, with only about 30 of them living in North America. 
  • Whites and Sulfurs are small to medium-sized butterflies with rounded wings. They are mostly seen on sunny days flying close to the ground.

What to look for in a quality butterfly field guide

How big is the book?

Butterfly field guides may be small paperbacks with fewer than 100 pages that fit in a pocket or backpack so you can actually take them into the field with you. Because of their small size, these field guides will be streamlined, with only basic information on common species.

The biggest field guides have lots of information about life cycles, habitats, migratory patterns, foods and behaviors. This kind of comprehensive detail takes up hundreds of pages, usually making the guides too big to take into the field and more useful as detailed reference material back home. 

What is the book made of? 

To be truly useful as a take-along guide, your field manual needs to be small, lightweight and able to stand up to the elements. Paperbacks are small and light but are delicate. Hardbacks are sturdy but are usually used on larger books. Guides covered in vinyl are best for using outdoors. 

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

The least expensive butterfly field guides cost less than $10 and provide only a few basic facts about a limited number of common species. Midrange guides cost $10-$20 and the best cost as much as $40-$50. After that, the cost increases in relation to the collectible nature of the guide.

Butterfly field guide FAQ

When is the best time to view butterflies?

A. Sunny days are better than cloudy ones and you will see more of them in the middle of the day than in the mornings or evenings.

Why can’t I look up the butterfly before it flies away?

A. Butterflies like to hide and will be gone quickly. Next time, take along your smartphone and take photos that you can use to compare with what’s in your guide.

What’s the best butterfly field guide to buy?

Top butterfly field guide

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies

What you need to know: This 928-page guide’s fantastic color plates are visually arranged by shape and color. 

What you’ll love: The thumb tab silhouettes make identifying butterflies in the field quick and easy. Information includes physical measurements, colorings and distinguishing markings, habitat, range, flight period and descriptions of each stage in the life cycle.  

What you should consider: This book is too detailed for the casual fan.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top butterfly field guide for the money

Butterflies: Peterson Field Guide for Young Naturalists

Butterflies: Peterson Field Guide for Young Naturalists

What you need to know: This beginner’s field guide uses a simple method that is easy for kids 7-12 to use.

What you’ll love: The design of this 48-page paperback book is friendly, simple and straightforward. The Peterson Identification System uses color photographs and life-like illustrations to help young naturalists make accurate identifications. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but instead to make the beginner’s experiences more enjoyable. 

What you should consider: This guide is the right size for young kids.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Stokes Butterfly Book: The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification and Behavior

Stokes Butterfly Book: The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification and Behavior

What you need to know: This guide tells you all you need to know to attract butterflies to your yard, identify them and understand their behavior.

What you’ll love: This 96-page guide contains complete information on the behaviors of 63 of the most common North American species and tips on identifying almost any backyard butterfly, caterpillar or pupa. It includes instructions on how to raise butterflies at home and two sample plans for creating your own butterfly garden.

What you should consider: This is less of a general guide and more of a how-to book for those who want to bring the butterflies to their backyards.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

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