A Guide to Earth’s Ecosystems

September 26, 2022

A review by Donna Schulman

Habitats of the World: A Field Guide for Birders, Naturalists, and Ecologists, by Iain Campbell, Ken Behrens, Charley Hesse, and Phil Chaon

Princeton University Press, 2021

568 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15153

I have often commented that we’re living in the golden age of field guides. Many titles have been published in the past 10 years, from guides exploring new countries or focusing on previously ignored bird families, to apps bringing instant information gratification. And then I wonder, “What’s next?” My money was on a new type of app guide, so I was totally unprepared for this astonishing book, an exploration of a multi-layered, huge subject essential to birding—habitat. Habitats of the World: A Field Guide for Birders, Naturalists, and Ecologists by Iain Campbell, Ken Behrens, Charley Hesse, and Phil Chaon brings an analytical lens to the ecological world in which birds function. It’s a fascinating, informative approach to birding and bird travel that also brings up questions: What kind of information does a field guide to habitats offer that I can’t find elsewhere? Will this book help me find birds? Is this the future of the field guide?

The concept of habitat is not new to birding. John Kricher’s wonderful The New Neotropical Companion, first published in 1989, is considered indispensable by many birders. Steve N. G. Howell and Brian Sullivan’s Peterson Guide to Bird Identification—In 12 Steps lists habitat as the essential Step 3 of the identification process. To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive guide that covers the whole world (or at least most of it). It is the brainchild of four birding tour leaders who decided to put their forced COVID-19 pandemic down time to creative use. Three of the four authors have written birding guides, and all have extensive experience in the field. (Note: Tropical Birding, the company with which they are associated, has partnered with the ABA on tours and photography workshops. I participated in one of those tours.)

Habitats of the World describes 189 habitats, most of which are on land because, though many creatures live in water, this is a book for birders. (Attention is paid to pelagic waters and wetlands.) It is organized by continent-like areas, illustrated with a dizzying profusion of photographs, charts, maps, and graphics, and color-coded by biome. Each habitat account gives descriptions and facts about the area’s climate, vegetation, wildlife (mostly birds and larger mammals), endemics, and distribution within the continent. There’s more, but you get the general idea.

Modern North American field guides are sparse in their habitat descriptions, sticking to the broadest categories—mountains, beaches, tundra, marsh edges, pine woodlands—and they often mix habitat descriptions in with range and distribution. Field guides to other countries are often more expansive, sometimes to the point that their habitat material could be a book in itself. Still, there is a lack of consistency, possibly because there are wildly different habitat classification systems, ranging from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 12 habitat types to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s complex three-tiered taxonomy based on 18 major categories.

The authors of Habitats of the World aim to put order to the chaos. They’ve set up criteria for defining “distinct habitats”, organized the land masses of the world into seven zoogeographic regions (roughly corresponding to continents), and within those regions identified 13 broad habitat categories that they call “biomes”. These are divided into 43 subcategories. “Dry Deciduous Forest”, for example, is subdivided into “Closed Deciduous Forest” and “Open Deciduous Forest”. Place these subcategories into the appropriate zoogeographic regions—such as “Indo–Malayan Moist Deciduous Forest”—and voila! you get 189 habitats. The system has been color-coded, so wherever you are in this book, you know your biome.

The authors use a lot of space in the introduction to explain their system as well as two additional innovations: a “climate graph” that plots temperature and precipitation across a year’s time and a “habitat silhouette” that shows the distinctive shapes and heights of trees and plants, with a human inserted for scale. You may feel overwhelmed when you first crack open the book. The succinct explanation of how to use the habitat accounts helps. There is also a glossary of terms, but it’s very brief; it refers to a complementary website, created by the authors. The website, Habitats of the World, is a combination of book material and company promotion. It’s worth consulting for the graphic images and maps reproduced from the introduction, which can here be enlarged for better comprehension.

The “habitat accounts” are organized by six zoogeographic regions: Australasia, Neotropics, Indo–Malayan, Afrotropics, Palearctic, and Nearctic. (The seventh region, Antarctic, is covered in the Neotropics section, though it has its own section on the website.) The regions are attractively introduced on a page showing a color-coded map and photographs of a representative habitat and a bird or large mammal (except for the Nearctic region, which just shows the Grand Canyon). The habitat accounts are more difficult to differentiate. They are a dense mix of text, text boxes, graphics, and photographs, one account following another. Though heading boxes, bold type, and color tabs are used to delineate the entry points, it’s not always easy to know where one account ends and the next begins. There are also 30 sidebars, gray-backed information boxes on diverse subjects, wedged between the habitat accounts at random intervals. It’s a lot of information packed into 503 pages. Thank goodness the font is of readable size and the highly illustrative graphic design (over 650 photographs and 200 diagrams) allows for eye relief. I found that, with time and use, I adjusted to the visual cues, and reading the book became much easier.

This is a guide well worth reading. Each habitat account covers vegetation (mostly trees, but also shrubs, grasses, epiphytes, and lichens, and related topics like soil), climate (with climate graphs and descriptive text), water level and water bodies, conservation challenges, wildlife (birds and mostly larger mammals, but also interesting ones like bats), endemism (not every account, but where appropriate there’s focus on identifying endemic hotspots more than naming birds), distribution (where the habitat occurs in the region), and specific places where the habitat is found (parks, regions in countries, and countries, though this is a selective listing). An “in a nutshell” box gives a succinct description of the habitat, including lists of similar habitats that are surprisingly useful. There is a small range map. The stunning photographs relate directly to the text. They are all captioned and credited, mostly to the authors and other members of their birding tour company.

The “description” and “wildlife” sections are written well and wonderfully vivid. They don’t just list things; they are textual snapshots of the feel of a place, the experience of walking through the habitat and witnessing changes during the year, and they weave together many ecological elements that would ordinarily be treated separately in other field guides. The authors aim to show us what is distinctive about each habitat and how all of its features work to create that distinctiveness. And it works, especially when read in conjunction with the photos and graphics.

I noted some inconsistency to the habitat account structure. Not every account includes a silhouette, climate graph, or distribution map. These are missing mainly from accounts for wetlands, tidal mudflats, salt marshes, rocky coastlines, sandy beaches, pelagic waters, and croplands. This could be remedied in subsequent editions or on the website.

I was curious how Habitats of the World might be used for birding travel, so I studied it before embarking on a trip to Costa Rica and to prepare for a presentation on a 2019 trip to Thailand. In both cases, the information gave me insight into what I was about to see and had seen, informed my expectations, helped me re-evaluate past experiences, and greatly increased my appreciation for the biodiversity of these two very different countries. This strategy didn’t directly help me find birds in Costa Rica, but it did help me figure out which species to expect and which ones to not expect, which can be very important.

It took time, however, to locate the appropriate habitat accounts. There is a detailed, color-coded table of contents listing the 189 habitats as well as an index of bird, mammal, and other species, and type of habitat. But there is no table or index with which to go from country to habitat. Although habitats know no geopolitical boundaries, this is how we humans tend to travel. I figured out a workaround, examining the color-coded maps (not so easy for a small country like Costa Rica) and checking the distribution and “where to see” sections of accounts that seemed appropriate. But I wished that the authors had provided suggestions for those of us who are beginners at habitat identification. I’d like to see this concept of a guide to habitats expanded with habitat guides by country, utilizing the taxonomic frame and account structure of this book.

Does Habitats of the World represent the future of the field guide? It’s a difficult question to answer, because I don’t think this book is a field guide. A field guide in the purest sense is an illustrated manual used to identify natural objects—birds, flowers, insects—in the field. A birding field guide enables you to go from small details and field marks to identification and knowledge of the whole object, the bird. Habitats of the World works in the opposite direction; you start with the whole object, the habitat, and then learn about the discrete, small parts. There’s no way to identify a habitat if you’re starting with a type of oak tree or bird species (though a plant guide at the end of the book gives the zoogeographic region where you can find that oak). It is a reference guide, a term that gets less use than it should because it sounds so librarian-like.

Is this the future of birding reference books? I don’t think birders will ever lose their appetite for field guides to bird species, nor will there be a lack of talented people crazy enough to write and illustrate them. But I think it’s time to expand our concept of what we need to read and study to be good birders and thoughtful travelers, not only about habitat, but also weather, marine ecology, bird behavior, migration, and a dozen or so other aspects of avian existence in the world. Titles are being published on some of these topics, and it would be really interesting to see them organized, classified, illustrated, and presented in field guide format. A field guide to migration—now, what would that look like?


Donna L. Schulman is a labor relations librarian and professor, recently retired, and a New York City birder who is sometimes distracted by dragonflies. She has reviewed over 200 books, initially fiction and women’s studies, now birds and nature, including monthly posts at the 10,000 Birds blog. Donna contributes to the annual “Best Bird Books of the Year” episode of the American Birding Podcast.