Review: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

A new updated Peterson's guide including all the birds of North America published in celebration of the centennial of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson

Two years ago, just before my friend Clara died, she asked me if there was anything of hers that I wanted. We both laughed over the fact that the only thing I could think of was her Peterson’s field guide. We laughed because, just days before her death, adopting her old bird guide re-affirmed our connection to each other. We both learned birds from the Peterson’s 2nd edition. My copy is 50 years old and still in very good condition. Clara’s copy is about the same vintage and puts mine to shame. While I was taught to never write in books, Clara and her husband personalized theirs. Her Peterson’s is full of marginalia noting first sightings and interesting observations. They inserted thumb tabs to make it easier to find the birds.  Her permit to enter Jamaica Bay Refuge (issued in 1961) is stuck in the binding. Clara’s Peterson Guide is much more than a guide to identifying birds.  It is an account of a personal journey -- a chronical of countless joyful days spent afield with the husband she loved and idolized.

Those of us who love birds measure our lives this way -- in days spent in the field  with people we love.  We have an abiding affection for the  two physical objects we couldn’t do without – binoculars and field guides.

The fraternity of birders who remember when the Peterson guide was the only game in town shares a life-long affection for the book and the man. We love the book because it was the first field guide that made it possible for beginners to figure out what they were looking at. We love Roger because he was our great teacher. He never lost his child-like joy in looking (even) at common birds or his evangelical commitment to spreading the joy of birding.

Roger Tory Peterson and his Field Guide to the Birds set such high standards that it had the entire field to itself for almost two decades. Since it sold well from the outset, one would have expected competitors to join the field much sooner than they did.  Chandler Robbins was reluctant to work on (what became known as) “The Golden Guide” because he didn’t want to compete with his friend, Roger Tory Peterson. Thankfully, other field guides did follow and advance the state of the art. The competition pushed Roger Tory Peterson to continue updating his guide throughout his lifetime. Chandler Robbins’s “Golden Guide” included range maps, sonograms and text on the pages adjacent to the plates. He also included all the birds of North America in one volume. The publication of the National Geographic guide raised the bar again with better information on habitats, more up-to-date illustrations, and more extensive identification tips. Then David Sibley raised it again. And Kenn Kaufman made a major contribution with a guide aimed at beginners.

Now, in commemoration of the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson’s birth, comes a stunning new edition of his field guide to remind us that the maestro (more than a decade after his passing) still has something to teach us.

The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) is a larger format than the previous 5th edition. It is the first Peterson guide to include all the birds of North America. Many of Roger’s illustrations were updated by contemporary artists for the Fifth Edition of the Eastern guide published in 2002, six years after Roger’s death. (There hasn’t been an updated edition of Peterson’s Western Guide in many years.) Most of the illustrations from the 5th edition are carried forward and combined with updated illustrations of the Western birds for this guide. Many of the illustrations have been digitally enhanced. Bill Thompson, II has meticulously updated the text, and Paul Lehman has updated the range maps.

Roger considered himself, above all, to be a teacher. He would have been proud of this updating of his work because it is designed to be beautiful and to help you become a better birder. The work retains the Peterson system of arrows pointing to diagnostic features of each species. It is chockablock full of other useful features like a comparison plate of Cormorants in flight and silhouettes showing the basic flight patterns of shore birds. The plate showing nuthatches includes a Brown Creeper for comparison. The pages are color-coded on the bottom to make it easier to find each of the families. There is a one-page quick find index on the inside front cover. The new Guide adheres to Roger’s preference for grouping similar-looking birds (rather than keeping strictly to the taxonomic order) as a help in sorting them out. There are separate plates showing birds in flight, while the Sibley and National Geographic guides (for the most part) include the birds in flight on the same plate as the resting bird.

Paul Lehman has contributed the best, most up-to-date, range maps available. You will find thumbnail maps adjacent to the text so you can quickly see if you are in the right neighborhood. The larger, more detailed maps are grouped in the back of the book for reference. The updated text is crisp, helpful, and in keeping with the style of the last (Fourth edition) completed by Roger Tory Peterson.

Negatives? The new Peterson is a larger format (6 ¼ x 9 ¼) which makes it a bit bulky to carry in the field. From the perspective of book design, I like field guides to have covers which are flush with the pages (like the National Geographic Guide). The Peterson cover extends beyond the pages, meaning that the covers will get dented at the corners after a few uses in the field.  The plates of gulls and terns show the head and the bird in flight, but only a few resting birds.  But this is nit-picking. 

In short, if you love birds and birding you will want the new Peterson’s. It is stunning, truly useful in the field, and meticulously edited. It is a field guide to love.  You won’t put it down.

Wayne Mones
October, 2008

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