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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America

There are a lot of field guides out there.  Including guides aimed at beginners.  Each guide claims its own unique features.  Some are great, some are OK, and some are frustrating.

Bill Thompson III's The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America may not make this claim for itself, but it may be one of the most fun field guides to come out recently.  It is a publisher's and reader's delight, with a tight and beautiful layout that makes it very fun to peruse.

In short, this is the book form of Bill Thompson III leading beginning birders on an extended cross country trip to see "300 of the most common birds in the United States and Canada."  In doing so, he shares what to look for, listen for, and remember about each bird.  He also shares a nugget of trivia about each bird--just as if we were on a birdwalk together.

In addition to one or two photos of each species, each one page species account features a black and white illustration (by Julie Zickefoose or Michael DiGiorgio) of the bird in action.  A full color range map, and notes on how to find each bird are also included.

Great layout, fun illustrations and facts.  Unfortunately in this case the photos don't show what they say they do, or help very much if you live in the West.

This well-chunked and informative layout makes this book fun and easy to use.  Thompson's prose is light and engaging.  I especially enjoy his descriptions of bird vocalizations--something that isn't easy to do, making it the hardest section to read in most field guides.  Not so here--as when we are told that the Common Moorhen "sounds like someone is torturing a frog" and the Cactus Wren "sounds like someone trying to start a car."

As befitting any guide for beginners, there are plenty of other extra features here to get one started on the road to enjoying birds, including instructions on birding gear, how to use binoculars, info on birding manners, and helpful lists including Five Outside the Box Tips for Improving Your Birding Skills and Be Green: Ten Things You Can Do for Birds.

It's also very cool that Bill Thompson wrote this book in collaboration with his kids and their schoolmates.

So what's not to like about this guide?  It's a delight to read.  A lot of fun.  Beginning birders, and even more seasoned types, will find fun and memorable facts to increase their enjoyment of birds.  But since it has only 300 species featured, it obviously isn't going to help identify every bird--including "red-shafted" Northern Flickers, immature gulls, and the domestic waterfowl that they are most likely to see at their neighborhood park.  There isn't a good way around that limitation.  Readers are even promised in the introduction that they will see birds not found in this book--and that they should have a more comprehensive field guide to help them with those identifications--useful advice for sure, but also begging the question of why such a limited guide might be needed at all.

But since there aren't easy answers to that question--it's best to just enjoy this well written and put together guide for what it is--a fun introduction to North American birds and birding, with text and illustrations almost as lively as the birds themselves.  During this holiday season it would make a good stocking stuffer for the beginning or causal birder, or if you've been birding with Bill Thompson III out on the birding festival circuit, this encapsulation of his birding spirit is a must have as well!

Disclaimer: review based on a library copy.

Additional Reviews:
Birder's Library

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