Finding the right guide to the birds

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Picking a birding field guide is a little like picking a spouse, writes Sue Horton, a Times’ editor of the California section and internally-known bird enthusiast.

In her review of two birding field guides in Sunday’s Book Review section, Horton plucks the good and bad she spots in the ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America’ and ‘Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America’:

My field guide and I have been very happy in the eight years we’ve been together. David Allen Sibley’s ‘The Sibley Guide to Birds’ came out right about the time I got serious about birding, and we’ve been together ever since. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my eye for other books. Long before Sibley, there was Roger Tory Peterson, the great man of 20th century birding. For decades, his field guides (‘Western Birds’ and ‘Birds of Eastern and Central North America’) were a required purchase for anyone serious about birds. For my money, however, they had two major flaws: First, there was no single guide to all U.S. birds, and since birds sometimes show up where they’re not expected, it’s nice to have all the North American species in a single volume. ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,’ published 12 years after his death, combines the two previous guides into one, and has gone some way toward solving the map problem, putting tiny maps on the pages where the birds appear. Even more appealing is the ‘Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America.’ The guide uses photos rather than paintings, which has not always worked well in other guides. The book comes with a DVD of songs and calls for 138 species. Being able to call up songs in the field on your iPod is great.

--Francisco Vara-Orta