Birding for Beginners: Choosing a Field Guide

Rob Ripma Picking a field guide can be hard but some a better than others for beginners.

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be doing several posts in a series that I’m calling “Birding for Beginners”. I decided to start with one of the most important choices that a beginning birder can make – choosing a field guide.

The volume of choices available when you start looking at field guides can be extremely overwhelming. How in the world are beginning birders supposed to know which of the dozens of field guides that are available will be best to help you learn about the birds that you are seeing? In order to help you decide which field guide to choose, there are several questions that you should ask yourself. First,do you prefer guides with photos or with drawings? Everyone seems to have a strong preference towards one or the other. Second, what region would you like the guide to cover? Is covering just part of North America good enough, or would you like a guide that covers everything you might find in North America?

Once you have answered those questions, you will be much more prepared to select a field guide. I recommend the following field guides based on my experiences using many different guides over the years.

1. The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

In my opinion, this is the best field guide to the birds in North America for beginning birders. The book is laid out in a way that really helps you find birds in the book as well as learn them as you go. It features photos of each species and very helpful text explaining many of the key identification points in addition to other useful information such as habitats and nesting behaviors. This is also the first field guide to the birds of North America that is translated into Spanish (Guia de Campo Kaufman a las Aves de Norteamericas).

Birding for Beginners: Kaufman Field Guide

2. The Sibley Guide to Birds

If you prefer drawings to photos, the Sibley Guide to Birds is definitely the book for you. The drawings are very accurate and highlight all of the best identification points of each species. The text is also well written and extremely helpful for those that take the time to read it. This book is offered in three versions: North American, Eastern North America, and Western North America.

Birding for Beginners: Sibley Guide to Birds

3. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds

The first good field guide in the United States was the Peterson Guide to Birds published in 1934. There have been many revisions and upgrades to this book over the years, and it’s still a very good field guide. The book also features drawings of bird species, but I personally prefer Sibley’s artwork. It’s also offered in three versions like The Sibley Guide to Birds - North American, Eastern North America, and Western North America.

Birding for Beginners: Peterson Field Guide

No matter which field guide you choose, I highly recommend that you read the introduction chapters of each book before diving into the more fun images of the birds. There’s an incredible amount of info that can be learned by reading the intros to these books.  You’ll learn how to use the field guide, bird topography (parts of the birds), and how to understand range maps that are included for each species.

  1. Lois Naasz says

    I need help identifying a dove that looks like a Mourning Dove, but bigger and lighter in color. I’m in Aberdeen SD, and they eat under the feeders like Mourning Doves, and have a black ring on their necks, too. Their ‘strut’ is the same.

  2. says

    +1 for the Kaufman guide for beginners–it is hands-down my favorite guide to recommend to folks just starting out, for the reasons you listed. And the Spanish version has become the go-to guide for biologists and others teaching about and/or monitoring birds in Mexico, especially the northern part of the country. I use it/recommend it regularly in both languages!

  3. Barbara Karnik says

    I have recently moved to a coastal region of southern Maine. My favorite field guide
    has been “Stokes” for years now. But, I feel like my edition may be outdated and I want to invest in something new. I have gone from my “backyard birding” to coastal and marsh viewing. Any advice?

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