So yesterday I spent an hour with my Rowan University students teaching them how to identify birds with a field guide. We did it as a game, with each team having two field guides to use, and each team getting points for how fast they were able to identify each bird slide using their guides. I had the teams switch field guides several time, so the students got to try out different ones.
So the exercise served two purposes--the students learned how to identify birds with a field guide, and I got to see how they did it and which guides they liked and why.
I was surprised on both accounts. These students, who have had just one lecture on SPASTIC bird identification and one half hour bird walk, were remarkably quick at finding the birds in the guides. And it didn't seem to matter which bird book they used. I definitely had prejudices about which guide I thought would be easiest for them to use, but they surprised me. Here's a few comments:
Old Peterson: Most didn't like it, mostly because of the black and white plates.
Little Sibley: They liked it a lot, especially the quick index in the back.
Kaufman: They liked it, especially the onces who figured out how to use the quick index.
Smithsonian: Several students really liked this, and they were able to get on birds as quickly as with the other guides.
NWF Guide: Again, like the Smithsonian Guide, the students seemed to do find with this one too.
Nat Geo: A bit too much for them, not preferred.
Overall, there weren't too many strong feelings expressed one way or the other (they are college students and not always the most forthcoming!). But they had fun, and watching them, they seemed able to use all the guides fairly well, though Nat Geo and Old Peterson were the least preferred and students using them were never the first to ID any bird.
So, not a scientific focus group, but fun and interesting. Makes me want to do more field testing of field guides with absolute beginners. Anyone else out there put field guides head to head in field trials with beginners? What makes a good field guide for beginners? Which ones do you recommend and why?