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Best Bird Field Guides

Updated December 2018
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

  • 18 Models Considered
  • 6 Hours Researched
  • 1 Experts Interviewed
  • 273 Consumers Consulted
  • Zero products received from manufacturers.

    We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

    Why trust BestReviews?
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

    Shopping guide for best bird field guides

    Last Updated December 2018

    There’s something both relaxing and inspiring about looking at birds. Perhaps that’s why more than 45 million Americans enjoy bird-watching as a hobby. And you don’t need to go on exotic bird-watching vacations to join their ranks: most simply spy on the birds that visit their backyards or nearby environments, often encouraging feathered visitors with birdbaths or feeders.

    Another benefit of bird-watching is that there’s little in the way of supplies or equipment required beyond your own vision and attention. Along with those, the two main items you’ll want to have on hand are a good pair of binoculars and a handy wild bird field guide to help you identify that unusual bird that shows up at your feeder. After all, there are hundreds of species of birds inhabiting North America.

    The nature section of most bookstores is full of bird guides, so how do you know which one is the best for your needs? That’s where we step in. We’ve assembled this helpful guide to choosing a bird field guide, including some questions to ask yourself, and provided tips for making your hobby even more enjoyable.

    You’ll find bird field guides for every region of the country.

    Is the guide for a child?

    The first question to ask yourself is who the field guide is for. If it’s for a child – even a toddler can enjoy looking at pictures of birds, as well as marvel at their antics in the wild – you’ll want a field guide specifically geared toward younger readers. Many children’s bird guides organize birds by color, not by species, making it much easier for young birders to find the species they’re trying to identify. Children’s field guides generally have large, attractive photos and simple information on nesting habits, preferred foods, and range rather than the detailed information contained in most field guides written for adults.

    Do you prefer illustrations or photos?

    There are two basic styles of field guides: those with illustrations (think of the classic bird illustrations by John Audubon) and those with photos. Neither is necessarily better; it’s really just a matter of preference. Photos show you the birds as they actually appear, but illustrations are typically posed to display each bird’s most distinguishing features. Some guides have both illustrations and photos, giving you the best of both worlds.

    EXPERT TIP

    Keep a field guide in your car so you can identify the birds you spot while on the go.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    How do you want your guide organized?

    There are several ways bird guides can be organized. Some, including most of the guides written for children, organize bird species by main color; for example, you’d look in the “Yellow Birds” section to find the American goldfinch. If you’re just starting out as a bird-watcher, you’ll appreciate the simplicity of these guides. Other guides divide bird species into broad categories, such as birds of prey, seabirds, wading birds, perching birds, and swimming birds. This is a handy format for birders with a bit of experience. Finally, experienced birders generally prefer guides that divide species by families, such as owls, warblers, jays and crows, thrushes and thrashers, and swallows and larks.

    How big an area do you want the guide to cover?

    A field guide to an entire continent will contain hundreds – perhaps thousands – of bird species, making such guides large and a bit intimidating to the beginning birder. Most often, bird-watchers buy field guides covering a limited area, although that area might still be fairly large. In North America, the most common areas are the western and eastern halves of the continent. If you want to get even more specific, there are birding guides for every state, and many that cover a specific region of the country, such as the Southwest or the Northeast.

    Choose a bird field guide that’s organized in a way that makes sense to you, whether that’s by color, bird category, or bird species.

    Staff
    BestReviews

    How will you use the field guide?

    If you’re going to use your field guide to identify birds in your backyard, size and weight aren’t major issues, so feel free to buy a hardcover or large paperback book. If you intend to bring your guide along while backpacking or hiking, you’ll be happier with a small, lightweight guide that covers just the birds you’re most likely to find in your area. You may well want to own both types of guides.

    How much detail do you want?

    Some bird guides are fairly simple, presenting just the basics of each species’ preferred habitat, range, nesting details, food, and appearance. Others give very detailed information on each species’ taxonomy and habits. If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably prefer something basic, but as your experience grows, you might want to add a more advanced book to your collection.

    What other information are you looking for?

    Most field guides contain more than just the entries for each bird species. Depending on the guide, you might find discussions of bird anatomy, tips on identifying birds, and broad information on birds in general, such as life cycle and reproduction. Some field guides also include tabs or a bird-shape glossary to help identify various species and make the book easier to use.

    DID YOU KNOW?

    With a good bird field guide, you’ll soon be able to distinguish between similar-looking birds, such as a house finch and a purple finch.

    How much do you want to spend?

    Bird field guides generally aren’t very expensive, making it easier to buy two or more. A very simple field guide for children might be under $10. Most popular field guides covering eastern or western North America cost between $10 and $20. Expect to spend up to $25 for a more advanced or comprehensive guide.

    Other products we considered

    There are thousands of bird field guides available, with many centered on certain geographical regions. We focused on North American guides; however, many birders will want to expand their horizons or focus in on their state, or even more locally. We love the Birds of Wisconsin field guide for its handy pocket size that makes it easy to take out with you – yet it's still packed with information that's easy to find and understand. If you're buying for a child who loves birds, The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America is a great choice, offering enough information to teach them all about birding without being overwhelming.

    Tips

    While bird-watching can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like to make it, these tips will help you increase your sightings.

    • Make your yard attractive to birds. Bring bird-watching into your own backyard by hanging a bird feeder stocked with seed and setting up a birdbath. Both should be in a spot open enough for birds to easily see while flying overhead but also near trees or bushes where birds can hide from predators.

    • Be quiet and still. When watching birds outdoors, stay as quiet and still as possible. Don’t try to sneak up on a bird; it will almost inevitably hear or see you coming and will fly away.

    • Invest in binoculars. A good pair of binoculars is a must if you’re serious about birding. Keep them in a convenient spot where you can grab them easily when needed.

    • Keep the sun behind you. It’s easier to identify birds when the sun is behind you, rather than glaring into your eyes. You’ll be able to spot colors, feather patterns, and distinctive markings.

    • Keep a birding journal. Many birders keep journals listing each new bird species they see. Jot down where and when you saw the bird, too.

    • Learn to identify bird calls. There are many apps and websites with recordings of birdsongs. Learning their distinctive sounds makes it easier to find birds hidden in the trees.

    • Blend in. Wear dark clothing without patterns when you’re on a bird-watching hike or trek. You’ll blend into the background and be less likely to frighten a nearby bird.

    • Practice patience. Birds follow their own agenda, not yours. If you’re hoping to spot a specific bird, be prepared to wait until it shows itself.

    • Keep your eyes open. You never know when a bird you haven’t seen before will fly overhead or perch in a nearby tree.

    • Take advantage of local experts’ guidance. Many nature centers and national parks or forests offer bird-watching walks and lessons. Check your city’s department of parks and recreation for any opportunities.

    • Go to where the birds are. If you really want to add to your birding life list, you have to go where they live. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean a birding vacation in an exotic locale, although that’s a wonderful way to practice your hobby. Visit local parks, forests, lakes, beaches, or other natural areas. You’ll generally find lots of birds in areas with thick vegetation, nearby water, and not too much traffic or human interference.

    • Go birding at all times of day. Many species of birds are most active at dawn or at dusk, so plan your bird-watching activities accordingly.

    • Learn to identify male, female, and juvenile birds. In many bird species, the adult males and females look very different. Males are often brightly colored while females are drab. Young birds also frequently do not resemble their parents until they reach full maturity, which can take months to years depending on the species. Your field guide will help you learn to identify the different life stages, making your bird-watching more accurate and more fun.

    • Keep a field guide in your car. That way, you’ll be ready to identify birds when out and about.
    Even a toddler can enjoy looking at photos in a field guide or watching birds flit about the backyard or park.

    FAQ

    Q. Are there field guides for specific species or families of birds?

    A. Absolutely! Whether your passion is hummingbirds, owls, raptors, or songbirds, you’ll find bird field guides focused on just that type of bird, as well as many others.

    Q. Is it worth owning more than one field guide?

    A. Definitely, especially if you take the hobby seriously. While it’s fine to own just one bird guide if you only want to identify an occasional visitor to your backyard, if you intend to go on bird-watching hikes or vacations, or you just want to familiarize yourself with a wider range of birds than the ones in your immediate area, buying two or more field guides gives you a broader pool of information and different photos or illustrations to compare. Plus, you can buy a small, lightweight guide for traveling or hiking and keep your larger, more comprehensive guide at home.

    Q. What about birding apps?

    A. There are lots of birding apps to choose from, and many of the larger, established birding guides offer one to accompany the book. This is very handy if you bird-watch on the go. You can use the app for a quick check while out and about, then look the bird up in your field guide to learn more about it once you get home.

    The team that worked on this review
    • Alvina
      Alvina
      Photographer
    • Amos
      Amos
      Director of Photography
    • Branson
      Branson
      Videographer
    • Bronwyn
      Bronwyn
      Editor
    • Ciera
      Ciera
      Production Assistant
    • Devangana
      Devangana
      Web Producer
    • Eliza
      Eliza
      Production Manager
    • Katie
      Katie
      Editorial Director
    • Melinda
      Melinda
      Web Producer
    • Michelle
      Michelle
      Writer
    • Rich
      Rich
      Writer
    • Steph
      Steph
      Web Producer

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