Which Field Guide?
Birding with Kids: Choosing a Field Guide
You want to know which type of field guide is right for a young person learning to identify birds. You visit the store and find a dizzying array of options. What to do?
A field guide can help a budding naturalist learn even more about their favorite topic. For many birders, a lifetime hobby began with a field guide that helped them to identify the birds they spotted. A good field guide can help turn curiosity into a lifelong passion, while the wrong field guide and approach might lead to frustration and disinterest. How do you know which kind of bird guide to select, whether for a class full of potential birders or your child who loves birds? Here are features to consider as you select an ideal field guide for your needs.
Consider choosing a field guide specific to your particular area (for example, choose a guide that is an eastern or western version, or one targeted to the birds in your state). A guide that covers a broader geographic range (such as the whole United States) will have many more species included within it, which can lead to confusion and might overwhelm students or children. For example, if you are in the eastern U.S., you’ll see the Baltimore Oriole, but not the very similar Bullock’s Oriole. By having both in your guide, young students will get confused and need to pay close attention to range maps. An eastern guide will only present the Baltimore Oriole.
Pro Tip: We strongly recommend a book that shows the range map right next to the description. Some guides (especially older ones) have all the maps together in the back of the book, making it necessary to flip pages to confirm that the bird you think you are seeing is actually located where you are.
Some field guides are filled with beautiful color photos of birds. While these can be a lot of fun to look through, it turns out that many birders prefer illustrated field guides and especially recommend them for beginners. The problem with photos is that it’s often nearly impossible to capture a real image of a bird that displays all of its characteristic features in an ideal way. Even if it does, the amount of detail and complexity in an actual photo can be distracting and confusing at times.
A drawing, on the other hand, can be tailored in such a way that it highlights exactly the parts of the bird that you should be focusing on, making identification easier. Beginners may also struggle to identify a bird using photos when the bird that they’re seeing in real life doesn’t look exactly like that species in the photo. Drawings allow for more variation between the real bird you’re looking at and the image in the field guide.
When you ask a group of kids how they think a field guide might be arranged, they’ll often say, “ummm… alphabetically?” But field guides aren’t like dictionaries. Most guides are arranged taxonomically, meaning that the birds are grouped according to their evolutionary relationships with one another. Besides giving kids experience with this important topic, this is also useful in practice because closely related birds often look similar to one another. For example, you see a duck. Turn to the “duck” pages in your guide, and look for the matching duck. It’s a fun challenge!
Pro Tip: Some guides organize the birds by color, but we strongly recommend against these because they can be confusing and not intuitive. You could probably imagine how people might disagree on what color category to put the painted bunting (see photo) into… and we find it confusing to see the brown duck next to the brown sparrow.
That being said, field guides we looked at that were written for the youngest children seemed to be organized by the bird’s color or habitat. While we prefer the taxonomical organization, for a very young birder the accessibility of the language, the illustrations, and the amount of information included for each bird is also important. All this should be taken into consideration when making a decision about which field guide to use with our littlest birders.
You might think that kids need a “beginners” guide. But don’t automatically rule out a particular field guide just because it doesn’t say “beginners” or “young birders” on it. If it complies with the guidelines above, then it might be a great choice for your students. That said, “beginner” guides can be a good place to start your field guide search, especially with very young students.
Taking a Closer Look
This is an image of two pages from the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition. Below is a summary of what we like (and what we don’t…)
- The guide is arranged taxonomically, so the buntings are in the same section of the book.
- The range map is right next to the description.
- The images are beautiful, high-quality drawings that have key field marks pointed out (via lines) and even described.
- There are a number of plumage variations pictured and described, such as female/male and breeding/non-breeding.
- The guide covers all of North America, so many more species are covered than anyone is likely to see in their particular area. Kids will have to really look at the range map to make sure they are identifying the bird correctly.
- More birds also require more pages, making for a bigger and heavier book to have to lug around on your bird watching adventures. At almost 600 pages long, this guide is huge and might be hard to handle/carry, especially for young kids.
Might this guide be right for you? This is an advanced guide due to the wordy descriptions, many pictures, and the fact that it covers all of North America. But we think that older students and experienced birders will appreciate how thorough it is.
Advice from a Teacher
“I looked at every field guide I could get my hands on before I made a purchase of a class set and tried to see it through a beginner’s eyes. One of the most useful features I found was the fold-out flaps at the beginning that show pictures of the types of birds they may be looking at for reference. For someone with little or no beginning knowledge this can save a lot of frustration when they don’t know the difference between a chickadee and a grouse or a plover and a kittiwake. I also looked for guides that had pictures, descriptions and maps all on one page; that way my students could see all the information they needed to make a reasonable guess as to what they might be seeing. With maps on a separate page they tended to make too many incorrect identifications (I have some older field guides set up this way that they sometimes use). I ended up with The National Geographic guides for the reasons I just stated. They are big and heavy, but I solved the complaints by getting every student a naturalist bag to carry it in. The new Peterson Guides are also very nice and have the same features but came out after I made my purchase. One last piece of advice: it is nice when everyone has the same book so as a leader you can flip to a page and say, ‘Everyone look on page 137 and notice the crest on this bird and compare it to what we are seeing.’ ”
–Jeff, a high school teacher
If you have advice based on your experience… be sure to share as a comment below!
Other Resources to Consider
- Here are links to some guides you might consider, in order from more complex to least complex: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Peterson Guide, The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson’s guide for new birders) and Backyard Birds (Field Guides for Young Naturalists (a small guide by Peterson, specifically for young birders).
- There are also great non-book bird identification tools to consider. Educators rave about our online field guide at All About Birds and the new Merlin Bird ID app is a fantastic way to identify common birds in the field! Both are free.
- Into bird watching and looking for more tips? You might also like to read BirdSleuth’s posts about teaching bird identification and how to choose and use binoculars for your class.
- While you’re out identifying birds, please consider collecting data to help scientists by participating in a citizen-science project like eBird. Our Most Wanted Birds curriculum will help you and your students participate through fun and engaging activities designed to promote scientific inquiry and a passion for nature among your students.
- Would you like training? Take a BirdSleuth workshop or webinar! Check out our events list.