Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review: The Young Birder's Guide by Bill Thompson

Recently I received a review copy of a new field guide for older children (8-12 years old). The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, by Bill Thompson III, aims inspire children to take more interest in the natural world. Thompson comes from a family of birdwatchers; his parents founded Bird Watcher's Digest and his wife, Julie Zickefoose, also paints and writes about birds. (I have reviewed one of her books on this blog.) Thompson wrote this field guide for his children and tested the book on his 11-year-old daughter's classmates.

The Young Birder's Guide begins with a useful introduction, which is a simplified version of what one might find in introductions to bird identification for adults. The guide introduces concepts such as narrowing down species by size and shape and includes advice about where to look for birds. It also provides some tips for helping birds, such as reducing use of harmful chemicals and keeping cats indoors.

The heart of the book consists of species accounts. Most species are given their own pages, except for a few that are paired. Each species page includes:

  • photographs of the most common plumages
  • a line drawing by Julie Zickefoose
  • text with basic information on identification and distribution
  • a range map
  • a "WOW!" factoid, which is typically something unusual or distinctive about the species, such as the flight speed of an unladen turkey.
I am partial to painted illustrations for my own use, but the photographs for this guide were selected well and should provide an adequate basis for identification in combination with the text. The black-and-white illustrations by Julie Zickefoose add further identification clues and show each bird engaged in some typical behavior. They are especially helpful when some field marks are not obvious from the photographs.

The species order generally follows taxonomy, but Thompson often departs from evolutionary relationships to group species based on appearance or habitat. Thus horned lark and snow bunting, two birds that often forage together on open fields in winter, appear on facing pages. This feature ought to be helpful for beginning birders; when I started birding I often wished that guides were grouped by habitat to reduce page-flipping.

Only 200 bird species are included in this guide (as opposed to over 400 in the 4th edition Peterson and 650 for the eastern Sibley). Many warblers and sparrows are missing, including some easily-identified common migrants like black-throated blue and chestnut-sided warblers. The guide's coverage of gulls, shorebirds, seabirds, and flycatchers is also limited.

For most young readers this selection will be beneficial, as it will help them identify birds more easily and more accurately. If you live in the far north or deep south, the missing species might be a disadvantage. My recommendation is to check out this book's species coverage in a bookstore before buying if you live outside the continent's middle latitudes – roughly south of the boreal forest and north of Florida. If it has most of the common species for your area, then The Young Birder's Guide is an excellent option. If this guide lacks common species from your area, it might be better to try one of the more comprehensive guides (like Peterson's), or an appropriate regional guide instead.

Bill Thompson III, The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Pp. 256; illustrations, range maps, glossary, and index. $14.95. ISBN: 0547119348.

See also: Young Birder's Guide Companion (Download Version)