Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Review: Birds of North America and Greenland

In addition to its successful field guide series, Princeton University Press publishes a series of regional illustrated checklists of birds. Illustrated checklists are typically small, light, and compact, especially compared to full-fledged field guides. In areas where the standard field guides are too large to carry comfortably, they offer an easily portable alternative. The latest addition to that series is Birds of North America and Greenland, written and illustrated by Norman Arlott.

The new checklist includes all of the bird species recorded in the 48 contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, which is over 900 bird species. The species are listed on even-numbered pages (the left page) and species are depicted on the facing odd-numbered pages (right page). The English names for birds do not follow those listed by a single taxonomic authority. Instead Arlott states in the introduction that "I have headlined the English names that I believe are those used by most birders in the field." This means that sometimes older names are given, and other times the name used among British birders is given instead of the name favored by the American Ornithological Union. In some of these cases, an alternative name is listed in parentheses, so this should not cause much confusion. Each entry also contains the bird's scientific name. The scientific names listed do not reflect the recent reorganization of the wood warbler family, which was formally announced after the book went to press.

Species accounts are necessarily short. They give brief information about visual identification, voice, habitat, and distribution. Each includes a small range map. These range maps are hard to see in some cases because they are placed so close to the binding. The painted illustrations are of high quality and accurate, as far as I can see. The oranges and browns in the illustrations seem a bit too reddish compared to how a bird would appear in the wild, but this is a minor issue. The guide illustrates the adult male and female plumages (when a bird is sexually dimorphic) and the adult non-breeding plumage (if it differs signficantly from breeding plumage). No immature plumages are shown to save space, even for difficult species like gulls.

While Birds of North America and Greenland is visually attractive, it is difficult to identify a use case for this checklist. North America is already very well covered with field guides. Arlott's guide does not have much of a size advantage over the Kaufman guide, a basic guide that covers the same area as Arlott's. Sibley's regional guides (east, west) are also only slightly larger and provide thorough coverage (including multiple plumages) of the birds in their areas, as does the National Geographic guide. One advantage Arlott's checklist does have is that it covers Greenland, which is often not covered in field guides for North America but whose checklist includes some species that could end up as vagrants in North America. However, I am not sure that is enough of an advantage to warrant carrying it instead of other guides to the same area. Perhaps a visitor to North America could get some use out of this book, but a visiting birder (or a North American birder traveling around the continent) would be better served by an existing full-fledged field guide.