(This overview, intended to cover the evolution of field guides over time, is highly subjective, and I do not consider any photographic field guides except one—Kenn Kaufman's. You'll need to look elsewhere to read reviews and comparisons of other photo guides.)
There are currently so very many bird field guides on the market that beginners are in a far, far more bewildering place than we were when I started birding in the 70s. Marketing departments make each new field guide sound like it features innovations never seen before, when really, there is very little new under the sun, even in the world of field guides. And one of the most frustrating developments is how our personality-focused culture has taken over substance for marketing field guides. Many birders seem to make their choices like groupies rather than wise consumers choosing an important tool. A troubling off-shoot of this is that many field guide publishers are even putting the author’s name in the title. Of course, people have long called Roger Tory Peterson’s book the Peterson Guide, but the actual title of his book is A Field Guide to the Birds, with his name properly listed as the author. But now we have The Sibley Guide to Birds, the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, and the newest entry into the personality cult, The Crossley ID Guide. In some ways this actually helps buyers because, as I noted, we all tend to refer to field guides by their authors anyway. But it makes me sad that the one field guide with the very most true innovations, way ahead of its time, has always been called by the publisher’s nickname, the Golden Guide, rather than crediting its primary author, the unassuming Chandler Robbins, one of the few ornithologists who actually deserves cult status.
The history of bird field guides has been one of steady innovation and improvement, but also of casting aside really worthy guides without proper recognition of their innovations and improvements to ever promote the newest ones. Not counting treatises that were simply too large to be useful books in the field, such as Audubon’s Birds of America, the first field guide to be published in the United States, as far as I can tell, was not the original Peterson guide but, rather, Florence Merriam Bailey’s Birds Through an Opera Glass, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1889.
Her book didn’t cover very many species, and illustrated even fewer, but the charming woodcuts were both helpful and lovely.
[When I wrote this, I wasn't aware of Ralph Hoffmann's A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York, nor of his Birds of the Pacific States. These certainly deserve inclusion, but because I don't actually have them, the comments are based on information gleaned from the Hoffmann Bird Club and Gregg Gorton.]
In 1904 Houghton Mifflin published Ralph Hoffmann's A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York. The text was unprecedented in that it focused on field marks, behavior, habitat, call notes and songs, even going so far as to provide a refined phonetic system to help identify songs. He provided comments following the description of each bird which included comparisons to similar species. Everything in the book was geared to bird identification in the field.
In 1919, Hoffmann accepted a position at the Cate School for Boys in Santa Barbara. He began, almost immediately, his research into the birds of the area. In 1927 Hoffmann published Birds of the Pacific States which went to even greater extents than his first guide to refine the phonetics of bird song.
Frank Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, published in 1909, greatly expanded the number of species covered, with descriptions of nests and eggs as well as plumage, but the focus was not on bird watching—it was on identifying birds in the hand via keys after shooting them.
In 1912, Chester A. Reed’s Birds of Eastern North America, was published by Doubleday. This single volume combined his two earlier field guides, one to Land Birds and one to Water Birds.
It had both black-and-white and color drawings, illustrating one species per page, often showing both a standing bird and one in flight.
His warbler drawings were mostly in color, and showed both male and female plumages and illustrated different poses to give readers a sense of the different ways the birds might perch in trees.
Reed, like Florence Merriam Bailey before him, was very committed to encouraging identification of birds in the field through glasses rather than at the end of a shotgun. His guide was published when people still had some hope that a few Passenger Pigeons might be found somewhere, though hope was rapidly fading. His guide was very popular. Although color printing at the time left something to be desired, some of his illustrations were very fine and lifelike.
In 1904, Putnam published the Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews.
This lovely little book covered about 82 species. The plates, many in color, were drawn as portraits of one or two species rather than laid out with several on a page to allow easy comparison.
Mathews provided one huge innovation, musical notation for many bird songs. Unfortunately, this isn’t always very useful for song descriptions even for those who can read music, because many bird sounds aren’t pure tones. Each song was also described in lengthy paragraphs that grew rather fanciful, comparing various bird songs to human-composed music.
In 1935, Aretas Saunders’s A Guide to Bird Songs was published by D. Appleton Century Company.
This 285-page book covered considerably more species than Mathews’s book. In it, Saunders skipped the musical notation, instead using line graphics to show a song’s rhythm and relative pitch, his prescient precursor to spectrographs. Saunders added simple descriptive words, such as “high, clear, and emphatic,” or “Clear, liquid whistle,” to describe songs. The book had no drawings of birds whatsoever.
Peterson’s original 1934 guide returned to Florence Bailey’s focus on identifying birds in the field, expanding it greatly.
Like its predecessors, it was mostly black-and-white, but did have four color plates illustrating the jays, blackbirds, orioles, and tanagers; wood-warblers; and grosbeaks, finches, and buntings.
Like most field guides of that era, Peterson focused just on birds of the Eastern half of North America, but he included all the species known in the region. He opened the preface to the first edition of his field guide with a lovely little reference to Ernest Thompson Seton’s book, Two Little Savages, and how inspirational it was to see Seton’s charming line drawings illustrating ducks.
Indeed, Peterson’s first field guide drawings of the ducks were drawn very much as Seton had drawn his—in a primitive, patternistic style. Like Seton’s illustrations, Peterson’s duck drawings did not include what ultimately became his trademark—the little arrows pointing readers to the most important field marks to look for—except to show the different length of the white stripe on Lesser and Greater Scaup wings.
In a few of his illustrations, Ernest Thompson Seton had put tiny letters next to parts of the drawing he wanted to explain. Peterson’s line system was clearer and looked more attractive than letters on the page. He used arrows generously on some plates, such as those illustrating warblers. Those arrows soon became one of the two most important innovations Peterson contributed to the field guide genre. The other was his precise, carefully honed prose. Peterson’s descriptions of plumage and song focused birdwatchers on the most salient features for identifying every bird species found in eastern North America while keeping the book at a slender 167 pages. He helpfully put similar species next to each other on the page to make it easier to choose among similar species. Peterson’s field guide justifiably sold a lot of copies and was universally acclaimed. The second edition, updated just five years later in 1939, expanded the first, including more color plates. The real drawback was how the plates were interspersed throughout the text, making them very difficult to find in the moment of trying to identify an unfamiliar bird while it was still in view. Peterson didn’t produce a Western guide until 1941. The third edition of his A Field Guide to the Birds was published in 1947. His field guide wasn't updated again until 1980.
In 1946, Doubleday produced a worthy competitor to Peterson’s original guide with Richard Pough’s Audubon Land Bird Guide, followed in 1951 with his Audubon Water Bird Guide. This two-volume set again focused on the birds of eastern North America. The third volume, the Audubon Western Bird Guide, came out in 1957.
Pough’s innovation was to set all the plates together in the center of the book, making finding them much simpler and allowing easier comparisons; the text itself was interspersed with helpful black-and-white drawings, too. The color plates were drawn by Don Eckleberry, and the black-and-white drawings by Earl Poole. Unlike Peterson’s field guide artwork (until his 1980 edition), these guides showed the birds in more lifelike poses.
And Pough made a welcome step backwards to the earliest guides by including in his text for each species a section on its habits.
A quantum leap in field guide quality took place in 1966, when the Golden guide to field identification Birds of North America was published by Western Publishing.
This was co-authored by Chandler Robbins and Bertel Bruun, illustrated by Arthur Singer, and edited by Herbert Zim. The “Golden Guide” made a great many innovations—in fact, I’d argue that this guide included more valuable innovations than any field guide before or since. First, all the species portraits were in full color and set on right-facing pages, with the corresponding text and range map opposite, making it easy to see all the information about each species in one place. Second, these drawings not only showed the birds in a variety of poses and included a wider range of plumages than the Peterson guide offered, but they also showed important elements of many birds’ habitats and interesting behaviors. Many plates also included silhouettes of the species shown and similar ones, helping beginners to focus on key elements of each bird’s shape as well as plumage.
Third, flying ducks and flying hawks were given two-page spreads to show all the species together, making it easier to quickly decide which one you were looking at without needing to rifle through many pages to narrow the choices down. Similar two-page spreads were created for warblers and sparrows, showing just the faces.
Fourth, the Golden Guide was the first field guide to show all the species of North America, not limiting itself to just the East or West.
Fifth, for the first and only time in any field guide, the Golden Guide added what they called “sonagrams,” spectrographs of the most common song of most species. A great many birders have told me that these are worthless, because they don’t understand how to read them. I had no trouble figuring them out back when I started birding in 1975, though I admit I may have been helped by the fact that I could read music. Understanding spectrographs may involve a learning curve, but they make analyzing bird recordings to pick out individual species much simpler and quicker, and can be a great help in learning and verifying basic songs, even for beginners.
Spectrographs work rather like musical notation, showing how a sound changes in frequency, or pitch, over time. Pure tones, such as a chickadee’s whistle, are represented by thin horizontal lines. When a pure note slurs up or down, the spectrograph line curves upwards or downwards. More complex tones, such as a House Sparrow’s cheep, are represented by thicker lines, the fuzzy vertical quality due to the sound being produced on many frequencies at once. Ornithologists who analyze bird sounds use spectrographs constantly—they’re the most accurate and scientific way we have for representing sounds visually. The September 2011 issue of Birding, the magazine of the American Birding Association, has an article about birding by ear that makes generous use of spectrographs. [Discussion on their blog here.] I deeply wish birders had taken as big an interest in spectrographs, a genuinely useful tool, as they’ve taken in adopting the far more narrowly useful four-letter banding codes.
The Golden Guide set the standard for 14 years, until Peterson revamped his eastern field guide in 1980, and made similar revisions to his western guide in 1990. He produced bigger range maps than the Golden Guide, but they were all tucked into a section in the back, making them much harder to use. The drawings in these new guides were much more vivid and realistic, but again showed just the birds, with few hints of habitat or special behaviors. Peterson’s famous minimal text added a few details, but not nearly as many as in the Golden Guide. Peterson was in the process of finishing a fourth edition when he died in 1996. This edition was published posthumously in 2002. This new edition put tiny range maps with the species accounts facing the illustrations, while still putting the more detailed range maps in the back. I've often wondered how many people ever look back there? [A couple of very serious and good birders have told me since I first made this post that they often use these range maps, and feel the large size and detail are very much worth being placed in a separate section.] Peterson's new Eastern and Western guides were combined in a beautiful (but very large) sixth edition to mark the centennial of Peterson's birth in 2008.
In 1983, the National Geographic Society published its first Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
This guide followed the Golden Guide in its continental scope and in placing the drawings opposite the text and range map. The maps were slightly larger than those in the Golden Guide, and showed state lines. The drawings were done by a variety of artists, so the quality is somewhat mixed, but most of the drawings are very fine, and like the Golden Guide, some drawings provide clues about habitat and interesting behaviors.
The National Geographic guide is both larger and thicker than the Golden Guide, so more unwieldy in the field, and lacks spectrographs, but birders immediately switched to it, in part because it was more current, so included several more species and also was more up to date on taxonomy changes than the Golden or Peterson guides of that time. Indeed, since 1983, the National Geographic guide has gone through five editions, and a sixth edition is due out in November. No field guide series has matched National Geographic for keeping up-to-date. As of the fifth edition (as Colin Talcroft reminded me in the Comments), the National Geographic also includes extremely useful thumb tabs. This guide, the ABC All the Birds of North America, and Kaufman's guide also have a useful index on the end papers or right next to the inside cover.
In 1997, the American Bird Conservancy’s field guide, All the Birds of North America, came out.
It was written by Jack L. Griggs, and illustrated by several different artists. This guide covered the whole continent and included range maps and text on the same pages with the birds, but somehow the arrangement is more confusing to me than that in any other guide, perhaps because it is the furthest from taxonomic order. This guide opens with lovely accounts of extinct birds, to remind birders of all we’ve already lost. Some of the plates are exceptionally beautiful, and this guide more than any other sets the birds in natural poses in a habitat in which they each can be found, but for some reason this guide never caught on with the general public. I personally found the organization confusing, having absorbed taxonomic order from my earlier guides, so I ended up leaving it at home when I was taking groups out—it took too long for me to look up species in the index to figure out where they were in the book. The order, using a combination of bill shape, habits, and size, could be useful for beginners starting out with this guide.
The biggest hoopla surrounding the release of any field guide had to be in 2000, when Alfred A. Knopf and the National Audubon Society released David Allen Sibley’s book, The Sibley Guide to Birds.
This can hardly be considered a true field guide—it’s just too huge. For its size, it gives surprisingly few clues about habitat or special behaviors. Sibley’s two innovations, important ones, are to show more plumage types for most species than can be seen in other field guides, and to include depictions of almost all species in flight, both with wings raised and lowered. He also uses Peterson’s system of pointing out important field marks with lines. His drawings are more patternistic than Peterson’s post-1980 field guides—in many cases, Sibley seems to have used the same silhouettes for similar species, often shows songbirds who appear to have just one leg, and puts each species on a white background. He shows only one or two species per page, and up to four species on a two-page spread. His patternistic drawings do simplify some comparisons, and he has a great eye for plumage detail, but except for including more plumages than other guides, I honestly can't see any real improvements in his artwork over other modern field guides. However, I know some great birders who consider this the greatest field guide ever written, and lug it around everywhere, showing their commitment to it.
In 2003, Sibley created Eastern and Western editions, which are far smaller and more convenient, and I know at least one topnotch birder who keeps his Eastern Sibley in his backpack all the time. My personal bias is toward a field guide that shows all the birds of the continent. When I first got to travel to the West, I recognized a lot of birds already from my familiarity with their pictures while looking up birds of the East. But this is one of those subjective things.
I’ve never considered photographic guides to be particularly useful because they tend to show only one or two species per page, making comparisons with similar species difficult, and because poses and varying lighting when each photo was taken make comparisons even trickier. But in 2000, Kenn Kaufman produced what I consider to be the only genuinely useful photographic field guide.
This was the first in a series Houghton Mifflin calls the Kaufman Focus Guides. This book is laid out the way the Golden, post-1980 editions of Peterson, and National Geographic guides are, with birds on the right and text and maps on the left. Kenn used Photoshop to remove photos from the background and to color-correct, and places as many species on each page as the other guides do. He uses Peterson’s innovative lines to point out critical field marks. He updated his introduction in the fifth printing, published in 2005. That’s also when he released a Spanish translation—the first time a North American field guide has been made accessible for the millions of Spanish-speaking Americans and all the people who see our birds on their wintering grounds in Central and South America. The graphics in Kaufman’s guide seem to have a great appeal for young adults and kids.
What’s the best guide? There isn’t one. If the Golden Guide had kept up with current taxonomy, it would definitely still be my personal favorite. When I buy a field guide for a beginner who is a 30-something or younger, I always get the Kaufman guide, which seems the simplest and is by far the most portable of the guides showing all the birds of North America except the virtually identically-sized Golden Guide. For older adults, I gravitate to the National Geographic. But every time I open my trusty Golden Guide, I feel a surge of joy paging through the book that made birds so very accessible to me and helped me to learn their songs over four decades ago.