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Review: Birds of Australia, 8th edition

September 10, 2010

Mike Bergin, that estimable bird blogger over at 10,000 Birds, wrote a line on field guides some time ago that really resonated with me.   He stated that birders should invest in two categories of field guide: those they will need and those they want to need.  This makes a lot of sense to one such as I who is an avid collector of field guides.  As much as I enjoy the different perspectives on familiar North American birds put forth by Sibley and Peterson and Kaufman and Floyd (all brilliant in their own unique ways), there’s an appeal to the field guide you don’t need, the one you’re highly unlikely to need, but the one full of amazing birds about which dreaming is part of the fun.

The 8th edition of the venerable Simpson and Day Birds of Australia is undoubtedly in the second category for birders in North America.  While it’s nice to have a few field guides for regions from which vagrants are likely to spawn, that’s not an issue for Australian birds.  Australia’s unique mammals get a lot of the press among the general public, but the birds are equally fascinating and more diverse, coming in shapes, sizes and colors to both dazzle the average Nearctic birder and fill him with despair because for every migratory species that spans the western Pacific, there’s seemingly an entire family of bizarre species found no where else in the world.  Australia is not an easy place for many of us to get to, but that doesn’t make owning a field guide for such an outrageous place any less enjoyable, but you’re not likely to need more than one.  So with that in mind, eight editions in this is still, without doubt, the guide for Australia and flipping through its pages it not hard to see why.

I generally judge field guides by how they “feel”.  It’s a relatively arbitrary sense incorporating many aspects including size, heft, and familiarity with the format if not the birds.  I admit I have a bias for field guides that are set up a certain way; with plates on the right, text and maps on the right, and any additional stuff that more or less take up the front and back of the book.  This is not just a personal preference, but I also think it’s the best format for a foreign birder looking to identify the birds of a given region.  I’m happy to report that Birds of Australia feels great.  Even if the birds are wildly foreign, the field guide is exceptionally user-friendly, with all relevant information accessible.  It’s precisely how you want a field guide to be.

Additionally, there are a few features of the book that I found particularly useful.  First, for most birds all relevant subspecies are illustrated (on the color plates or in black and white near the text) with range boundaries delineated on the maps.  This is a masterful addition, useful for birders looking for future splits or just those interested in intra-species diversity and taxonomy.  I wish more North American field guides added this feature.  Second, an appendix is added after the species accounts that notes the breeding year for every single Australian species.  This is fabulous information, particularly for Australia.  We in North America, with our well-established seasons and predictable nesters, take for granted the many factors that must be accounted for for a species to have a successful brood.  This is far less cut-and-dried in Australia, where seasonal accessibility to water has as much to do with nesting success as the traditional turning over into spring such that breeding “season” means something far more variable even within genera.  A concise yearly map of a bird’s year then, is a useful tool for knowing when and where birders might be able to take advantage of territorial birds.  It’s another notable part of an altogether exceedingly useful appendices.

If I have a complaint about Birds of Australia, it’s in the way the maps are presented.  They’re small for starters, which isn’t inherently a problem for me (at least not yet!), but summer ranges are illustrated in green (fine, green is summer), but winter ranges are a slightly lighter shade of green.  This is a problem in that it’s not immediately clear which is which, requiring some searching through the forward, and even once that was clear it is difficult at first glance to understand where the bird is  at what time of year, which could be a significant issue in the field.  It’s more than a little annoying, and with so much already going on in that small space including subspecific notation, migration direction (often wet to dry as well as north to south), and a lattice pattern for transitional ranges, it’s just too much to have to pay careful attention when different colors could have been used.

That said, if minor map-related annoyances are the worst thing about this book, you’ve got a fine text on your hands.  There’s a reason that previous editions of this book have been the go-to field guide for down under, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to suggest it to an Australia bound traveler or anyone just hoping someday to be one.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

  1. David permalink
    September 10, 2010 12:55 pm

    My pet peeve with a lot of field guides are the maps. I`m color blind (not completely but significantly) and I identify the birds by the lack of certain colors or placement of dark versus light, shape and I could get into how I do it but that`s not the point of this post. The pet peeve I have is when guides use two similiar colors to illustrate migration patterns. How do I know their similiar since I`m color blind you ask? The whole map looks uniform. It probably saves money on the printing to use similar colors but man does it make maps useless for me.

  2. Nate permalink*
    September 15, 2010 11:45 am

    @David- That’s a very interesting point and one I hadn’t considered. Something like the old Chandler Robbins Golden guide might be good for you, because instead of colors it often uses patterns to delineate seasonal ranges. I think you’d find this Australia guide exceptionally frustrating.


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