One of the greatest advances in bird appreciation and identification over the past twenty years and one of the great advantages to birding now compared to twenty to thirty years ago has been the publication (indeed proliferation) of hundreds of books and guides on all aspects of ornithology, with the goal of increasing a birder’s identification skills and knowledge about birds. Occasionally I am asked “what books should I buy to get me started”. In response the following is an overview of the general categories of books and some specific book recommendations within each category to “get you started” and well beyond!
Foremost are the bird identification guides meant to be taken a field to help a birder make or confirm an identification. A wrinkle on these broad field guides have been more specific guides devoted to mastering a certain bird group, say, shorebirds, gulls, or warblers. Also quite useful are the “field guide companions” designed to take the interest a birder might have beyond the identification phase to cover basic topics in birds such as behavior, flight mechanics, and taxonomy. Further, numerous books have been written which focus on specific bi rds or bird groups.
Migration and navigation is a fascinating topic and many authors have written about it to enhance your appreciation of how birds can successfully undertake their migratory journeys. Lastly, I present several books dealing with bird conservation issues.
Please note there are many very fine books in all these categories that because of space constraints aren’t described but may very well be worthwhile additions. You be the judge!!
General Bird Field Guides
Several dozen very helpful bird identification guides have been published, a concept first revolutionized in 1934 by the publication of Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds”.
In my view the best of this increasingly large group is “The Sibley Guide to Birds”. It covers all the birds reasonably expected to be seen in North America and shows both genders as well as immature stages. Birds in flight are always depicted too. Accurate and readable range maps illustrate the breeding and wintering areas for the respective bird. An illustrated front-piece accompanies each taxonomic section of birds, so for example, the 62 species of shorebirds found here are on a page spread allowing for ease of comparison.
he one drawback to the book is its large size – really too big and heavy to be carried afield. This was soon addressed when Sibley introduced two much more easily carried pocket-sized versions of this guide which divides North American birds into eastern and western regions –The Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds of Western North America.
Other bird identification field guides worthwhile for a place on your library shelf include the aforementioned Peterson “A Field Guide to the Birds”, now in its 6th edition, the Smithsonian “Field Guide to the Birds” (which comes with a CD disk containing 587 songs), the National Geographic “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”, the American Bird Conservancy’s “All the Birds of North America”, the Kaufman Focus Guide “Birds of North America”, The National Wildlife Federation’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”, and the Stokes “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”.
Books to Improve Bird Identification Skills
A number of books have come forth in the past decade designed to cater to people looking to better or master their bird identification skills. Sibley’s “Birding Basics” is a very helpful guide to improving your identification skills as is National Geographic’s “Birding Essential s”. Another, “Identify Yourself – the 50 most common Birding Identification Challenges” focuses on bird groups that can pose an ID challenge such as birds-of-prey, sparrows, and shorebirds. Two other guides, both written by Kenn Kaufman, do the same: “Field Guide to Advanced Birding” and “Advanced Birding”, part of the Peterson Filed Guide Series. So if you feel like you’re ready to take the next step in polishing your bird ID skills any or all of these are worthwhile.
Bird Group Identification Guides
Given the proliferation of general bird guides it is not surprising there has been a similar increase in the types of guides that focus on certain bird groups. Perhaps birds-of-prey have been the subject of more focus than any other group. “Hawks at a Distance” by Jerry Ligouri is an excellent photo-filled guide that will definitely help improve your raptor identification skills as will “Hawks”, part of the Peterson Field Guide Series.
Perhaps the newest entry into guides dealing with bird groups is “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. This guide goes into remarkable depth regarding virtually every aspect of warbler identification. Another great book on warblers is “Warblers”, part of the Peterson Field Guide Series written by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett. These books are must haves for aficionados of wood warblers (who isn’t?), our “butterflies of the bird world”.
Other guides worth your investment, if you have an interest in these groups of birds, include: “The Sparrows of the United States and Canada” by James Rising, “Shorebirds – An Identification Guide” by Peter Hayman, John Marchant, and Tony Prater, “Gulls of the Americas” which is a book in the Peterson Reference Guide Series, by Steve N. G. Howell and Jon Dunn, and “Hummingbirds of North America”, by Sherri Williamson, part of the Peterson Field Guide Series. There are, of course, many other fine books available, devoted to specific groups of birds, which a search on the Internet will reveal.
Field Guide Companions
Over the past several years a number of worthwhile reference books have been published which can broaden and deepen your understanding of birds, far beyond mere field identification. So if you want to take your interest in birds well beyond the identification phase “field companion guides” are helpful in doing so. In my view the best of the group is the “Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior”. The book is divided into two parts: The World of Birds and Bird Families of North America. The first part contains subparts devoted to Flight, Taxonomy and Evolution, Behavior, Habitats and Distribution, and Populations and Conservation. The second part is an overview of each of the families of birds found in North America. Both parts are very well written and provide a tremendous am ount of interesting and useful information about almost every aspect of birds.
Two other companion guides worth taking a look at are: “Lives of North American Birds” by Kenn Kaufman and Pete Dunne’s “Essential Field Guide Companion”. Also available is Smithsonian Institution’s handbook on birds entitled “Birds of North America”.
Books on Specific Species
Not surprisingly there have been a number of books written on one species of birds. One of the best is “Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird” by Katie Fallon. Captivated by seeing a Cerulean Warbler during a camping trip the author spends several years in learning about the plight of this bird which is declining at one of the faster rates of all songbirds and what can be done to save it. Another excellent book is “Rare Bird” by Maria Mudd Ruth. It deals with the Marbled Murrelet, a seabird which nests in large evergreen trees in old-growth forests of northern California and the Northwest. She does a fine job at describing the efforts to learn where these birds nest (one of the very last North American birds to have its nesting habitat discovered) and the environmental battles swirling around the forests the birds depend upon. Similar to this but providing a bit more historical perspective is “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People who Saved it” by William Rapai. As the title indicates the book chronicles the many decades long successful fight to bring this beautiful warbler back from the very edge of extinction.
“The Flight of the Red Knot” by Brian Harrington, a research scientist at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences provides a detailed overview of this fascinating shorebird species that is truly a hemispheric globetrotter, splitting its life between the northern and southern hemispheres during its annual journeys between wintering and breeding grounds. It is natural history at its best. Another great book on the red knot is “Moonbird”: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95”, by Phillip Hoose. It chronicles the life of one bird – a red knot – that has lived long enough to migrate back and forth from wintering to breeding grounds so many times, it has flown a distance equal from the Earth to the Moon and halfway back.
Similarly “Ospreys: A Natural and Unnatural History” by Alan F. Poole provides a fine overview of the natural history of this iconic species and its cultural significance.
While dealing with the Clark’s Nutcracker, the book “Made for Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines” by Ronald Lanner is more of an exploration of the ecological role this bird species plays in maintaining the of some western pine forests. This bird’s ability to recall is nothing short of amazing and the chapter on bird memory is alone worth the purchase price of the book.
Books on Bird Migration & Navigation
There are many fine books which have been written on these fascinating topics. Some can be fairly technical, such as “The Avian Migrant” by John Rappole, while others are less so. The following do a fine job at presenting the issue in an informative way: “Songbird Journeys” by Miyoko Chu, “Gatherings of Angels: Migrating Birds and Their Ecology”, a compilation of chapters written by various authors on a number of different migratory birds, edited by Kenneth Able, “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul, “How Birds Migrate” by Paul Kerlinger, and “The Migration of Birds: Seasons on the Wing” by Janice Hughes.
Books on Bird Conservation
Many birds are in decline. A combination of forces are at play that have resulted in hundreds of species declining in abundance, some, like the Wood Thrush and aforementioned Cerulean Warbler, remarkably so. Loss of habitat, predation by feral and pet cats, and window/building collisions are the primary causes for this comprehensive slide.
A number of authors have written about this decline, how it was scientifically determined, its causes, and the governmental, institutional, and personal strategies that have been developed to counter the trend. “Where have All the Birds Gone” by John Terborgh, “Saving Migrant Birds” by John Faaborg, “Silence of the Songbirds” by Bridget Stutchbury, and “Restoring North America’s Birds: Lessons from Landscape Ecology” by Robert Askins are four excellent books that cover the issue of bird conservation quire well. Another fine book in this genre is “101 Ways to Help Birds” by Laura Erickson.
There are a variety of other guide books relating to birds. Specific topics include bird nests, nestlings, eggs, tracks and signs and feathers. These books can be welcome additions to your library if you want to be able to identify a bird nest you might find along a trail or a feather laying in the middle of it.
Birds of North America
If you want to take your interest in birds to an even higher or deeper level there are several resources available to you. The monograph series “Birds of North America” is a detailed species account of each and every breeding bird found in North America and Hawaii. Each species monograph follows the same flow of information and vary in length from a few pages to 50 or more. It is available based on a subscription basis through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
– John Turner