Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review: Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America

To honor the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth (August 28), the new Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America has been published. This time, Houghton-Mifflin has lumped the eastern and western versions into one volume. They updated the text, digitally enhanced the images, added some additional artwork by Michael O'Brien, updated the range maps, and have leapt into the digital age by adding 3 hours of podcasts.

You'll immediately notice one thing: the size of the guide. It's slightly smaller in height and width than the big Sibley guide, but thinner. It's weight is comparable though, highlighting one of the reasons they split the Sibley guide into 2 pieces in the first place. This guide doesn't fit into a pocket and is best left as a reference in the car or on the desk.

The digital enhancement of the artwork makes it look crisp and Michael O'Brien new plates blend in amazingly well. I started birding with the 3rd edition Peterson guide and then the 4th, but I haven't really used the 5th edition which I know made some leaps in the layout. One thing I like about this edition was the inclusion of the maps with the plates which I know they did in the 5th edition too. In this edition, they've also included larger maps in the back - something I don't think they did with the 5th edition. All in all, what doesn't change is that this is still the Peterson system. It simply works for most every day birding. Sibley added flight shots and a lot of detail for many species, Nat Geo shows every plumage under the sun and every bird on the ABA list in a compact size, but I think the Peterson system still holds up. It's a shame we can't have them all combined into one book - Sibley's art, Nat Geo's compactness, and the simple arrows and text of the Peterson system.

The podcasts are an interesting inclusion. At first, I thought, "Ok, they are just including this because it's the 'hip' thing to do and it hasn't been done before. I wonder if they'll be any good." I must say that I am pleasantly surprised. It took me a bit to figure out how to get to the podcasts, but I found the instructions on the second page before the table of contents. I checked out a few of them, created by the blogiverse's own Jeff Gordon and Bill Thompson III. They include limited full motion video and are more of a self-paced PowerPoint presentation. There are a few Peterson biography podcasts well worthy of watching. There are also family overviews, species profiles, and tutorials on topics such as bird topography and bird song. The content of these videos is spectacular and will improve the skills of any beginning birder from the comfort of their couch. I watched the shorebird family overview which gave a nice recap of the challenges of shorebird identification. The species accounts are fun to watch to learn more in-depth natural history about some of the more charismatic species. I watched the song bird tutorial which was an excellent summary of what one would fine on "Birding by Ear Volume 1." One thing I would have loved to see is a few really detailed podcasts on some of the challenges that face more experienced birders like aging gulls and molt patterns. This would have made them more appealling to the experienced birder.

I've always been a big fan of the Peterson system and still recommend the guide to beginners. I don't think I'd recommend this version to beginners though because it is just not portable. I would either recommend the 5th edition Peterson or the Kaufmann guide for them instead. All in all though, I welcome this centennial edition of the book to my shelf and I know I will enjoy looking through it and learning more about the birds I love.


grant mccreary said...

You've got a great point about the increased size. This is a great guide for beginners, but the larger size would make it harder to use in the field. I guess it would be a great reference to keep in the car or at home, while they use the Kaufman or smaller Peterson guides in the field.

Oh, and the 5th edition of the Eastern guide did have the larger maps in the back. But the thumbnail maps with the accounts were so small they are almost useless.

Bill of the Birds said...


Thanks for this nice review of the new RTP guide. Very happy that you enjoyed the podcasts! They were fun to create.

N8 said...

Nice review. I've never been a big Peterson fan, I inherited a 4th edition that I rarely use, but I may have to pick this one up if I see it on sale or something. You can never have too many references. : )