National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America – Review

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th EditionPoachingFacts rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is it. If you’re a serious birder or looking to get deeply into bird-watching, then this is the ultimate field guide to North American birds that you’ve been hoping for in a single, easily carried volume. For a field guide with features oriented towards beginner bird-watchers we recommend the Sibley or Peterson field guides, each of which have their merits.

In National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (7th Edition) all 1,023 bird species to be observed in North America are crammed into approximately 570 color pages. Literally crammed, as some of the illustrations are fairly small, however they’re certainly larger on average than those in the Sibley field guides. With over 3,500 illustrations and more than 900 of the latest range maps, NatGeo’s latest edition is a worthwhile compromise to keep this an informative yet easy-to-carry volume. Filled to the brim with the latest information on bird species and subspecies, it’s sure to be a significant upgrade to one’s field guide collection. It also includes enlarged maps at the back of the book covering the ranges of 55 subspecies of interest, though this is paltry compared to the over 500 range maps in each of the Peterson guides (covering Eastern and Western North America individually).

One of the most obvious and defining features of NatGeo’s latest field guide are the thumb-indexes, much like on high-quality dictionaries and a feature we haven’t seen on other field guides. It’s very easy to pick up the book and immediately flip to the start of sections on sandpipers, gulls, hawks, flycatchers, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Oddly enough ducks do not get their own thumb-index or other identifier, despite the section on ducks being the formal start of the field guide. There are also family names at the top of each page, further sub-dividing each section, although these families are not listed alphabetically by common or scientific name. While the major groupings aren’t used in other field guides, it does lend itself to a certain accessibility — and serious birders will ignore the simplified nomenclature and still be able to jump straight into the specifics or skim through using the families listed at the top of each page. Still, we’re sure these groupings will provide the pedants with plenty to squabble over.

The descriptions of species are detailed and come with the latest in scientific understanding of these birds, a reason to upgrade to this field guide on its own. Descriptions come with the usual assortment of information on each species including: size approximations, behavior, voices and phonetic calls, seasonal and breeding ranges, comparisons to similar birds, notes on subspecies, and historical sightings (for accidental occurrences).

We can’t speak to the color accuracy for all the species depicted, but the coloration is vivid and the high quality of the printing makes for extremely detailed illustrations. Seasonal variations in plumage, as well as color-morphs, are described in text and, for select species, given illustrations. Peterson field guides may have more and better depictions of activity and specifically the parts visible only during flight, but the size of the illustrations in NatGeo’s latest edition are at least reasonably large, with larger illustrations given to more popular species (birds of prey, woodpeckers, cardinals and allies).

A noble effort is made to present illustrations waterfowl as they would be seen in flight. Birds of prey get a mix of illustrations of in-flight and perched. Unfortunately the little brown jobs (LBJs) that are so common and difficult to distinguish, rarely have in-flight depictions. For life-listers, this doesn’t make identifying them any easier, but should be a relative non-issue for everyone else.

We recommend this book based on its merits for its intended audience which are veteran birders, but this field guide is also an excellent supplementary guide for everyone else. Most useful to beginners will be the visual guide index on the front and back inside covers, providing at-a-glance portraits of a variety of iconic representatives of specific bird families.

Closing Thoughts:

We strongly suggest NatGeo’s latest field guide, however nothing is perfect so let’s review what we didn’t like and what we noted is missing in comparison to field guides aimed at a different audience:

This Field Guide to the Birds of North America does not have a life list, a glossary of terms or a comprehensive introduction on any notable topics that would satisfy inquisitive novice bird watchers. Serious birders won’t need an introduction or birds or a primer on bird anatomy, and will already have these features in another resource, so we don’t feel that this detracts from the value of this particular guide. It also does not feature a section dedicated to enlarged range maps as The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and Peterson’s A Field Guide to Birds of Western North America do.

Voice descriptions are much less robust than in Sibley field guides, although we expect they will be satisfactory for more experienced birders.

The fine print and the grey-colored subtext around some of the bird illustrations printed on glossy pages will make for difficult reading for some people — and when reading in very high-/low-light conditions.

A species index at the back of the book completes the guide. It lists both common and taxonomic naming all in a single alphabetical index, but there is no bolding or other form of highlighting is used to make common species stand out, as in Sibley field guides. There is no life list or pages identifying birds based on silhouettes.

Recommendations for Novice or Intermediate Bird Watchers:

We recommend the Peterson’s A Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America and Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America field guides specifically to beginner and intermediate bird-watchers and naturalists. Which pair of volumes for North America is best may come down to personal preference, but we can say for certain that National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (7th Edition) is the best and most-detailed single-volume field guide on the market today.

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