Birding has become popular because the activity requires so little equipment — beginner birders simply need a basic pair of binoculars and a good field guide. Experienced birders will tell you that picking the right field guide will allow you to quickly and effectively identify birds, and enable you to build your knowledge of birds in your area. Thousands of field guides exist, so understanding the characteristics that create an excellent guide is a must.
Your location or the location in which you go birding most often is one of the first considerations in purchasing a field guide. If you live in the far eastern or western U.S., field guides specific to those regions are most popular, because they only include species likely to be found there, which makes the book lighter (an important feature if you intend to carry it on long hikes). Popular guides with eastern and western editions include Sibley’s, Stokes, National Geographic, and Peterson’s. These guides generally also cover the central U.S., northern Mexico, and southern Canada, since many eastern and western species also occur in these areas.
For birders who travel often or live in central U.S. states, a coast-to-coast guide encompassing all North American birds may be a better choice. These guides have the advantage of covering all existing species in the U.S. and generally southern Canada and northern Mexico, but are often much bulkier and heavier than guides specific to the east or west. The national guide referred to as “the birder’s bible” is The Sibley Guide to Birds, an extremely comprehensive and user-friendly, but large, edition. Other popular field guides to North American birds include National Geographic, Peterson’s, and National Audubon Society.
Another characteristic to consider when buying a guide is your preference for how the birds themselves are presented in the book. Field guides can either feature true-to-life illustrations or photographs of each species. Illustrations have an advantage over photographs when it comes to bird species that are hard to photograph, like certain sea birds, because even the best existing photographs can be low-quality. However, some birders prefer photographs because they often depict the bird in an accurate habitat and posture, which can help with identification.
One last personal preference to consider is the layout of the book. Guides have become increasingly user-friendly over the years, and two organization schemes are common. Some guides separate the photo or illustration of the bird from its description, and others dedicate a single page to the bird and its description. Neither scheme is better, but some birders develop a strong preference for one or the other. Guides can also have additional features that are helpful. The Stokes guides contain a unique index system where birds are grouped and labeled in different colors that can be viewed even when the book is closed, allowing the user to look up a species and find it easily according to its label color.
In the end, personal preference plays a large role in choosing a favorite bird guide. Thankfully, most guides are inexpensive, so you can buy several to test out!