Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America (7th Edition)

Well for some reason I've been asked to review the newest (7th) edition of the National Geographic (Natty Geo) field guide after it has been out since September of 2017, but why not? No need for any suspense: this is a great book and I'm happy to have it!

I started birding in the mid 90s, and the one field guide that has been with me this entire time has been Natty Geo, in one edition or another. A plethora of other field guides covering birds of the United States and Canada have been released in the intervening years, but Natty Geo continues to lead the pack in many areas.

I do have the 6th edition handy as well, which was released in 2011, so can compare with the 7th edition for updates. So what is new in the 7th edition?

*Hundreds of new maps and illustrations.
*Many illustrations replace existing versions that were not aging well, others were added for recently split species, "new" rarities that had enough recent records to include, or to help further suss out ID issues.
*The lumps and splits that have occurred from 2011-2017 are incorporated, though notably it went to press before Iceland and Thayer's could be lumped in the book.
*The taxonomic order of our birds seems to get a significant reshuffle almost every year, but Natty Geo #7 now offers the most up to date order of any field guide. This is arguably not a strength, the optimal way to organize field guides is pretty subjective, but that is a different conversation.

How about we do a sample comparison between some 6th and 7th edition plates? There are probably some other birders, like me, who already have the 6th and are curious about upgrading.

On the right (click to enlarge), you will see a couple pages from the 6th edition...four hummingbird species, eight bird illustrations, 4 tails. The illustrations are...ok. There is room for improvement, both in regards to the text and quality of the illustrations. In particular, take a look at the Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds.

Now, take a look at what the 7th edition shows (click to enlarge) for Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds...they get their own spread! Hot damn! So for two species, we now have 8 "complete" individuals, 6 heads, and 8 tails...and text that has doubled in length! Of course not every species got this kind of impressive overhaul, but I think this is a good illustration of some of the improvements the 7th edition offers.

For the record, even before the 7th edition came out, Sibley and Natty Geo have been the field guides I recommend to all birders regardless of skill level. In my opinion (only the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder), these are the two best, most comprehensive field guides available. Sibley looks consistent throughout, the illustrations are almost all great, and it's really handy to have every single species illustrated in flight. Natty Geo #7 covers more species, is more up to date (Sibley #2 came out in 2014), and takes up less space than Sibley's big book that covers both the east and the west, which is my preference to use over the smaller eastern or western guides. As far as the artwork goes, some of the Natty Geo plates aren't as good as Sibley's version of the same species (i.e. White-tipped Dove), but in some cases the Natty Geo plates are better (i.e. the three SoCal/Mexican murrelets). Most of the time they are close to equally good in quality.

For an honest book review, gotta list some gripes though? I can think of a few, though nothing that should prevent anyone from buying this book. We can start with what is on the cover...why is it still called a Field Guide to the Birds of North America? Most people will tell you North America is not confined to the United States and Canada.

One of the strengths of this book, the excellent new illustrations, are actually distracting - some of the recently updated illustrations are so good that they make many of the original mediocre illustrations a little too easy to spot. I was hoping some specific plates would be updated this time around (i.e. the Red Crossbills and almost all the Song Sparrows are a bit wonky looking, as are a number of the large gulls) but to no avail.

Speaking of gulls, it seems time to include some more plates of loathsome hybrids...here in the bay area, one can go out and find 4 different Larus hybrid combos with regularity. The book only illustrates Kelp x Herring (super rare) and Western x Glaucous-winged (super common), which seems pretty arbitrary. Various Larus hybrids are far more frequently encountered by birders than most of the mega rarities included in the book. I don't think I need to expound upon how difficult it is for birders to identify these hybrids correctly, so field guide treatment is warranted.

I don't expect total perfection in such a large body of work though...overall Natty Geo is a high quality book and I will be happy to use it. My position on field guides for the United States and Canada has not changed with the 7th edition - every birder should have either the newest Sibley or the newest Natty Geo, and preferably both. I hope there will be an 8th edition, though it is impossible to say if the combination of Dunn/Alderfer/Lehman (Paul "E." Lehman is the map mastermind, and there is perhaps no one better for this role) will be at the helm again. If not, there will be some big shoes to fill.

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