Fri, Oct. 18

Column: A Field Guide to Field Guides

I remember as a young child singing songs about bluebirds and robins.  My father, a teacher, believed in keeping encyclopedias, science books and field guides close by.  His answer to my every question was “go look it up”.  That wasn’t the quick, answer I wanted but it did teach me to do my own research rather than expecting the easy answer when my curiosity was aroused.   

 I’m not sure when it was but I do remember the exciting world that opened up when I actually found a house finch in the Golden Guide to Birds and compared it to the real bird outside our kitchen window.  Something clicked.  I was hooked.  Finding my first nest of eggs on my own was like a pirate finding a treasure chest of gold.  As I grew, my unwritten list of birds grew as well.  Sparrows, hawks, a few ducks, then came the thrill of warblers.  How had I lived without knowing warblers?

Time went by, I knew I needed a better field guide and graduated to the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds (you know - the red one) still in my bookshelf.

Now my list is long and carefully written and my stack of field guides has grown.

Why?  I came to learn that all field guides are not equal.  Some have range maps right beside the bird picture and some have them in the back of the book.  Some have real photos of birds some are incredible, hand painted illustrations.  Some show birds perched, others flying so you can see patterns on wings.  I’ve actually made it a habit of carrying two guides with me so that I can compare notes, coloration and field marks.

All good field guides should have some basics:

-Clear illustrations indicating coloration with breeding and non-breeding plumage.  

-Illustrations of birds in flight to see wing and tail markings.

-Differences between male and female patterns and coloration as well as adult and juvenile plumage.

-A range map to show where the birds are likely found during breeding and non-breeding (migration) periods.

-Clear indication in text and notes or arrows as to quick identification points to look for such as eye rings, wing bars or definitive behavior like tail-bobbing.

-The guide should be small and easy to carry.

Jay’s Bird Barn has a great selection of bird guides including starter guides for beginner or occasional birders and quality guides for avid bird watchers such a the Peterson series and what has become a favorite of birders everywhere – Sibley guides, especially for our area – The Western Guide to Birds.

This year, the 11th Annual Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival (April 28–May 1) will be held at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.  We are pleased and honored to have as our keynote speaker the author and illustrator of the Sibley guide series – David Sibley himself.  I continually marvel at one man’s ability to create so many beautiful illustrations and combine them with understandable, clearly written and organized text.  Don’t miss this event.  Bring your new or (field worn) Sibley guide for an autograph and celebrate the Bird and Nature Festival with friends, budding young birders and Mr. Sibley himself.

For more information go to

Dena is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. You may contact her at (928) 203-5700 or

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