At the time, (around 2003), I had no idea how dynamic and fast-changing birding knowledge was, and I figured the dog-eared book that my parents had picked up on a whim many years earlier – which I now realize was the inaugural edition of the National Geographic guide from 1983 – was, like my high school algebra texts, a source of immutable truths. Little did I know that everything from the genetic relationships among birds to their common names to their ranges and populations was in constant flux. I was puzzled as to why people called those gorgeous white raptors in our area “White-tailed Kites” when the guide said clearly that they were “Black-shouldered Kites.”
I still have that guide, along with many other, newer ones – Kaufman, Sibley, Crossley, and several other, more specialized guides. So when I was given the opportunity to check out the newest update of the National Geographic guide, I couldn’t resist comparing it to the original – the book that helped launch my life as a birder.
Both the similarities and differences between the original and latest update are striking: the same signature Bald Eagle on the cover, quite a few of the same illustrations, and even same descriptions. Both list the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker as “probably extinct,” but for strikingly different reasons. (The description of its range and distribution in the new guide will be heartbreaking to anyone who rejoiced at its putative rediscovery a few years back.) But new illustrations, very much in the same style as the older ones, also abound, as well as significantly expanded or revised descriptions of certain birds. (The description of White-crowned Sparrows in the 6th edition, for instance, goes into helpful detail about their various subspecies, their songs, and distribution, which the original, shorter description lacked.)
Another useful detail the guide includes is an index of subspecies range maps – this can be a great benefit to those who spend a lot of time birding on the road.
More striking to me was the extremely liberal definition of “birds of North America” used in the book. Flipping through it, one sees dozens of accidental and even extinct species not found in other North American field guides. I personally appreciated these graphic reminders that North America (or parts of it, at least) is closely linked, biologically and geographically, to the far corners of Asia and Northern Europe, and for any enthusiastic birder, this feature will be a tantalizing reminder that any trip to the field can bring unexpected surprises. But for beginners or others looking for a straight-ahead quick reference to birds one is likely to encounter on a typical trip, this expanded inventory could be a needless distraction.
A characteristic feature of any field guide is the front matter – all the stuff the guide presents before actually getting to the birds themselves. Kaufman’s useful pocket guide, for instance, has a friendly, simple preface that captures a “birding for everyone” vibe, and the first words in the preface of Crossley’s graphically rich guide are “I don’t like text,” which tells you everything you need to know about the orientation of the rest of the book. The National Geographic guide strikes an accessible, yet serious tone in its front matter: the brief descriptions of bird classification, ranges, and field marks are written to be understandable to beginners, but include enough information (such as a two-page illustrated spread of labeled head, wing, and body feather tracts) to be a useful reference for more experienced birders as well.
Any review of a field guide is supposed to end up with the answer to the question “so, how does this rank among the other guides for the same area?” I really hate answering this question because I don’t have a single favorite North American field guide – like many birders, I like having an assortment of them for different purposes: Kaufman to keep in my back pocket for quick reference, Sibley to keep in my car for more comprehensive ID checks, and Crossley to keep at home to study before and after looking for a new bird. Also, I often find myself needing more than one set of illustrations to ID a bird definitively, especially if it’s molting or in some transitional plumage. The new National Geographic guide, for me, falls into the “keep in the car” category – a great combination of quick reference and comprehensive description that will be a useful addition to my arsenal of references.