Category Archives: Best field guides for birds

Field guides crucial components to improving your bird knowledge

Earlier this spring, I received an email from Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, asking for some advice on obtaining a good field guide to help enhance her knowledge of the region’s birds.

“I appreciate your expertise and thank you for helping me learn about the many different types of birds that we have here in southwest Virginia,” Jill wrote in her email. “Can you recommend a good field guide/reference book for a novice bird watcher?”


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                  A variety of birding field guides are available to help beginners hone their identification skills. Peruse and choose the guide that works best for you.

I provided Jill with some information about field guides especially valuable for beginning birdwatchers.

In my own experience, I look for three things in a field guide: detailed illustrations, convenient size and complete listings of birds likely to be encountered. I prefer field guides with paintings/illustrations of birds rather than book featuring photographs. It’s a personal preference, of course, but I believe a good painting beats a photograph for capturing and conveying the important details to look for when trying to identify a bird.

With those criteria in mind, some of my favorite guides are David Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer; and A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by the late Roger Tory Peterson. The latter is a classic among bird texts and helped kick off birdwatching for the average individual. The Sibley and National Geographic field guides are more modern takes on a field reference guide to assist in bird identification.9780307370020-us 2

All these books have counterparts featuring Western species of birds. Sibley also has a large guide (too large to easily take into the field) that has both Eastern and Western species in it.

I also suggested to Jill that before she makes a purchase, she should thumb through the pages of some of the guides available at a local book store or, even better, borrow a copy from a library. It’s always good to get some hands-on time with these books in order to decide which guide fits your own personal preferences. For instance, some people may prefer a guide with photographs. I’ve always liked painted illustrations better than photos. However, I own some field guides that rely on photos. I often use these guides as secondary references to consult for confirmation of a particularly puzzling identification. Among the best photo field guides available are the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.517doMN-H7L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

Overall, field guides are a valuable investment and crucial for individuals looking to expand their knowledge of birds. Best of all, most field guides are not expensive. Most guides cost around $20. It’s sometimes possible to pick up a good guide at a store specializing in used books for an even more modest price.

One thing to keep in mind is that we’re living in a technology-driven age. Some tech-savvy birders have begun to rely on electronic guides on mobile devices for use in the field while birding. I’m a little more old-fashioned and still prefer a portable book while looking for birds.1071890

Not all guides are dedicated to using visual cues to identify birds. Once beginners have mastered some of the visual means of identifying birds, they will perhaps want to advance to some of the excellent “birding by ear” guides to help develop the ability to match bird songs with the birds that produce these audio clues to their identities. There are literally dozens of marvelous field guides.

Although birding helped kick off the demand for nature field guides, the industry has branched out in the past couple of decades. It’s easy to obtain extensive and informative field guides on a variety of subjects, ranging from butterflies and moths to dragonflies, wildflowers, trees, reptiles, fish, mammals and much more.81a1885b-80a6-4e50-a941-f0079f122a97_1000

Jill sent me her email with the query about field guides about the time the first ruby-throated hummingbirds were returning to the region, and she shared a story about her efforts to attract hummingbirds that was sidetracked by an unwelcome visitor.

“Also, as an avid hummingbird watcher, I was so excited to prepare and hang two feeders,” she wrote. “However, the only thing attracted to them at this point has been a local bear who proceeded one night to tear down and destroy both feeders!”

Jill said that the offending bear left paw prints on her porch and sticky, red remnants of hummingbird food on the side of her house underneath the garage sconce light (also destroyed by the bruin), which he mistook for a third feeder.

“Oh well, I will try again with the feeders here soon,” she added. The incident did prompt her to change her strategy. This time, she wrote, she planned to locate the feeders a little farther from her house.

I sympathized with her about the bear’s attack on her feeders, and shared an account of an incident that befell one of my feeders. A bear mangled one of my peanut feeders this past winter, bending the mesh tube into a pretzel shape.

I added a postscript to my email reply to Jill, prompted by learning where she lives.

“I love the wetlands in Saltville,” I wrote to her. “Great habitats for birds!”

Through the years, I have observed some interesting birds in the Saltville wetlands, including surf scoter, Caspian tern, great egret and spotted sandpiper. During those visits, I always had a trusted field guide with me for consultation.e34fe1ca-5b5d-4c45-956c-41ff096610d0_1.58baeab0e8cc1f26ab894e3cbcf9f22d


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email