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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best Bird Guide for Beginners?

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?


Mikael Behrens said...

I've always recommended the American Bird Conservancy's All the Birds of North America to beginners. It has a quick and well thought out system for narrowing down birds by body type and bill type. It has great paragraphs about similar species and pointers for distinguishing between them. And it fits in most back pockets. When this guide first came out I used it in the field exclusively for two or three years.

Steve Sosensky said...

I see that your copy of the National Geo is 3rd edition. If you used the 5th edition with the quick guide and the thumb tabs, I bet they would have done much better with it.

birdchaser said...

Yeah, you're probably right about Nat Geo. I was just grabbing field guides off my shelf. Now that you mention it, I'm not sure where my 5th edition Nat Geo is :-(

Jason Kessler said...

I like to recommend the Kaufman for beginners. Many people are disconcerted by paintings (and it's stacking the deck to use the old, black & white ones!), although Peterson has been my lifelong preference.

As wonderful as Nat Geo is, its country-wide range complicates things for beginners. Also, it and Sibley's still sport paintings.

Personally, I like Peterson's in the field, the big Sibley's in the car, and Pete Dunne's "Essential Field Guide Companion" at home. The three present a 3-D identification process: Peterson tells me what to look for in the field, Sibley shows me what it'll look like when I get there, and Dunne explains what the bird was was doing, providing handy mnemonics for the future.

birdchaser said...

I used the Old Peterson in part because I wanted to see if it was easier for the students to flip through 60 plates rather than 400+ pages to find their bird.

Birding is Fun! said...

Awesome experiment Rob. I hope you'll do more tests like these and report on them on the blog. Fascinating. I am traveling in the east this week and I brought along my new Stokes guide. I had to choose it or my Nat Geo 4th Ed. or my latest edition Peterson to cover the east. I've been enjoying the Stokes guide. I also wonder if new birders like paintings or photos better. I know my kids like the photos. I like pretty photos too, but lean toward Sibley style paintings for i.d. challenges.

Bird Feeders said...

What a great experiment! I have found mixed results when teaching people how to use field guides for the first time. Some people prefer to use actual photographs while others do better with paintings such as in Sibley's or Peterson's. Personally, I think the paintings do a better job at portraying a "typical" bird of a given species.

Grant McCreary said...

What a great idea for an experiment (even an "unscientific" one). I'm also a little surprised by the results.

As for features, I'd have to think about it some more, but I think there are two main ones for me. I love the annotated arrows used by Sibley and the latest regional NatGeo's. It's a great way of indicating the important things to look for quickly and easily.

The second thing is variation. I can imagine that the big Sibley or NatGeo could be intimidating because of all the variation shown. But I love it, and appreciated it even as a new birder (I used Sibley, as I still do). There's nothing more frustrating to me than seeing something that doesn't look like anything in the guide. Showing more possible variations will reduce that. The paintings-based guides seem to show more variation than their photo counterparts, but it seems like the new Stokes may buck that trend.

Hilke Breder said...

Looking briefly at my field guides the National Geographic 5th ed looks most thumbed. The Sibley's is great for at home. The Peterson's is old and held together with duck tape, keeping it for sentimental reasons. I love the electronic field guides for identifying bird songs. I am lookikng forward to getting the new Stokes.

Rick Wright said...

The game I love to play in my courses is to put up a slide of a juvenile Townsend's Solitaire and pass out the field guides: it's a real eye-opener for many beginners (and for not a few more experienced birders) to discover that that common bird is UNIDENTIFIABLE with the "help" of many, many of the available field guides.

metaspencer said...

I'd second the suggestion of All the Birds. It's not only easy to use, but has a strong conservation angle.

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