Monday, June 16, 2008

Review: Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

For many years, if you wished to use a photographic guide for birding, your only choices were the National Audubon Society field guides for Eastern and Western North America. These guides were deficient in many respects, not least of which was the organization of plates by color rather than taxonomy. In the last decade the situation has changed, with the publication of more useful photographic field guides by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Kenn Kaufman, and the National Wildlife Federation.* The latest entrant into the photographic mix is Ted Floyd's Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

The Smithsonian Guide includes over 750 species of birds that occur regularly in North America. Species are in roughly taxonomic sequence, following the AOU checklist, with a one-page introduction to each bird order or family. There are generally two species per page, with a few species getting full page treatment. A brief introduction includes standard information about plumage and molt, as well as an overview of habitat types and common behaviors.

Floyd wants birders to follow a "holistic" approach to bird identification. In other words, one should not only look for field marks, but also consider habitat, behavior, vocalizations, and other aspects of a bird's natural history. To that end, each species account is packed with information about habitats, behaviors, and plumage variations, as well as how a bird's habits influence morphology. The text also describes each species's typical song and calls; a DVD inside the back cover includes vocalizations for 138 bird species. (For samples, visit the book's website.) Of course, each account is illustrated with 2-5 very good photographs and a range map. I do wish that more of the species accounts included a photograph of the bird in flight since flight photographs provide useful information. However, the text and photographs provide adequate detail to identify most birds.

If you prefer identifying birds from photographs rather than painted plates, this guide would make an excellent choice. Species accounts include jargon that might intimidate beginners, so the guide seems most suitable for intermediate and advanced birders. Beginning birders may still be interested in the DVD of bird vocalizations, which can be downloaded onto any digital music player. The book's heft** makes it unsuitable as a pocket guide, but it would fit nicely into a backpack. For my own birding, I plan to stick with the eastern edition of the Sibley Guide since I prefer illustrations to photographs. However, I can see myself making frequent reference to the Smithsonian Guide to help with identifications or for more information about a species.

* For a direct comparison of the five photographic guides mentioned here, visit The Birder's Library. (Update: See also Rob Fergus's Evolution of the Bird Photo Field Guide. The most thorough review of the Smithsonian Guide so far is at Woodcreeper.)

** The Smithsonian Guide is only slightly smaller and lighter than the full-size Sibley Guide.

Ted Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Pp. viii, 512; maps, color photographs, figures, references, glossary, checklist, index, DVD. $24.95 softcover.