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Pyling on: Birding with the Pyle guides

January 15, 2010

Any birder who has had some bird banding experience is familiar with the Identification Guide to North American Birds by Peter Pyle, often known simply as Pyle, but alternately referred to as the Pyle guide, that banding book, and a useful doorstop.  It’s often a familiar sight at a banding station, sitting there at the end of the processing table, an essential resource for the bird in the hand.  Outside of of banders, however, Pyle is something of an unknown entity, and probably for good reason.  It’s meant, first and foremost, to be a reference for birds in the hand, a situation that most birders very rarely find themselves in.  It’s not meant to help you identify birds to species, though it’s certainly useful for that purpose in some confusing groups of birds.  Pyle assumes that that is information that is pretty well established.  It’s meant, instead, to offer a reference for the information that is required for the bander’s needs.  Things like molt and metrics and subspecific identification and band size.  Things that, while certainly interesting, are not what a birder looking to fill out a day list likely needs.  There are no illustrations of the whole bird, no range maps, no vocalizations.  Even the text reads, as my wife pointed out when she opened one of the books and quickly closed it, like a foreign language.  In short, this is not a field guide.

So why, then, would a regular birder even need to look at Pyle, let along own them?  This is probably a good question, and one I hoped to answer for myself when I was gifted (read: asked to be gifted) the 2 volume set last month.  At first, I was incredibly intimidated by the size, scope, and language in this birding mega-reference, but some time with it clarifies a lot of the terminology and methodology.  For birders who often find this stuff confusing, which is probably the vast majority of practicing birders, the introduction should be required reading.  Pyle breaks down passerine molt like the pro that he is, and additional intros on subspecific variation, frequency and expectedness of hybrids and all the other little potential trip-ups of bird identification that are as relevant to field birders as bird banders are covered with a comprehensiveness that Sibley, or any of the other big field guides, doesn’t touch.  That’s not a slight to Sibley et al, it’s just clear that there are different audiences in mind here.

Image from Slate Creek Press

So what, ultimately, is the worth of the Pyle guide for the regular birder?  I suppose it depends on what kind of birder you want to be.  There are some birders, and I say this without any judgment whatsoever, who are content to use their regular field guides to identify the birds they see around them and stop at species.  There are others who want to push themselves to pull out every single tidbit of information that can be determined in a binocular view.  I imagine most birders would place themselves somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, I tend to vacillate on a daily basis depending on ambient temperature, quality of birds, and whether or not I’m looking to impress a fellow birder, to be honest.  I’m certainly not the type with the desire or the willpower to sit down with Pyle and read from cover to cover, there’s simply too much information.  But I have to admit that it’s a fun exercise to pull out the Pyle and try to age and sex the Juncos at my feeding station or pin down a Savannah Sparrow to one of its many subspecies, and with the recent publication of Part II, between whose covers you can find accounts of gulls, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors not covered in Part I (which exclusively covers passerines and near-passerines), Pyle is even more relevant to birders.  After all, it’s often difficult to get good enough looks at quick little birds to apply the super-detailed Pyle method, but Pyle seems positively made for loafing gulls and mudflats full of shorebirds.  As more birders turn to and discover the “joy” of this cutting edge of birding, I think it’s likely we’ll see more copies of Pyle on more birder’s bookshelves.

I admit I don’t use Pyle regularly, but I’m glad I have it available.  Not only do I learn something new every time I flip through the pages, it’s incredibly useful for answering just about any focused question I have and often prompts others.  As a means for thinking about bird identification in a complex way, it’s unparalleled.  Whether or not you feel as though you need a personal copy of the two Pyle books likely depends on how interesting you find this stuff.  But it’s worth is apparent even at a glance, and at the very least, every birder should take the opportunit to explore them if they can.

  1. January 15, 2010 8:28 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful review–Pyle’s guide sounds like a perfect thing to have around when those confusing (to me) fall warblers start coming through. But if that book describes every bird in North America in as much detail as you describe, it must be physically ginormous–how many pages does it have, and how many volumes does it contain??

  2. Nate permalink*
    January 15, 2010 9:17 am

    @Felicia- It may even be too complex for general warbler identification, even confusing fall warblers! For what it’s worth, I find the Peterson Warbler guide by Garrett and Dunn to be excellent for that. However, if you’d like to age your fall female warblers, Pyle is the book for you.

    They are big, definitely bookshelf books. The two volumes are each about 800-1000 pages each, Part II is bigger than Part I. Size is approximately 10′ x 6′ x 3′.

  3. January 15, 2010 10:06 am

    “So why, then, would a regular birder even need to look at Pyle, let along own them?”

    Because they are having trouble falling asleep the night before an early field trip and reading a couple of paragraphs will do the trick.

    I kid, I kid. There is a danger with Pyle when some of the color descriptions are asking, “Is the edging dusky or light gray?” It’s hard enough to tell that in hand let alone through bins.

  4. Nate permalink*
    January 15, 2010 10:22 am

    @Birdchick- Heh, you’re not kidding by much. Even if I’m motivated, it can be hard for me to sit down and wade through the language. And without any sort of context, the colors can be complicated. It’s far more useful to determine things like presence of edging or extent of edging rather than color.

    That said, I’m heading out this weekend to do some birding where gulls and waterfowl will be common. I think I’ll throw Pyle in the car just in case and really road test it.

  5. January 15, 2010 10:44 am

    I personally don’t own the Pyle books, but it’s something I’ve considered. Thanks for the analysis from the “regular” birder’s point of view. I still think I want them. I better work on distinguishing dusky from light gray though.

  6. Nate permalink*
    January 15, 2010 11:18 am

    @Patrick- If you’re like me and like to have as much reference material as you can get, you’ll probably like having them. Despite their shortcomings, mostly heft and complexity, they’re cool books and packed with good and, in most cases, useful information.

  7. January 15, 2010 11:34 am

    Is it wrong of me to laugh that it’s sometimes called “Pyle”? I mean, that might work in writing, but in general conversation I can’t imagine what I’d think were I asked if that was my pile on the shelf, or did I bring my pile with me, or is my pile in good condition.

    And seriously, I’d never heard of this before. Thanks for letting me know about it as it sounds like a good resource and something worth review.

  8. Nate permalink*
    January 15, 2010 12:06 pm

    @Jason- No, and if you ever found yourself at a banding station you would probably laugh right through everyone asking what does pile say, or where’s your pile or can I flip through your pile… 🙂

  9. January 15, 2010 12:53 pm

    Reading this made me wonder why I don’t already own these awesome books I’ve known about for years. I especially want to get a look at that new second volume.

  10. Nate permalink*
    January 15, 2010 1:11 pm

    @Nick- Yeah, they’d be right up your alley. And Part II is clearly more relevant for field birders than Part I, it’s really interesting.

  11. January 17, 2010 11:43 am

    I would like a Pyle because it seems like it would help sort out the occasional odd-looking bird. But it’s not a high priority for me.

  12. Nate permalink*
    January 17, 2010 7:33 pm

    @John- It’s very good for illustrating why certain birds look the way they do, but you could probably get by without it. It’s a really interesting reference, but probably unessential for most birders.

  13. January 17, 2010 8:21 pm

    Like other commenters, I’ve considered getting these for a while but just haven’t done so yet. I guess I was never convinced that they would be very helpful to a “regular” birder. So thanks for your perspective.
    One question – how useful is it in sorting out subspecies?

  14. Nate permalink*
    January 17, 2010 9:59 pm

    @Grant- Subspecic identification is, in my opinion, the best thing about the Pyle guides. It’s excellent for that.

  15. January 21, 2010 12:54 pm

    The other nickname Pyle sometimes gets is “the bander’s bible”. It’s true it’s the last word on a tricky identification when one’s banding. I recall when I was first learning to band, turning to my trainer for confirmation or to ask a question, and his response would be, “Well, what does Pyle say?” Oh, how that infuriated me! I didn’t understand the jargon Pyle used, it was like reading a technical manual for something I was only familiar with in laymen’s terms, so it was frustrating to try to use the book. It was much easier to just ask my trainer – after all, he was sitting right there supervising me!

    I struggled with it the whole fall season. I came to be a competent bander by the end of it – my trainer would leave me to band on my own on slow days while he was checking nets, sometimes, though I still had some ways to go before I could apply for my permit. But I never felt comfortable with the book. That winter, ’round about January when I started feeling The Itch, I pulled out Pyle and decided to wade through the introductory material and finally teach myself the darned thing. It took a little while, and I sat there with my pencil underlining relevant lines and putting an asterisk beside important passages. I recall finally having an “a-ha!” moment in doing that, where all the things I learned in the fall finally made sense. Like having a board with puzzle pieces that fit into slots, and you’ve got them approximately lined up, but it just requires a little shake to make them all fall into place.

    What was needed, I thought, was a version of Pyle’s introductions that was directed at the layman. Preferably with photos. There was a version of this already, sort of, in Dan Froelich’s companion guide, but I didn’t think he did a very good job with it. So that winter I sat down and wrote my own, using photos I’d taken over the fall. I went back and revised with additional photos taken the following year, finally polishing it up in early 2005. I printed two copies at the print shop, at a cost of $25 each. By that point I had my permit and was starting to train new banders myself. I’d start them out with lending them one of the printed guides.

    I’ve been thinking about making the guide available through a print-on-demand site like Blurb, but haven’t gotten around to it, mostly because I wrote it so long ago I wonder if I should go back and replace some of the images with newer ones, though that would require updating a lot of the text, which I find offputting.

    If you’re interested, you can download the pdf here:

    It’s big, 8 meg, because it’s full of colour photos. It’s aimed at banders, but everything it says is relevant to the birder, too. It might help with making Pyle’s language a little easier to read (or, it might not offer anything you haven’t figured out for yourself already! who knows). These days the terminology is so ingrained that anytime I see short forms like PA Day for schools, I read it as “prealternate day” out of habit.

    That comment got a little out of hand. 🙂 Mostly I had intended to say that I agree about the Pyle guides – incredibly useful for those details that standard guides don’t go into. Now that I’m not banding regularly the guide doesn’t see as much use, but I still pull it down from time to time to look something up.

  16. Nate permalink*
    January 21, 2010 3:22 pm

    @Seabrooke – I find myself in the same situation with Pyle as you did initially. Th information available is amazing, but there’s absolutely a learning curve in figuring out how to understand it.

    Your layman’s guide to Pyle looks great, I may pass it on for some friends at the state Museum to use when they do banding workshops. Thanks!

  17. Tim Kita permalink
    October 9, 2010 6:28 pm

    Your review is incorrect regarding inclusion of Raptors. There are no Raptors in Volumes l or ll.

  18. Nate permalink*
    October 9, 2010 10:27 pm

    @Tim – I beg to differ. Raptors begin on page 391 of Part II.

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