Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America: Sixth Edition.

When it comes to field guides there are lots, and I mean LOTS of guides to North American birds, almost too many when it all comes down to it! Peterson, Kaufman, Stokes, Crossley, Golden, Sibley, Smithsonian, and one of my favourites, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer.

Now this blog entry is not going down the path of which field guide is superior, or photos vs. paintings in guides, this blog is going to focus solely on the the Sixth Edition of the National Geographic Field Guide. More importantly, answer the question of whether or not there is enough updates to make a purchase from the 5th edition to the 6th even necessary.

First off, when comparing the 5th and the 6th they are pretty much the same size, which is great! Anything larger and it would be a little awkward to carry around in the field.

The updates for this guide are conveniently listed right on the cover:
990 species of birds (previously 967)
300 new illustrations
Illustrated visual index that folds out from both front and back covers.

What sold me however was the subspecies and migration maps. The subspecies maps, located in the back, are easy to understand and are quite large as some birds have many subspecies. Other less detailed subspecies maps (like Burrowing Owl) have their maps in the usual spots, opposite the plates. The maps in the sixth edition now illustrate spring migration, fall migration, a combination of spring and fall migration, along with dotted lines for irregular migration for each migration as well!! Surprisingly, the maps opposite the plates were not enlarged in this edition to show these details, even though there is still white space remaining on the page. I find myself, even with 20/20 vision, having to squint my eyes sometimes to make out all the colours and coloured dotted lines.

Now if none of these new maps and subspecies maps thrills you, and you want to know if the illustrations are worth an upgrade from your fifth to the sixth, well there are in fact new illustrations, as well as old (or old mixed with new) illustrations that have been rearranged to make it more user friendly. You will have to compare the two books yourself for these changes as it is difficult to explain in text without a lot of visuals. Another small improvement includes the ducks in flight are now illustrated on the main plates, however the guide still retains those few pages of just ducks in flight. Flipping through the pages it seems that every aspect of this updated version is laid out better than the fifth, which I thought wasn't even possible as the fifth edition was fantastic! To top it all off there is even enough room to list those critical field marks right on the plates themselves!

One of the most appealing illustrations is the goatsuckers plate. If you own the fifth edition, you have the birds facing opposite directions, their tail patterns displayed all over the page, and their flying illustrations wherever they seem to fit. It does the job but it is kind of all over the place when comparing these cryptic similar species with each other. Enter the new updated field guide with all the goatsuckers (including the new Mexican Whip-poor-will) displayed on one side of the plate, tails on the opposite side of the plate, and in flight illustrations nearly all in the middle. To me, this is the most beautiful illustration in the whole guide!
Goatsuckers from both the Sixth and Fifth Edition. Which plate do you prefer? This photo makes the Sixth Edition look larger than the fifth, but it is because I placed the sixth on top of the fifth, thus making it appear larger.

In the back of the book is the Accidentals and Extinct birds. This is always a fun section with some new species added here as well (thankfully no new extinct ones). The one I looked for right away was the Amazon Kingfisher. Yup, it is in this guide!

Another bird this guide has is Smew. Guess which guide does not? Sibley's!! I was shocked when, after hearing about the Smew in Whitby, Ontario, I looked it up in my Sibleys and it wasn't even in the guide! You think this bird, only a Code 3 bird in North America would have an illustration in Sibleys. Sibleys has other Code 3 birds such as Short-tailed Albatross, and White-tailed Tropicbird, and even illustrates Code 4 Blue-footed Booby and Kelp Gull. So why didn't Smew make it into Sibley's when it would seem more likely you would see a Smew in North America than a Kelp Gull? But I digress. Sibleys is an excellent guide to birds and I even have the Sibley's app. on my android phone.

This is a great guide for intermediate and advanced birders. The only individuals I wouldn't recommend this guide to are those who are just starting out birding, as the number of species and subspecies could be a little intimidating. For beginners fresh on the scene I always recommend the Peterson's field guide. It is a nice size for the field and the layout is simple for those just starting out.

In conclusion:
Yes, if you have the fifth edition already, the sixth edition has enough improvements to persuade one in purchasing the sixth. The illustrations are neatly laid out and now include key field marks on the plates themselves. We now have updated maps that include migration routes and ranges, along with separate subspecies maps. There is an updated list of accidental species/extinct birds in the back, a new visual index, add to this all the new AOU changes and you probably have the most definitive field guide for your library to North American birds............Oh, and it has Smew!

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