Features over 700 species. Beautiful photographs and illustrations. Comprehensive population and migratory maps. Covers bird calls, feeding habits, and obscure facts.
Not the lightest bird field guide.
Covers North American and Hawaiian birds. Easy to read population maps. Features hundreds of species. Full-color photographs and illustrations. Information-packed.
Does not cover Mexico.
Features over 1,000 lifelike illustrations. Includes over 700 comprehensive range maps. Compact book. Fold-out visual index. Optimized for novice and veteran birders alike.
A little on the heavier side.
Affordable. Lightweight. Teaches children how to observe and identify birds. Many full-color photos. Divided by region for easy reference. Instructions to build a birdhouse, feeder, nest, etc.
Not comprehensive enough for adult birders.
We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.