BOOK REVIEW: The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Last week I received my copy of Ted Floyd’s Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America and after spending some time reading it through, I have finally sat down to write a review. Below I give you my “In a nutshell” which is basically a summary of my thoughts regarding the book. Following the summary is a more in-depth review of each aspect of the book. At the end of the review I provide some pros and cons, as well as my final conclusions. Overall I’m very impressed with this photographic guide, which is saying a lot given my usually strong preference for illustrated field guides. Here’s my full review…

In a nutshell

Ted Floyd’s new guide contains everything you’d expect from a competent field guide: Good representative images, excellent and up-to-date range maps by geographer and ornithologist Paul Lehman, concise descriptions of general ecology, conservation status, and the key characteristics necessary for quick identification.

But the book doesn’t stop there. Interspersed throughout this slightly-larger-than-expected field guide are up-to-date essays on topics such as Populations Dynamics, Biogeography, Migration, and Brood Parasitism, reminiscent of the essays in the classic Birder’s Handbook by Erlich, Dobkin and Wheye.
Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America
The book is divided into taxonomic sections, each one preceded by a description of the bird families that follow, including interesting facts on current taxonomy, status changes, and defining characteristics. It’s obvious from the moment you open this book that Floyd is a birder at heart (okay, so he is the editor of Birding Magazine, the major publication of the American Birding Association (ABA)), as he includes the ABA code status for each of the over 700 species depicted. What the coding system offers, though, is a quick interpretation of rarity and geographic extent of each species.

Also included with this tome of North American Birds is a DVD with 587 bird recordings for 138 species, all recorded in fine detail by Lang Elliott, a master of nature recording. Taken as a package, what you’re really getting is much more than a field guide, but rather a multimedia identification manual to North American birds and their behavior.

In the hand

My first impression upon receiving the book was that it’s big and a bit heavy for a field guide. It’s about twice as heavy and two inches wider than either the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America or the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. That said, I used to tote my full-sized Sibley Guide to Birds of North America tucked in my pants, against the small of my back, for many years before I got the smaller regional guide, so I can live with a slightly larger book if the content warrants it.

Utility

To me, what makes a good field guide is the ability to pick it up after seeing a bird, and quickly narrow down the possibilities. When I opened up the Floyd guide, I was immediately drawn to the quality of the photographs. Field guides have evolved a long way over the last century, but with this evolution has also followed a great increase in photographic quality. WOW! These images really pop out of the page. This book is clearly the next generation of photographic field guides. That said, there are a couple of features missing from this guide that are found in several other popular field guides.

First is the absence of pointers placed on the photographs marking key features for clinching identification (and/or italicizing the important field marks within the textual description of the species).

The second is the lack of a key to the major taxonomic groups (be they families or orders) at the beginning of each taxonomic section, which would allow the reader to quickly identify the group that the bird they are observing belongs to (for instance, suppose you’re watching an Eastern Meadowlark. By having a page of the Icterids, blackbirds and their allies, you would quickly be drawn to the meadowarks and their respective page number).

The result is that the beginning birder will both need to search more before locating the group in which their bird fits, and also need to read the species accounts more thoroughly to find the key characters useful in field identification, both of which can be frustrating until the birder becomes familiar with bird topography and bird diversity in general. Thankfully, Floyd does a good job of covering the basics within his introduction.

Layout

The layout is very appealing, making use of all available space while maintaining an uncluttered appearance. I especially appreciate the well-written introduction and emphasis on holistic birding. Floyd suggests that the reader spend more time observing the species within its context, paying attention to behavior, habitat, flight, etc. This idea is translated into each species account through the combination of photography and carefully selected textual and graphical information.

Each species is represented by multiple photos depicting the important age and/or sex-based variation. Each image has a caption with information on the actual bird in the photograph (age, sex, breeding status, etc.), a concise description of main characters to focus on when observing the species in the field, and the location and time of the year of the photograph. These are all critical pieces of information for making a photograph useful in field identification.
Below the photograph are standard measurements of length, wingspan, and weight, followed by three bullets highlighting important information on molt cycle, individual variation (seasonal, sex and/or age-specific), and key plumage characteristics. Following the bullets is a broader description of the species including its ecology (habitat, etc.), especially when it is helpful in separating two similar species (“…where both species nest, separation according to vegetation height is often strictly observed.”), and status (“… numbers declining due to habitat deterioration on breeding and wintering ground.”).

Range Maps

For each species Floyd presents a color-coded range map depicting all the necessary information on breeding, wintering, and migration zones, as well as areas where the species occasionally occurs out of its range. Kudos to Paul Lehman (a geographer by trade) who produced the maps and whose understanding of North American bird ranges is second to none.

Vocalizations and the Birdsong DVD

Lastly, Floyd provides a description of the typical vocalizations (song, call, chip, grunt, bill snap, etc.) for each species. While having textual descriptions of vocalizations is somewhat helpful in the field, as part of this “next generation” field guide theme, Floyd also provides a birdsong DVD containing 587 mp3 recordings of 139 species of birds commonly occurring in North America. While this is by no means a comprehensive collection of birdsong, it is a very nice treatment of common species. On most other birdsong compilations, each species is usually only represented by one or two recordings (usually a single song, repeated several times, followed by some call notes). Still, it would have been nice to see more of the confusing species represented on this DVD, especially since this is intended as a field guide to all birds found within the ABA area.

The real strength of this disc, though, is the thorough treatment of each species covered. For instance, under Blue Jay (a species with a very expansive vocal repertoire) there are eight separate recordings, highlighting regional (calls from Arkansas, New York, and Florida) and contextual (territorial vs. courtship) variation. Another especially vociferous songster of eastern forests is the Carolina Wren, and this disc really covers the gamut, from the typical “tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle” song, to the lesser covered but equally important “cheer” “dip” and “t-dink” calls. After a bit of studying, you’ll never again be fooled by the many sounds of the Carolina Wren, and more importantly you’ll know when you’re hearing something different than the common birds you’ve learned through this extensive treatment.

On a more personal note, I can’t stand when the name of the species is read before the track plays. I like to listen to birdsong at a high volume, in order to pick up on the nuances of the recording. This becomes ever more difficult when each track is preceded by an extremely loud, monotonous voice announcing the name of the species. “CAROLINA WREN” the voice screams at me, or “MAGNOLIA WARBLER” blares from my speakers before the song actually plays… it’s enough to drive me nuts.

Thankfully the Smithsonian Field Guide companion DVD avoids the monotonous voice-over and instead replaces it with a beautiful digital photograph of each species, which displays automatically if you are using iTunes on your computer, or playing the tracks on your iPod. Because each track is named, even if you don’t see the image, you can determine the species based on the track name displayed on your computer. The DVD cannot be played on a traditional CD player, but you can copy the tracks to your computer and later burn them to a traditional CD… then you’ll just have to use the liner notes to decipher what species you’re listening to based on the track number.

    Pros

  • Rugged design with stitched binding; should hold up well after use and abuse in the field
  • Excellent photo representation of each species, better than any photographic guide on the market today
  • Extensive treatment of each species featured on birdsong DVD, more so than any collection I have seen to-date
  • Cons

  • Heavier than comparable field guides
  • No pointer markers nor italicized text to draw quick attention to important ID features on photos
  • The birdsong DVD is missing many common species as well as important “song-clinching” ones (for example, Short-billed Dowitcher is present, but Long-billed is missing, as are Fish Crow, Alder Flycatcher and most of the warblers)

Conclusions

The new Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Ted Floyd, will be a welcome addition to any North American field guide collection. While a bit on the heavier side, and lacking a few helpful features for the beginning birder, this guide provides a wealth of field identification information in a very accessible format. Aside from the beautiful layout, fine authorship, and up-to-date species information, the companion birdsong DVD (despite the limitations mentioned previously) really makes this package two guides for the price of one.

Good birding, and reading!
David La Puma

This entry was posted in Birds, book review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to BOOK REVIEW: The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

  1. Jim Gilbert says:

    David,

    Nice work. It definitely makes me want to check out this new effort.

    Thanks,
    Jim

  2. Marty says:

    Nice review – sounds like a good update to the Smithsonian’s previous effort. I’m not a huge fan of photo field guides because individual birds are often far afield of the ‘average’, but as a back-up this sounds like quite a nice reference.

  3. Tom says:

    Sold! No really, great review. Thanks.
    Sounds like everything I’d like, plus what you mention is missing is minor in my eyes. Sounds more like a true ‘birders” book vs. just a guide.

  4. Rob says:

    Thanks David, I’m struggling with my own thoughts about this guide as I prepare my own review. You brought up some great points.

  5. Pingback: floyd

  6. Elizabeth J. Rosenthal says:

    From a fellow New Jerseyan, thanks for the review. It sounds like this new field guide is worth examining.

    Speaking of field guides, I’d like to mention my new book, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, out now from The Lyons Press.

    Peterson played a central role in the expansion of birding not only in the US, but also Europe and East Africa. My book details these things, as well as demonstrating the breadth of his involvement and leadership in nature education and many of the most celebrated conservation causes of the 20th century. From his early 20s onward, Peterson was teaching about all aspects of nature, sometimes informally, sometimes formally, through his writings, lectures, books and work with various conservation organizations.

    Also, the reader learns about Peterson the Man: what motivated him, personal and professional challenges he faced, and his personal impact on many of today’s top birders and conservationists.

    I ended up talking to well over 100 people from around the world to put together this portrait of a complex and driven man. Birders, natural history buffs, and conservationists alike will enjoy the book.

    If anyone has any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at ejrose@aol.com.

    Thanks.

  7. bobmartin says:

    its a nice book. I suggest everybody should read it. I got more knowledge about the birds. I would like to congratulate David for writing such a beautiful book about birds.

    thanx

    =======================
    bob martin

    [url=”http://www.addictionrecovery.net/new-jersey “]Addiction Recovery New Jersey [/url]