Pyling on: Birding with the Pyle guides
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.
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.