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The Binocular Advisor

The ABCs of Field Guides

North America has a bonanza of field guides, all covering pretty much the same birds. But the birds don't appear in the same sequence in all books. So how is a person to find a bird?

Alphabetical order is no help if you don’t know the bird's name!

Field GuidesField guides must solve a complex problem—how to arrange a dictionary of pictures so that people can find what they’re looking for.

You might think alphabetical order would be the way to go, but alphabetical order is no help if you don’t know the bird's name.

Sorting the birds by color doesn’t work either, since male, female, and young birds of the same species may not be the same color, and colors may change according to season.

And arranging birds by their habitat preferences fails for birds that don’t always stay in the same kind of landscape.

Taxonomic order

The time-tested way for field guides to arrange species is in taxonomic sequence, based on the birds’ evolutionary history. Birds are grouped with their closest relatives. Woodpeckers are with other woodpeckers, because they are closely related. Hummingbirds and swifts are close together in the book because the hummingbird family and the swift family are more closely related than either is to other bird families.

In general, shared ancestry corresponds to shared physical form. For example, all woodpeckers have two strong central tail feathers that brace the bird against a tree.

The taxonomic sequence is not fixed, though. It changes as science makes discoveries about the ancestry of birds. And books tag along. In older field guides, vireos came immediately ahead the warblers. Now vireos appear before the crows and jays. And recently, waterfowl have dislodged loons from their long-held place at the beginning. Most of the newest field guides begin with waterfow.

NGSFor example, the new, Fifth Edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, shown at left, follows the new taxonomic sequence. You'll find that the first birds in the book are the waterfowl, in accordance with recent scientific understanding of how birds evolved.

Becoming familiar with the taxonomic sequence is an interesting, basic task of becoming a birder. All good field guides teach it. Without some notion of the taxonomic sequence, trying to look up a bird is like trying to find a word in the dictionary without knowing the alphabet.

Modified taxonomic order

Peterson Field GuideFor convenient comparison, some guides, such as the Peterson Eastern & Central N. America guide, shown at right, deviate slightly in order to place similar-looking birds together, such as swifts and swallows, even though they aren’t closely related. Nevertheless, the Peterson field guide (also the Western Birds edition) mostly do follow taxonomic order, with a few noted exceptions.

In the Peterson field guides, as in most field guides, the taxonomic sequence is not quite up to date. For many people, it may actually be easier to use these books, in the old familiar arrangement, starting off with loons, grebes, and albatrosses. Personally, we think it's fun to learn the new arrangment. It's mostly the same as the old arrangements, with just a few changes.

See the 2007 arrangement of the taxonomically arranged bird families in the sidebar at right.

Some books, trying to ease the beginner’s way, make up their own arrangements. New birders may find that the time they spend learning an unusual system won’t necessarily transfer to another book.

We recommend the books listed in the sidebar at top right of this page.

Field guides all at a glance

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Diane Porter© 2004-2007 by Diane Porter
An earlier version of this article appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest in 2004. It is here updated in November, 2007, to include books that have come out or have been revised since that publication.




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