By John Shamgochian
Born in 1908 Roger Tory Peterson lived his life as a super birder, creating his first guide in 1934. A Field Guide to the Birds (east of the Rockies) was an instant success; the 2,000 copies sold out in the first 2 weeks. The reason his guide was so popular was probably due to the fact that no one had ever created anything like what Peterson created. It was the world's first field guide. That guide was the foundation of all modern field guides. Peterson died in 1987, but his legacy and his books live on.
The newest edition to his classic guide was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008. The guide was updated by a number of famed birders, who added new range maps, 40 new paintings and new text by renowned bird artists and authors, and digitally updated paintings. As well as new editions to the eastern and western guides, the publisher also came out with a new guide to all the birds of North America, which I review here.
This guide is arranged in the classic order, with paintings on right and text and some extremely detailed maps on the left. One of my favorite things about this guide are the statuses which are given next to the English and scientific names, above the body of the text blocks. The status describes how common each species is in North America (e.g., "Fairly common," "Uncommon" etc.)
Next to the status is a large letter "M" and then a number. The "M" stands for map and the number matches up to the number on the map. Now you may be wondering why the maps need a number if they are right next to the text. The answer is simple: there are, in fact, two maps for each species (excluding vagrants). In addition to the map that accompanies the text, the authors also provide a second map as an appendix in the back of the book. In addition to being much larger, these second maps also include notes on the likelihood of vagrancy to other parts of the country and details about migration and other range related things. These pages are nicely arranged and very educational to flip through.
There are a number of excellent plates demonstrating birds in flight. These plates show the bird on the right-hand page, while the left-hand page provides descriptions of their different wing plumages.
Sizes of the birds are given under the name. Descriptions are very informative, discussing habitat, voice, and similar species. This guide also contains many rarities and vagrants, as well as introduced species.
Before every family of birds are a few interesting and useful lines describing the family. For example, after reading the section about corvids, I learned that they are found worldwide, with the exception of southern South America, something I never would have been able to tell you before.
This guide has a very nice illustrated introduction on identifying birds, very useful for any beginning birder. Before the introduction on page number one is a one-page index, which lists bird families in alphabetical order from Albatrosses to Yellowthroats.
In the back of the book, squeezed tightly between the range maps and the index, is a "Life List" that follows the ABA checklist. This list contains more species than the book. The book does not mention Xantus's Hummingbird, for example, due to its code 5 status in the ABA area (code 5 birds are accidental, or species that have been recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or which have fewer than three records in the past 30 years). The Life List section of the new Peterson field guide, however, includes this bird and many other species which the main text of the book lacks.
The very last few pages of the field guide are taken up with one of my favorite sections of the whole book: silhouettes. There are three separate spreads. The first depicts a black and white shore filled with water loving species. The second shows a mixed flock of birds in flight (26 species are silhouetted). On the last spread is a colorless painting of a country roadside, showing 32 different species. These are fun pages to use for quizzing yourself by covering up the list of species names and practicing identification.
The gulls are separated into two sections; adults and immatures. This may require you to flip around a bit more in order to be able to correctly identify a bird.
The paintings, while not completely stunning (in general), are very useful for tough identifications. All the field marks are pointed out with black arrows and many of the birds are shown in flight. Generally, species are shown in a few different plumages.
The bottom edge of each page is colored in order to help the reader find the birds with more speed. For example all the shorebirds are color tabbed olive green. To me, this doesn't seem like it would be all that useful.
My only real problem with this guide is that it is very big. It would be hard to carry a book like this out into the field with you unless you bring a backpack.
I would recommend this guide to any birder, though I think it would be better for a beginning birder to start out with a smaller guide, which is easier to take out into the field.
About the author: John Shamgochian, 12, is from East Providence, Rhode Island. His favorite birding spots include: "The Meadows" in Cape May, Plum Island in Ipswich Massachusetts, Monomoy in Chatham, Massachusetts , and Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. John is one of The Eyrie's Student Blog Editors. Check out more of his writing on his blog: http://johnsbirdingblog.blogspot.com/.