Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition

The National Geographic Society has refreshed its venerable Field Guide to the Birds of North America with a new revised edition. This sixth edition comes with substantial updates and enters a field guide market crowded with some great field guides and many more good ones. In this review, I will focus on what is new in the sixth edition and how it compares to another guide with painted illustrations that covers the same area, The Sibley Guide to Birds.

What is new in the sixth edition? There are 23 new species, which brings the total species covered up to 990. Over 300 painted illustrations (about one tenth of the total) have been added or revised. Range maps are updated to include new data and display migration ranges in addition to the breeding and wintering ranges. There is also an appendix of maps showing the ranges of subspecies for birds that have multiple forms. (My understanding is that both the migration ranges and subspecies maps are new for the sixth edition, but I do not have a copy of the fifth edition to check on this.) Taxonomy is also updated to reflect changes in the AOU Checklist through summer 2011. In the case of wood warblers, the scientific names are updated, but the ordering of species is not.* (I imagine it was easier to alter the text of the species accounts at the last minute than it would have been to reorder the illustration plates.) The plates were redesigned to make the illustrations less crowded, though to my eye, some plates still look rather crowded (especially among gulls and terns).

Harlequin Ducks from Field Guide to the Birds of North America
In comparison to The Sibley Guide, birds are posed more naturally, in the ways in which you might see them in the wild. Birds in the National Geographic guide look more lifelike, for the most part, and their colors seem more true to nature. Many birds are presented in a 3/4 view that shows the breast or back more clearly than in The Sibley Guide. Its smaller size makes it more portable than Sibley's guide for North America (though it is slightly larger than Sibley's regional guides). Despite its smaller size, the National Geographic guide manages to include more descriptive text per species.

The Sibley Guide retains some advantages of its own. Birds are posed more consistently so that you see each species from the same angles as related species, with which they are most likely to be confused. Sibley painted flight illustrations for every bird in the guide; this can make a difference for some situations. In some cases (like Redhead vs. Canvasback), Sibley does a better job of showing differences in shape. I also much prefer Sibley's illustrations of sparrows to those in the National Geographic guide.

Pink-footed Goose from Field Guide to the Birds of North America
The look and feel of this guide is very similar to Svensson et al.'s Birds of Europe, though it lacks some of the instructive text that makes that guide stand apart. I know some birders who still swore by older versions of the National Geographic guide long after the Sibley guide came out. After spending some time with this guide, I can see why. This is a fine resource to use as a primary field guide, particularly if you want one that covers all of North America. I could also see it being useful on cross-country trips, especially to areas where both eastern and western birds are both routine. Birders will probably want to have both National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds on their bookshelves.

This review is based on a copy provided to me by the publisher. The field guide is supplemented by an online birding site.

* That said, the Cerulean Warbler is referred to as Setophaga cerulea in the species account and Dendroica cerulea in the introduction.