Thirty-seven years ago, on Christmas, 1974, I opened a field guide for the first time. I’d never known that such a thing existed, but at that moment I became obsessed. My first was a Peterson field guide, and I read the whole thing cover to cover, and discovered in its references Joseph Hickey’s Guide to Bird Watching, which I borrowed from the library and read cover to cover. I also bought the Golden Guide and read it cover to cover. That’s the one that became my birding bible. My trusty Golden Guide got me through learning all the basic birds in the Midwest, and as I learned those birds, couldn’t help but notice the many birds that were from more far-flung places. I knew the book so intimately that when I took trips to the Southeast, Arizona, Texas, the Black Hills, Washington, and Oregon, I had no trouble identifying those birds, too.
This all happened right when the American Ornithologists Union was changing the classification of several species. I wrote name changes into my book to keep them straight. Then, in 1983, the National Geographic Society published a great field guide, designed with the same format as my trusty Golden Guide but with up-to-date maps and species classification. The National Geographic guide also benefitted from all the advances in bird identification that arose with the more sophisticated birding community of the 70s. Much as I loved my Golden Guide, I finally put it aside for the National Geographic.
National Geographic is uniquely committed to keeping their field guide up to date. This fall, the 6th edition was released. And this edition has so many major improvements that I’d have bought it even if I didn’t collect the whole series. The new edition has the thumb tabs for finding important sections that was introduced in the fifth edition, and this time there are also two excellent quick indexes on the inside cover, one organized alphabetically, the other a fold-out with pictures of each family, to make it easy for beginners to find the bird they’re searching for. There’s also a fabulous improvement in the bird drawings—in this edition, important features are marked with quick notes explaining them right next to the drawing. The book is entirely up to date, at least until the AOU comes up with new taxonomic changes. The new National Geographic is the field guide I’ll have with me all the time.
I still treasure my Guide to Bird Watching by Joseph Hickey, which is available as a Dover reprint, but the best book now for learning exactly how to go about bird watching is Kenn Kaufman’s wonderful new Field Guide to Advanced Birding.
Kenn Kaufman also wrote the only photo-field guide that I recommend. It’s not quite as complete as the National Geographic, but for people who are just starting out and want something really user-friendly, the perfect book choices would be the two Kenn Kaufman guides—and they don’t weigh much more put together than the National Geographic guide.
These are the field guides I personally find most useful for birding, and would be good choices for gift-giving. But the best guide is really an individual decision. If you’re looking for a field guide for yourself, go to a bookstore or library and thumb through them, pulling out the ones that look best to you. Look up a few birds you know really well—like blue jays, robins, and chickadees—and pick the one that shows them the way you see them.