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The New Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds

June 13, 2008

New I and the Bird from one of my favorite bird blogs, Great Auk – or Greatest Auk?

To the topic at hand…

Before I begin this review, I’d like to explain the circumstances surrounding the arrival of this book to my grubby little fingers, because I think it’s cool. I was contacted by the publisher to receive a copy completely gratis in the exchange that I would write something up on my weblog. Undoubtedly, I was not the only bird blogger to be the recipient of this super sweet deal, and rightly so. It appears that the publishers have seen the power of this electronic medium as a way to get the word out about the new book. I think they, we, will all be better for it.

To the book then. I am an admitted bird book junkie. I love having books from all over the world, books specific to certain groups of birds, books just for books sake. I don’t especially have to use them, and in many cases I really don’t, but I think having the opportunity to flip through them, to read in my spare time, to constantly build on the base of knowledge I already have, makes me a better birder in the long run. And isn’t that our goal?

For that reason perhaps it’s difficult for me to look at a new field guide from the perspective of a rookie birder. Because I use the book somewhat differently than a new birder does, as reference rather than tool, to confirm a sighting rather then to track down an unknown species. Attempting to get in the mindset of the beginning birder may be a losing proposition for me, but from the perspective of one who’s been around the block a few times, the new Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd is, no bones about it, a great addition to the reference library.

I’ve been using the book for about a week and it’s definitely field worthy, small enough to carry with little problem. Text is concise but not lacking, author Ted Floyd should be praised for getting the essence of each species distilled into, in most cases, less that 40 words. The addition and explanation of molt strategies for each species is an neat touch, an addition that may delight those interested an a more nuanced understanding of a bird’s year and doesn’t take up too much space for those not as keen. The introduction to each family is chock full of interesting information regarding conservation and taxonomy and puts the birds into context within and without their families. That’s probably my favorite part of the book, and one where the Smithsonian guide particularly excels. On the whole, Floyd’s text is understated compared to the photos and maps, it is a field guide after all, but what is there is consistently interesting and always useful. But what of the bird pictures, the most important part of any field guide?

The major choice field guides have to make anymore is that of using illustrations versus photographs. Full disclosure, I’m an illustration guy, but this is largely because of the new standard the fabulous Sibley Guide set for illustrated North American field guides. Every guide using illustrations from this point on will be compared to that eminent volume, and likely will come out the worst for it. But the advantage of illustrations is that they allow for study of the bird independent of how the bird in question is acting in the field, it allows for the illustrator to present a “typical” example of a given species. There is no small amount of variation among individuals of a given species, and the problem faced by the editor of photographs is in finding one that not only illustrates this type specimen, but also does so in a way that shows all relevant field marks in a way that’s useful for the searching birder.

An example of the wrong way to do this was perhaps the old Audubon photo guides, which were my first introduction to the photographic field guide. Not only were the birds ordered by color and body type, devaluing the importance of understanding taxonomy when identifying birds, but sexually dimorphic species were in completely different sections as if they were different species. And crucially, the photos didn’t do just a great job of showing birds as they would be seen in the field.

The Smithsonian guide does an admirable job at avoiding similar problems, but the last is still an issue for some species. I would have preferred to see more species in flight, especially groups like swallows and ducks. I question how useful photographs of perched Tree and Bank Swallows and Purple Martins when we most often find these birds flying. A few of the ducks would be served by having flight photos that better show the speculum, Floyd and the editors are limited by the quality of bird photos as a whole. The fact that all birds are illustrated in flight is a strength of the Sibley guide for one, and a clear advantage of illustrations rather than photos. But for the most part this is nit-picking, and indicative only of my personal preferences. The photographs in general are fantastic, and it is almost worth the price of the field guide just to see beautiful shots of rarely seen ABA area birds.

The book comes with a DVD of 587 birdsongs, but from only 138 species. I suppose it was included to get new birders interested in honing their birdsong skills without overwhelming them. A noble idea to be sure, as all experienced birders know, knowledge of birdsong opens up a whole new world. But it’s only the start, if folks find this interesting they will certainly be well-served to invest in one of many excellent and more comprehensive CD packages, like those put out by Stokes or Peterson.

In the end, the book should be a welcome addition to any birder’s library. Birders these days have a wealth of riches to choose from, and while the Smithsonian Guide is probably not breaking too much new ground in the world of field guides, certainly no birder would go wrong in purchasing this as their one and only guide or as another addition to a stable of field guides. I certainly see it as one of the more useful guides out these days and a welcome addition to the genre.

Much thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a review copy.

  1. Greg permalink
    June 13, 2008 8:00 pm

    Looking forward to seeing the guide. Well reasoned and thoughtful review.
    Cool that the publisher sent you a copy.

  2. Greg permalink
    June 14, 2008 8:08 pm

    Ok, tell HarperCollins and Ted Floyd that your blog sold a copy!

    I picked one up today. I really like the layout, family descriptions and, of course, the photographs. I like the shorthand features like “males larger than females” in symbolic form.

    I have only begun to explore it, but it is far superior to Kaufman’s Focus Guide. I believe that it does to “photo” field guides what Sibley did to “illustration” field guides. The photos are clear and are not “cut outs” like the Kaufman guide.

    It’s a little to large to carry into the field, but I rarely carry a field guide anyway, especially in local areas. When I do carry on the trail, I’ll still rely on Sibley’s Eastern Birds.

    However, it’s a great addition to the bird reference shelf. I expect to use it often

  3. noflickster permalink
    June 16, 2008 8:14 pm

    Glad to see you’re getting into the field of reviewing books, and scoring free ones, too. Ted brought copies to his CLO Monday Night Seminar in April, so I saw a copy there and heard Ted himself exalt the results of his collaborations. Looks like an excellent addition to the library.

    Now I’ll be looking forward to winning free stuff on your blog since I can’t seem to catch a break on 10000Birds giveaways.

    😉 (winky face added for any 10000Birds authors who may misinterpret my frustration for resentment).

    🙂 (smily face added ’cause I’m kidding. About the first 10000Birds reference, not the winky-face comment).

    Jeez, I’ll stop before this turns into a Monty Pythonesque routine.

    Nice work!
    – Mike

  4. June 17, 2008 11:49 am

    Hey, I’m trying to win that book from 10000 birds too! Even though I’ve got a personal copy I’ve got a friend who’s getting into birds that desperately needs a field guide.

    Hear that, Mike, Corey, or Charlie? By giving me a copy you’d be passing on the gift of birding!

    Anyway, you’re going down Powers, consider the gauntlet thrown!

    On the book though, the more I look through it the more I like it. Sibley may be my 1a, but this one is a pretty worthy 1b.

    And a note to publishers, more free books please…

  5. slybird permalink
    June 22, 2008 11:24 am

    Oh man, I remember that old Audubon guide. It was so error-ridden, too!

    Nice review. Glad we picked up on some of the same points.

  6. catmum permalink
    July 20, 2008 10:20 pm

    How many gigs is the data download from the DVD? (for putting on an IPod touch, for example?) thanks

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