A field guide is an essential tool for any birder, but just any book about birds will not work. For the best help in identifying birds, birders must consider several factors when choosing a field guide.
A field guide is no use if it is too big or bulky to be used in the field. Guides come in different sizes and shapes, and it is important to choose one you feel comfortable with. It should fit conveniently in a coat pocket or field bag and be easy to hold and turn pages, possibly while holding binoculars or other equipment.
Some guides have water resistant covers and spiral bound pages that can be more convenient for field use. A small interior pocket or strap to hold a pen or pencil is also a useful construction feature. Creased covers can help keep the binding from breaking when the guide is used frequently.
The region a book covers is critical for proper bird identification. Many books cover all common backyard and wild species in North America, but regional books for specific states or landform features such as mountains or bodies of water can be better choices for specialized birding. Many birders will choose several field guides in order to have a comprehensive collection that can help identify any bird they see.
The information a guide includes determines how useful it will be. All guides contain basic details such as bird descriptions and range maps. More detailed descriptions that include migration patterns, nesting habits, behavior, feeding preferences and bird songs can be useful for difficult identifications. The most comprehensive guides may include details on flight patterns, juvenile birds and subspecies variations as well.
Perhaps the most critical type of information in a field guide is the artwork. Guides may use photographs or illustrations of birds, and birders should choose whichever type of artwork they are most comfortable using. Illustrations can be more generalized and may not resemble birds in the field as closely, while photographs may be less clear and may not show as many specific details. Guides that show both genders, different angles and different plumage seasons are the most comprehensive and valuable for proper identifications.
Most field guides have additional features that can be useful to birders. A life list checklist is a popular appendix, and informational articles on migration, identification tips, general bird types and anatomical breakdowns are also common in field guides.
A good, basic field guide can cost $15 or less, while a more comprehensive guide may cost $30 or more. Used book stores are good sources of gently used but still practical field guides for birders on tighter budgets.
Choosing the right field guide is critical for enjoying birds and birding. By understanding what to look for, you can choose the guide you are most comfortable with and will have the most fun using.