When traveling to obscure locations there is often only one comprehensive bird book available, so the decision of which book to buy is simple. When given a choice, the book most recently published typically contains the most current taxonomy and range maps. That said, taxonomy in bird books can be a function of the author’s experience and bias, so keep in mind that a species identified in a book may still be considered a subspecies or race by the IOC (International Ornithological Committee), or other authority. The following are my thoughts when comparing books.
My close focus is not what it used to be, so I look for plates that are clear and with individual species relatively large. Because I’ll be looking at new birds with confusing taxonomy, good written descriptions highlighting how similar species differ is very useful. Habitat and behavioral descriptions are also important, again, because these birds and their environments are unfamiliar. Being better with topography than remembering foreign location names, I prefer range maps over written range descriptions. Range maps work best when located alongside the text but this is not imperative as text takes priority. Call descriptions are a must as I can’t read sonograms and struggle with song diagrams. When used during practice, the descriptions work as prompters to recalling the songs I’ve studied. Though book size and weight are issues for some, I will carry whatever book gives me the most help regardless of the weight. And finally, I always pack my bird book in my carry-on because losing it prior to, or during a trip would be a show stopper.
I recently visited Borneo where two bird books were available, published two years apart. Though taxonomic differences were not insurmountable, the books’ layouts and text differed. One had rather brief species descriptions, but the plates were easy to use with similar species grouped on a single page or a few consecutive pages. The other had detailed written descriptions, but each bird was in its own separate window alongside the text. Both had strong points and in the end, I carried both using the one with more convenient plate arrangement in the field, and the other as a reference back at my hotel. Another example came from a trip to Australia where again, I had two books to choose from. Very similar in content and layout, the overriding difference were the plates. One had lots of background painting, pictures of vegetation and scenery associated with the species. Though the plates were lovely and the information useful, I found the complicated backgrounds distracting to my eye making the bird details less easy to pick out. I chose the book that had the birds on a plain background. I’m sure others would have chosen differently.
Without the books in hand, I would not have noticed the difference in the Australian books. Whenever possible, I visit book stores like Foyles in London, Elliot Bay in Seattle, Washington, or Powells in Portland, Oregon, to see for myself what the book is like. Unfortunately, international bird books are a small niche, and the number of independent bookshops declining rapidly to be replaced by online alternatives. Fat Birder (one of my favorite birding web sites) has great links to several book sources, so I won’t list them all here. Of note are The Avian Review and The Birders Library where you can see pictures of individual pages, read descriptions of the text and layout, and get reviews. Avian Review includes many bird books in languages other than English. Another source, again from Fat Birder is The Bird Booker Report, a blog where the author (Joe Fuhrman) writes book reviews for the Guardian that include all things wildlife, including bird guides and books about birds.
Book reviews are also available in magazines like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird, the Wilson Ornithological Society’s, The Wilson Bulletin, and many others. If you don’t subscribe, many college libraries carry these. If the book came out a few years ago, free back issues are often available on line, up to as recent as two years ago. Trip reports sometimes include a short statement regarding what book was used, or what book worked best and why. And finally, when in doubt, a question to a birding online group like Birdforum or Birdchat will often provide useful information. Indeed, often the book has already been discussed, so a quick search for an existing thread can be fruitful.
If you are looking to save money, used books are a great alternative. Most birders I know are notorious bibliophiles having a collection of bird books for places they have been, places they are going, and places they would love visit, but haven’t yet. A request in a bird discussion group like Birdforum or Birdchat can put you in touch with a potential seller. I was able to get a copy of the long out of print Birds of New Guinea in this manner.
I don’t usually carry photographic guides in the field. This is a personal bias and largely due to the poor quality of the first photographic guides available in the US. They never served as adequate replacements for the painted plates available at that time. Admittedly, photographic guides have improved dramatically with the advent of digital photography and the talents of authors such as Kenn Kaufman, Tito Narosky, Dario Yzureita, and others. There are now some excellent photographic or partially photographic guides available, several of which are bilingual or available in Spanish. However, I generally use them as practice tools rather than in the field, perhaps I should change. As a study resource, they provide supplemental information and a chance to see the bird in situ, so to speak.
Digital bird books are becoming more popular, or at least more available. I do carry Sibley’s Birds of North America and BirdGuides Ltd, Birds of Northern Europe on my iPod, but do I use them extensively? Not really. I find them most useful for confirming a bird that I already have a pretty good idea of, and for having the call handy. When trying to sort a myriad of warblers, gulls, or whatever in a new country, they are for me, of limited use. As electronic formats improve, they are sure to be more helpful. However, when traveling in areas with spotty electricity and variable climate conditions, a reliable and fairly indestructible book will always have the edge over a relatively fragile electronic device.
I’ve heard that programs are being developed that will identify birds from their song regardless of if the user has any expertise. This is sure to change the way in which bird watching is done.