Friday, July 10, 2009

A Review of 'Peterson Field Guides: Birds of Eastern and Central North America'

Toronto, Canada: I was in the Coles bookstore, looking for a good quality field-guide to Canadian birds, when I came across this superb Peterson Field Guide to the "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" on one of the shelves. Written by the renowned American naturalist and artist Roger Tory Peterson, it helps identify birds seen in almost half of the North American continent. It is by far the best field-guide I have ever used :)
A preview of this book is available on this link
Initially, on my birding trips at Brampton, near Toronto, I used to record my sightings on a notepad and then search the internet for birds that matched my notes. The birds of Canada are quite different from those found in the Indian Subcontinent, with only a few species being common to both lands. But the Canadian birds are indeed very well documented on the internet, with plenty of information on their identification, general behaviour and food being available on numerous websites. It is, however, difficult to quickly look-up an unknown bird on the net. I had to browse through the online pages until I found a bird that roughly matched my observation. After that began the tedious process of making sure that this was indeed the bird that I had seen. I soon realized that this was not a very practical way of identifying birds and it was time to buy a genuine field-guide.

Peterson's field-guides have acquired more or less a legendary status among birders in North America. I was aware of this when I went shopping for my field-guide, but my online search for field-guides had also resulted in a few other books like 'Birds of Ontario' by Andy Bezener, 'Ontario Birds' by James Kavanagh and Raymond Leung and a few of the Stokes Field Guides. These books had the advantage that they excluded those species that are never seen in the Toronto region, thus reducing the effort in identifying birds to some degree. However, I soon found out that the Peterson's field-guide, though it included many more species, was certainly much better than the rest.

The Good:
This 5th edition of the Peterson's field-guide covers birds that are seen east of the Rocky Mountains. It starts with a brief introduction to bird life and behavior which is followed by a section that helps identify different types of birds [like Wrens, Flycatchers, etc.]. The book is compact enough to be carried in one hand while on bird-watching trips. I always did so, since I knew I would have to refer to it very frequently. And I did not find it inconvenient to do so.

The Better:
There are two qualities that make this book extremely useful. The first is that each bird's illustration is enhanced by what are called as 'field marks'. These are those features or markings on a bird's plumage that help to identify the bird, while also differentiating it from other similar species. Thus, the 'field marks', which are accentuated by arrows in the illustrations, tell the birder to look for those features in a bird in the field. The second quality of this book is that next to every bird's description is a small colour-coded map showing the bird's range over the eastern half of North America. A bigger and more detailed map is available for each bird at the end of the book, but these small maps which are on the same page as the bird's description are also incredibly useful to quickly ascertain if a bird is found in a particular region or not.

The Best:
This field-guide provides illustrations for different plumages of the same bird. E.g. Those of juvenile birds, those of breeding adults, illustrations that show the bird in flight, etc. Moreover, the description for each bird also suggests how to differentiate it from other similar birds, even when the distinction is based on the bird's call. Certain illustrations are even reproduced on other pages, so that it is possible to get a side-by-side comparison of 2 similar looking birds, whenever required. As a result, it is very easy to identify even some of the tricky birds. And it is these qualities that set this field-guide apart from all the others mentioned above. The other field-guides lacked such crucial information as juvenile forms or plumages of birds in flight which is so often helpful in identification, not to mention the invaluable field-marks.

The Peterson's field-guide truly stands well above the competition in terms of both quality and utility. It packs a great deal into a relatively compact package and is a great companion to have on all your birding trips in this part of the world.