The battle of the bird field guides is picking up again. The sixth edition of the National Geographic Society (hereafter, NGS) Field Guide to the Birds of North America has recently been published. This new edition is much improved. It will offer some serious competition to other field guides.
When I began birding, the two available field guides were the ones authored by Roger Peterson and by Chan Robbins. Peterson’s revolutionary arrow system for showing field marks and his fine illustrations were strengths. However, a separate volume was required for eastern and western birds. Robbins’ guide covered all the birds in North America in a single guide. The illustrations were not as good as Peterson’s but it was convenient to have all the birds in one guide.
In 1983, a potent competitor came onto the scene with the publication of the first edition of the NGS Guide. This guide combined the strengths of the Peterson and Robbins’ guides. All of the birds of North America, including the rarities, were covered. Many illustrations were provided for most species, particularly for species like gulls that have a number of different plumages. The NGS guide displaced the Peterson and Robbins guides in my field pack.
As a cooperative effort, the first NGS guide suffered from uneven quality of the prints. Some of the bird paintings were excellent and others were mediocre. But the quantity of information in the NGS guide greatly exceeded the other guides. The NGS guide has been regularly revised with new illustrations added and taxonomic changes incorporated.
In 2000, David Sibley published the Sibley Guide to Birds, displacing the NSG Guide for me and hundreds of other birders. Sibley’s superb artistry and his skill in field identification make his guide an amazing resource. Like the NGS guide, the Sibley Guide covers the rarities as well as the regularly occurring North American birds.
The large size of this guide makes it difficult to carry in the field. To remedy this disadvantage, the publishers offer a pocketsize version for either eastern or western North America. This size reduction results in smaller sizes of the illustrations and some loss textual material. The necessity of having two guides to cover all the North American birds is a drawback.
The Crossley Field Guide published earlier this year is a welcome addition to the field guide universe. This guide is based solely on photographs, arranged as a montage for each species. The text is terse but informative. Like the Sibley Guide, the large format of the Crossley Guide makes it awkward to carry into the field.
The most recent NGS Guide, with Jon Dun and Jonathan Alderfer as the head consultants, is an exciting and attractive upgrade from previous editions. Three hundred new pieces of art are included. I find no substandard illustrations in this edition.
Navigation is easy. Both the front and back covers are folded. Unfolding the front cover provides a visual index of all the birds except for the passerines (perching birds) with the appropriate page to visit. The unfolded back cover has a similar visual index for the passerines. A Quick Find Index of about 160 common names like crane, crow or swift is useful. Finally, there are seven recessed, labeled thumbholes that allow you to instantly get to the sections for Hawks, Sandpipers, Gulls, Flycatchers, Warblers, Sparrows and Finches. Very useful!
The species coverage is exhaustive. This edition provides an illustration and some text on 92 accidental species that have been recorded in North America three times or fewer. Altogether, 990 species are covered.
One more innovation is the inclusion of maps of subspecies for 37 bird species. This information will be of interest to bird listers because some of these subspecies will likely be elevated to full species.
In the final analysis, I am impressed with the sixth edition. I now keep a copy in my field pack.
[Originally published on December 25, 2011]