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Review: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th edition

December 2, 2011
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The first field guide I ever chose for myself and used was the 2nd Edition of the National Geographic Field Guide.  I still have it – dog-eared and faded and bound mostly in packing tape anymore – sitting on the shelf of my bookcase next to the third, fourth, and fifth editions of the same guide.  You may ask yourself why one birder would need more than one copy of any one field guide, and the constant renewal of the NatGeo feels occasionally arbitrary, but these books are, for many birders too young for the Peterson revolution, the end-all, be-all of what a field guide should be.  And every single additional edition seems to make that case more clearly.

Anyone familiar with any of the previous editions (and there’s scarcely a birder in North America who isn’t) will know what to expect from the new NatGeo.  The concise and informative species accounts, the phenomenal maps by Paul Lehman, the quick-find tabs and focus on subspecific variation and especially, the illustrations by dozens of bird artist fitting somewhat hap-haphazardly between the covers of a single book.  That last thing has always been my greatest annoyance with the NatGeo guides and, in my opinion, the reason the Sibley guide was so well-received when it was released as the major competitor to what had been for many years, the preeminent field guide for North American birders.  With a single illustrator, as opposed to a collaborative effort, the user of such a field guide can be more certain that comparisons can be made free of differing artistic interpretation.  In my mind this has always been the NatGeo guide’s greatest weakness.  Sure, many of the illustrations are top-notch, but too many others are inconsistent or simply inaccurate (see Pine Warbler, for instance).

Over the years, as this particular book has become more and more the creation of Jon Dunn, those disappointing illustrations have obviously been replaced with superior examples.  With 300 new illustrations mixed in, this most recent edition is marred by very few duds indeed, though some, notably some shearwaters, warblers, and sparrows, still manage to grate on my artistic sensibilities.  This is all nit-picking though, by and large this sixth edition makes some major and wholly positive changes to the venerable guide that will hopefully be incorporated into any new field guide going forward.

For starters, the guide is bigger than any previous incarnations, though only modestly so and not so much that it would preclude carriage into the field like the enormous Sibley or Stokes or Crossley.  This larger size, however, offers a little more space on the plates for extensive notes for practically every species.  This reminds me of the phenomenal Svensson, et al, Birds of Europe, and the sixth edition reminds me a great deal, and compares very positively, to that ultimate field guide.  Second, the devotion to subspecific variation that has always been a hallmark of the NatGeo guides is expanded upon here.  For 41 species with field identifiable subspecies, an Appendix features detailed range maps indicating approximate regional boundaries, and the cover claim that every species seen in North America is illustrated is backed up with a second Appendix featuring those species seen two or fewer times in the ABA Area.  That last feature may seem unwieldy and unnecessary, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that you’ll need when you need it,though perhaps not a second before.

The obvious question when faced with a new National Geographic guide is whether or not it is demonstrably better than the previous one, published just a few years ago.  Do you really need another?  While the differences between the 4th and 5th editions were largely negligible, the 6th edition is enough of a leap forward that you’ll want to make the additional purchase, or better, add it to your holiday list.  With so many new changes that will likely become indispensable for birders going forward, the sixth edition is not merely evolutionary, but revolutionary for the venerable series.

National Geographic has reestablished themselves as a must-have guide for any North American birder.

Thanks to National Geographic for providing me with a review copy

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3 Comments
  1. December 2, 2011 10:26 am

    My copy of the National Geographic guide is still the third edition. Looks like I may need to upgrade.

  2. Matt permalink
    December 5, 2011 10:11 pm

    Sounds good. I’ve got this on my Christmas list. I’ve always thought the B&W warbler in the NG 4th edition was messed up.

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 29, 2011 9:54 pm

    @jmj- You won’t be disappointed. It’s a real improvement.

    @Matt- My god, the B&W. Yes, that was such an epic fail. You’ll be happy to know that one has been axed.

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